The tough and the smooth

One year on, Glenn Hoddle's England are showing a resilience which has earned new respect. Ian Ridley reports
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The Independent Online
Glenn Hoddle considered a question about England collecting the most yellow cards, as well as criticism for some physical play, as the negative side to England's success at Le Tournoi de France. "I'll tell you how I'm going to answer that," he said firmly, barely hesitating. "It's nice not to win the fair play award but to win the tournament."

Those who doubted whether the England coach - nicknamed Glenda by Northern fans during his Tottenham playing days - possessed the necessary toughness for the job have been answered. One year into it, he and his teams have revealed a quality and resilience to further the rehabilitation of the English game begun by Terry Venables.

The reaction of the other nations at Le Tournoi was mixed. It was generally conceded that Brazil were the best team, but that England had continued the modernisation of their tactics. And if this wasn't like the nice-guy nearly teams which won the fair play awards at the World Cup in Italy in 1990 and at Euro 96, then Hoddle deemed it an acceptable price to pay for the new mood of respect.

The 1-0 defeat by Brazil illustrated that England are still tucked behind the world's elite. As Hoddle admitted: "There is a gap." And with his only other defeat in his first 11 matches, nine of which have been won, coming against Italy in the World Cup qualifier at Wembley in February, it remains true that England are found wanting when confronted by the traditional powers.

Yet the 2-0 win over a less competitive Italy in Nantes, even if it may have served to sting the Italians, offers optimism for the return in Rome on 11 October. The lessons of the previous defeat had been absorbed; England moved the ball swiftly and retained a good shape, the links between defence, midfield and attack kept. This time they were neither stretched nor pulled around. Instead, that befell Italy.

Against Brazil, too, there were indications of improvement. The Brazilians, growing stronger as they move into the Copa America, were the sharper, however. England, with the tournament already won and perhaps sensing the sand between their toes, were too fatigued to hunt down the ball and support Alan Shearer on the counter-attack. When a goal down against Brazil, who retain possession silkily, it becomes a dispiriting task.

"They like to thread the ball through the eye of a needle," said Hoddle. "We like to get it wide and get crosses in. It's a question of adding to the strengths of our game and imposing it more on them. I think with fresher legs we could have done it.

"But I was pleased with the way we defended against them. They are the best attacking team in the world and they were reduced to putting a lot of long shots in. They can also look vulnerable at the back. We saw things that we can exploit." Indeed the Brazilians, through complacency, naivety or inadequate homework, failed to defend a favourite England tactic; the near-post corner into a withdrawn Teddy Sheringham for a shot.

Back home, Le Tournoi was criticised by Premiership managers, notably Alex Ferguson, fearful of the effect on their players. However, the experience, particularly for Ferguson's young Manchester United contingent in Philip Neville, David Beckham and Paul Scholes, who all responded to the chance admirably, can only have been beneficial.

No longer will it seem that the best are to be feared, that technique and talent is automatically superior. United's European cause should be well served. Certainly England's will be, should they qualify for France '98. "We are never going to be overawed now. That's why it's been a good tournament for us," said Hoddle's assistant, John Gorman.

Hoddle's achievement, best shown by the 2-0 win in Poland that preceded the tournament, has been to bring English tactics into line with modern thinking. In Chorzow, the now familiar 3-5-2 formation was well organised and the counter-attacking game well- oiled.

It is about one- and two-touch passing - ball circulation in the modern phrasing - not for its own sake but to tire opponents and force them to lose concentration, so that gaps appear which can be incisively exploited. Possession is to be guarded jealously. When it is lost, the ball is pressed, with the potential for the counter when it is regained.

That requires alert, athletic players of tactical sophistication, concentration and patience. As well as a few with an eye for creating the chance amid tight defences, then taking it. It is why Sheringham and the near-colossus Alan Shearer are such a well-matched pair.

Elements of it all were seen against Italy - encouragingly without Shearer - and, to a lesser extent, against France. Against Brazil, the balance between sound defence and creative attacking fell down. The system requires harmony and fitness. Hoddle's achievement has been fostering such an approach and the last few weeks together have been invaluable.

Whether a Paul Gascoigne in danger of being left gasping by it all fits into the picture is increasingly open to doubt. The next six months will decide. In any event, Hoddle has been wise enough not to pin his strategy on any one player. Beckham's comfort in the centre circle augurs well.

So too the development of Sol Campbell as a reader of the game from the back. It was also heartening to see the yeoman Gareth Southgate's return to form. Add Tony Adams in defence and the possibilities are potent. Further forward, with Steve McManaman, Darren Anderton and Robbie Fowler among those vying for places, the signs are encouraging. "It should be a tremendous season next year, with everyone trying to get in the squad," said Hoddle.

The coach himself is an enigmatic, pragmatic man, studious and serious, but behind the public mask is a private passion and a capacity for effective anger that is almost continental. For him, it has been far from the impossible job, one with little respect attached, that Graham Taylor found. If he made his mistakes against Italy at Wembley, Hoddle has quickly profited from them.

"When I was Chelsea manager, looking on from the outside, it looked a very difficult job, and it is just that." he said. "But it's one I'm enjoying and taking a lot of pride in. The ups are very high and the downs very down but I've got a good family behind me and that is the most important thing, whether you're up or down."

He is also very shrewd. Any annoyance about Robbie Fowler's withdrawal from the summer squad will be modified when the real business comes around. Fowler may be disciplined by being omitted from, say, the Moldova squad in September - "I don't get mad, I get even," said Hoddle - but he has an expedient attitude to events.

As is shown by his comments about England's yellow cards. David Beckham, who incurred two cautions and missed the Brazil match, will have learned a lesson and Hoddle too. Suspensions can upset the best-laid plans. Otherwise, happy anniversary Glenn Hoddle. Fair play to the man.