Venables sick of innuendo game

Ian Ridley studies refinements to the strategy of a coach cursed by rumour
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The Independent Online
NAPOLEON wanted one lucky general rather than one-hundred good ones and perhaps England have found one. When Terry Venables announced his team to play Switzerland last week the impression for this correspondent was that it lacked width. Robert Lee no longer plays wide on the right for Newcastle; Steve McManaman has more of a roving role for Liverpool. Where were the crosses to come from for Alan Shearer?

Then Jamie Redknapp is injured within five minutes, Steve Stone is produced from the Venables top-hat to become man of the match, and the rest is hysteria. As the hymnist wrote of the Holy Trinity: "Before the great Three-One, they all exalting stand." The second certainty about being a football manager - the first being that you will get the sack - is the excess of both praise and criticism.

Otherwise it has been another unholy week for Venables with yet more allegations and innuendo about his finances and business dealings appearing in the Daily Mirror, many of them footling and distastefully spreading to his family. Perhaps the FA, if they concur with his conspiracy theory, should themselves look at from where it might emanate within the game and take appropriate action. Fortunately for Venables, who calls it an attempt to inflict "death of a thousand lashes", it appears to have become counter-productive, tiresome to a public more concerned with figures of the 4-4-2 variety.

Which is almost what we saw at Wembley, or more accurately a further explanation of the Venables strategy. He continues to defend the English professional in the face of recent criticism of club performances - though concurs with that relating to tactics. "It is not their abilities that is the problem, it's their habits," he said. "All the players are beginning to understand what is going on." Perhaps the rest of us, too.

It is not so much formation that matters as deploying sufficient players in the right areas at the right times, according to the demands of the game and the opposition. The key area is midfield: "That's where the game is won," Venables said. If the opposition come with five, they must be matched, he adds, by withdrawing an adaptable striker to help or, if they have only one up front, to ask a defender to step forward.

It helped that Switzerland under Roy Hodgson played an "English" formation and Venables's more progressive approach out-thought it. Portugal will surely offer a more intricate test on 12 December.

The coach insists that the off-field shenanigans, the next of which is another court case on 13 December, do not deflect him or affect his job. He would not be human, however, if he did not feel that the performance and result had strengthened his standing. He must, too, feel vindicated in persisting with Teddy Sheringham and his thoughtful, unselfish virtues that embody the coach's strategy and not giving in to the more physical claims of Les Ferdinand. Sheringham, having benefited from the educational presence of Jurgen Klinsmann last season, took much of the burden from Alan Shearer, not least in scoring a goal, and vied with Stone for the man-of-the-match award.

It may be that Stone will, unwittingly, solve Venables's problem on the left, where he has tried eight players in his 14 selections. Steve McManaman, still relying on doing the simpler things, deserves more chances to see if he can bring his Liverpool tricks of the trade to England but the versatile Darren Anderton may find himself in that role when he returns from injury.

Venables hopes to have six matches before the 8 June start of the European Championship finals in which to decide, possibly starting with Croatia early in the New Year. He may then begin to work more intensely on England's set-pieces. The potential from corners and free-kicks did not look fully exploited against Switzerland; Venables said he had not wished to reveal his hand too soon.

The squad, he said, was further along with his planned progress than he expected by this time. Indeed the Norway match now looks like part of the process. He is probably close to his final 22 as well, which he hopes will be the number permitted by Uefa rather than the 20 of the last finals.

They will probably agree. England's luck under Venables seems good; on Friday they were named as one of the four seeds and given Wembley for their group matches. But then, when Gary Player was accused of being a lucky golfer, he replied: "It's funny, the harder I practise, the luckier I get."