Venables in need of sharper focus

FOOTBALL COMMENTARY
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The Independent Online
No need for Terry Venables to fall on his sword just yet, but there will be one or two blades being sharpened after England's inept display at Wembley on Saturday.

"What did you take from this game?" the England coach was asked in the wake of his team's 2-1 win over Japan. "Three points," he responded brightly, alluding to the Umbro Cup, under whose banner the friendly was played. Did that really mean Venables regarded winning this spurious competition as more important than using it to prepare for next summer's European Championship finals?

No, he was, as ever, trying to be positive. Performances, rather than points, remain paramount, and so they should. England did plenty of winning under Graham Taylor, but it never got them anywhere in serious competition.

"It is about performances, improvement of players, and team play," Venables said. "I am prepared to be patient. We are learning all the time. Four more players got their debuts out of the way, got some experience."

Indeed they did. In 15 months and nine matches Venables has utilised a lot of good players, 17 previously uncapped. Most have been good choices - no Geoff Thomases, Carlton Palmers and Andy Grays.

But the time is fast approaching for him to select a core group. For all the good players, the performances are not getting better. Venables has been hindered by injuries and unavailability, but, even taking that into consideration, something is going wrong.

On Saturday England were shown up by a third-rate international side, most of whose players were part-timers only a couple of years ago.

Japan had better technique, showed a greater fluidity of movement and had the more positive approach. The result was an attractive, open game which could have gone either way. However, it was supposed to be a ritual slaughter.

The heart of the problem is beyond Venables' reach. The technique of most of the current generation of English players is simply inadequate. At junior, as at senior level, commitment and muscle dominate, with the playing - and winning - of matches given a higher priority than practice.

Changes are coming, but they are too late for this generation and Venables has to work with what he has. However, his preference for the likes of David Batty - who thrice gave the ball away in one five-minute first- half spell - to Matt Le Tissier, who is perceived as lacking application, does not set much of an example.

To be fair to Batty, his passing was no worse than most of his team-mates and the lack of movement did not help. "Bad day for Madame Tussaud's," said the press box wag on looking at the high number of visiting supporters. No matter, there were plenty of dummies in white shirts.

Peter Beardsley was far too deep in the first half and David Platt drifted on the game's periphery, while Alan Shearer and Stan Collymore compounded their isolation by waiting for the ball to come to them, rather than looking for space to receive it. Thus, when the likes of Batty or Pearce looked up, the scene was static and, lacking the ability to retain possession until an opportunity arose, they simply hit and hoped.

It could have been different had England got an early goal, and Shearer, set free by Beardsley, should have scored it after seven minutes. He was denied by the alert Kazuya Maekawa, who handled impressively throughout. England's other first-half chance fell to Collymore, but he headed wildly over after good work from Shearer and Beardsley.

At the other end, Masashi Nakayama and Kazu Miura troubled a similarly static defence. Miura twice brought Tim Flowers into action as Japanese confidence blossomed enough for Kaoki Soma to back-heel casually in defence under pressure from Shearer.

Then, three minutes after the break. England scored. Though Darren Anderton's shot, which followed a one-two with Shearer, was helped in by a heavy deflection, it was just reward for England's sharpest striker.

Now, at last, England would sweep Japan aside. But no, 15 minutes later they were beaten by, of all things, a near post corner - one conceded by David Unsworth's poor control. Masami Ihara lost Stuart Pearce and rose in front of Unsworth to glance past Flowers. A minute later England, sitting too deep in defence, allowed Miura to drift across the goal before hitting the post from 20 yards.

Paul Gascoigne came on to cheers, but, though his passing was a relief from the dross, he went deeper and deeper. However, as Japan tired Platt finally came into the game. He could have had a penalty when felled with six minutes to go, and earned one with two minutes left.

Neville - the most impressive of the debutants - won a free-kick on the right. A rare decent cross was provided, by Pearce, and Platt's header brought a reaction save from Maekawa. The ball fell to John Scales, whose mis-hit volley was punched off the line by Tetsuji Hashiratani.

He was sent off, Platt converted the penalty, and England had escaped - for now. Venables had made the point before the game that the rest of the world is catching up fast. To an extent he was vindicated.

It made one wonder: will English football one day go the same way as our car, motorbike and shipbuilding industries, usurped by the invention and dedication of the Far East?

Goals: 1-0 Anderton (48); 1-1 Ihara (63), 2-1 Platt (pen, 88).

England (4-4-2): Flowers (Blackburn); Neville (Manchester United), Scales (Liverpool), Unsworth (Everton), Pearce (Nottingham Forest); Anderton (Tottenham), Batty (Blackburn), Platt (Sampdoria), Beardsley (Newcastle); Shearer (Blackburn), Collymore (Nottingham Forest). Substitutes: Gascoigne (Lazio) for Batty, 68; McManaman (Liverpool) for Beardsley, 68; Sheringham (Tottenham) for Collymore 76.

Japan (1-3-4-2): Maekawa (Hiroshima); Hashiratani (Kawasaki); Narahasi (Hiratsuka), Tasaka (Hiratsuka), Ihara (Yokohama Marinos); Morishima (Osaka), Yamaguchi (Yokohama Flugels), Kitazawa (Kawasaki), Soma (Kashima); Nakayama (Iwata), Miura (Genoa). Substitutes: Kurosaki (Kashima) for Nakayama, 65; Yanagimoto (Hiroshima) for Soma, 74; Fukuda (Urawa) for Morishima, 80.

Referee: J Uilenberg (Netherlands).

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