The art of filling round holes with square pegs

In the wake of Paul Gascoigne's downfall,
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AS ARCHITECTS go Glenn Hoddle has been more Heath Robinson than Sir Christopher Wren. His initial plan involved materials which did not exist. His subsequent one was built around a rotting pillar. All along he has kept tinkering, trying square pegs in round holes, until, a week before opening day, he is frantically trying to cover up a gaping hole in the centre of the structure. That is the one left by Paul Gascoigne whom Hoddle, like Terry Venables, had built his team around.

Though Hoddle was not to know Gascoigne would fall apart so late in the day his other problem was of his own making from the start. His team-building began with a plan which was fundamentally flawed. He wanted to ape the German defensive model of a sweeper and two markers flanked by wing-backs.

The problem was there were no English sweepers and precious few markers. Thus the experiment with Jamie Redknapp as sweeper in the B team and the hurried promotion of Rio Ferdinand. Neither were ready. Though the latter is in the World Cup squad he is primarily there for the experience, not to play.

Yet, apart from a late, and brief, reversion to 4-4-2 in Casablanca last week Hoddle persists with three central defenders though none are adept at dropping off or stepping up. Instead they operate, as Aston Villa and Liverpool's defensive trios have done, like three centre-halves.

Tony Adams is in the centre. A good tackler and header, a decent reader of the game and competent passer Adams is a fine defender. But he is not a Matthias Sammer though, had he been allowed to flourish under George Graham, he would be a lot closer. Hoddle also tried Gary Pallister, Sol Campbell and Gareth Southgate in the role and attempted to give Dominic Matteo a game. None were convincing though Southgate continues to develop.

Outside them Hoddle now uses an attacking right wing-back and a defensive one on the left. When the opposition have the ball, or are playing with three up, he drops into the left-back position.

David Beckham and Graeme Le Saux have usually filled these roles. Beckham has also been tried, without real impact, in central midfield while Le Saux's continued survival owes more to the dearth of English left-sided players than his own form. The best left-back last season was Nigel Winterburn but he is not as suited to the role.

Midfield is the problem area. Hoddle quickly recalled David Batty, who has been discarded by Venables, to add cover for Gascoigne. Now Batty has been given Gascoigne's No 8 shirt which suggests he may stay in the side despite a number of more creative midfielders jostling for a position. There was also the abortive experiment with Matt Le Tissier and the curious use of Steve McManaman.

In attack Alan Shearer is the undisputed first choice, Teddy Sheringham, despite his poor form, the likely support. Michael Owen waits hungrily on the bench.

Owen is one of nine players given debuts by Hoddle who, like Venables, gave youth a chance. It is the young ones, Owen, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Beckham who have made the 22. Of the others Andy Hinchcliffe is injured, Chris Sutton ruled himself out, David James, Nicky Butt and Dion Dublin were discarded.

In all Hoddle called up 54 players capping 40. The players of 20 clubs have been involved with only this year's relegated trio, plus Sunderland, Derby and Wimbledon, not represented of the 23 Premiership clubs during the two seasons. Manchester United top the list (nine players), followed by Liverpool and Newcastle (eight each), Arsenal (7) and Tottenham (6).

Southgate and Paul Ince, who have each appeared in 16 of Hoddle's 20 matches have been the leading regulars, Sutton, with 11 minutes, made the smallest contribution - on the pitch, if not in headlines.

The final result is a team which resembles the one Venables left behind: David Seaman, Gary Neville, Adams, Southgate, Ince, Darren Anderton, McManaman, Shearer and Sheringham were all stalwarts of Euro 96; all might start against Tunisia on Monday.

The spine, especially, remains the same: Seaman-Adams-Ince-Shearer. Two years of call-ups and axeings and we are back where we started. Except, that is, for Gascoigne. Perhaps one of Hoddle's discoveries, Beckham, Scholes or Owen, will fill the void.