Venables opts to play three at the back

FOOTBALL: Venables unveils three-man defence for friendly against difficult opponents at Wembley
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Evolution, not revolution, that was the word from the England camp yesterday. Even so, however often the decision to play just three defenders against Croatia at Wembley tonight is described as a logical progression it remains a landmark.

Not since the days of lace-up balls and baggy shorts have England met serious opposition with such a numerically challenged defence. It is 18 years since England even risked playing three defenders against weak opponents - when Ron Greenwood's side stuttered to a 2-0 win over Luxembourg. There has been some tinkering with sweepers and wing-backs since but, in essence, the flat back four has remained as English as roast beef... perhaps it is time for a change.

But to do so tonight, less than eight weeks before the start of the European Championships and against such a formidable attacking unit as Croatia appears either bold, or foolhardy.

Terry Venables can rarely be accused of being the latter, at least not in his football dealings, and there is some logic behind the transition. Unlike Graham Taylor's abortive attempt to play three at the back, with wing-backs, in Oslo in 1993 Venables' team should know what they are doing. He has been working specifically on this since Friday and, said David Platt, who is restored as captain, more generally for some time.

The defence is also better balanced than the Oslo Three (Des Walker, Tony Adams, Gary Pallister) who were exposed on the wings. In the centre - and winning his first cap for four years - is Mark Wright, who has impressed in a back three at Liverpool. He will be flanked by two players who ought not to be exposed in the wide areas, Gary Neville and Stuart Pearce.

This is important because this system is fundamentally different from those practised by Liverpool and Aston Villa. There are no wing-backs, instead, when attacked in numbers, the defence will be supported at the centre, primarily by Paul Ince, but also by Paul Gascoigne and Platt.

There is enough of the Ajax system in this to wonder if England's next kit will feature a broad red stripe down the front but it is not intended to be a carbon copy.

"There are similarities but it is not the same," Venables said. "This is a natural progression of what we have been doing. I have been looking to do it for a long time. If we have four defenders and they have two forwards we have two players not doing anything while our midfield two are running their legs silly. This is about getting help to midfield. This is a natural way of playing."

"I do not think this is a big change, it is a gradual progression," said Platt, who is included for the first time since the Umbro Cup. In recent games, he noted, Gareth Southgate and Steve Howey had "stepped out of the back four into midfield, the difference is that Paul Ince will be stepping back from midfield."

Both Southgate and Howey have looked tentative pushing forward and it may be that playing the numbers game this way round proves more successful. "It is not that defenders are unwilling to do it. They have been brought up not to," Venables said.

Attitudes are changing, minds have opened, said Platt. "The formation will change as the game changes," he added. "We have a lot of adaptable players in the England squad now. We are starting with three defenders but, if the opposition start throwing people forward, we will change."

Venables, who encourages his players to take responsibility rather than look to the bench, added: "I want them to sort things out for themselves."

While Ince will be working out whether to come or go the decisions will be simpler further forward - to shoot, or not to shoot, that will be the question. In the case of Robbie Fowler, who makes a much-anticipated full debut, the answer will probably be to shoot.

"What does he bring to the team?" Venables was asked. "Goals" was the reply. England hope so. The shrewd Teddy Sheringham will help Fowler to find his feet, as will the presence of his Liverpool room-mate, Steve McManaman. His club attacking partner, Stan Collymore, will probably be named among the substitutes today.

The reshaped team should certainly get a thorough test. Croatia are a good side with several gifted individuals, notably Zvonimir Boban, Alen Boksic and Robert Prosinecki. Just as importantly they will have, in contrast to most friendly opponents, a deep-seated desire to do their reborn country proud. Strong in defence and quick in the counter-attack they are one of the dark horses for Euro 96.

With the championships so close the result is not important, the performance is. But, everyone knows a bad defeat would be a serious blow, especially if England are pulled apart defensively. A draw will satisfy Venables, as long as it is well-earned.

CROATIA: Ledic (Croatia Zagreb), Jurcevic (Freiburg), Jarni (Real Betis), Stimac (Derby County), Jerkan (Real Oviedo), Bilic (West Ham United), Asananovic (Hajduk Split), Prosinecki (Barcelona), Suker (Seville), Boban (Milan), Boksic (Lazio).

Scots' search, page 27