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Saturday, Oct. 7, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

McClaren's decision to possibly play 3-5-2 a real puzzler


LONDON -- To the best of my knowledge no team has ever won the World Cup, European Championship, Champions League or Premiership by playing a 3-5-2 formation.

Christopher Davies

A coincidence?

I think not.

Yet as it prepares for Saturday's Euro 2008 qualifier against Macedonia, England appears to be on the brink of switching from a flat back four to a three-man defense, with wing-backs instead of the traditional fullbacks.

Head coach Steve McClaren inherited the system favored by most from Sven-Goran Eriksson.

McClaren changed the midfield personnel with Steven Gerrard playing a wider role on the right instead of the axed former captain David Beckham, Stewart Downing providing width on the left, Owen Hargreaves in the holding role and Frank Lampard central.

Beckham or no Beckham, it was still the 4-4-2 formation that the players knew inside out.

McClaren has always admitted his fondness for 3-5-2, but like any good coach on the eve of a big game was giving little away about a possible switch of tactics.

"It's something I've always wanted to try and look at," he said. "I believe it's one for the future. How soon? Who knows?"

However, McClaren and his assistant Terry Venables have put the England squad through two training sessions this week, based on a 3-5-2 formation as it prepared for the ties against Macedonia and, next Wednesday, Croatia.

The 4-4-2 system has dominated English football for years with recent variations of 4-5-1.

No Premiership team regularly plays with a three-man defense, and England has not used it for years.

The politically correct Liverpool striker Peter Crouch claimed that all the players had played 3-5-2 before, but in reality their experience is limited.

It has never been favored by teams who have won the major club and international tournaments, so any change would represent a huge gamble by England, not least because the next two matches are competitive games with qualifying points at stake.

It is also questionable whether England has the players to operate a 3-5-2 system.

Ashley Cole could play left wing-back because the Chelsea player has pace and is comfortable either going forward or defending.

Who would play right wing-back is less obvious.

Chelsea's Shaun Wright-Phillips, almost a permanent substitute for his club, offers speed, natural width and attacking instinct.

But tackling is not his strength, and while Gary Neville is a natural born defender, the Manchester United right-back does not gave the speed for the wing-back role.

The three center-backs would probably be captain John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and either Ledley King or Jamie Carragher, all players who operate in a flat back-four system at club level.

The new system would also throw Gerrard and Lampard back into the center of midfield just when they seemed to be getting on better apart from each other.

As a World Cup television pundit, Venables often argued for them to play in a central midfield trio with Michael Carrick in the holding role. Now he seems to have gotten his way.

Carrick would replace broken leg victim Hargreaves sitting deep in midfield, allowing Gerrard and Lampard free to push forward.

However, this did not work against Ecuador in the World Cup finals -- despite a 1-0 win -- when the same three played in the center with David Beckham and Joe Cole on the flanks.

If McClaren opts for 3-5-2 and it proves successful, England is like ly to stick with it, Hargreaves probably replacing Carrick when the Bayern Munich midfielder is fit again.

All teams should be flexible, capable of changing tactics if the occasion demands, but if any switch of formation flops, expect the revolution to end and evolution to return in the shape of 4-4-2.

CRAIG BELLAMY has a poor disciplinary record with 56 yellow cards and three reds on the Liverpool striker's charge sheet plus a few misconduct cases.

On Tuesday, Bellamy faces an assault charge -- which he denies -- at Cardiff magistrates' court, the day before Wales plays Cyprus in a Euro 2008 qualifier. Three days have been set aside for the hearing.

Even in the mad, mad world of planet football it seemed illogical for manager John Toshack to name Bellamy as Wales captain in the absence of regular skipper Ryan Giggs, who is injured.

It also raised amazed collective eyebrows when Toshack said he did not consider the controversies and problems that have dogged Bellamy throughout his career when choosing a replacement for Giggs.

"I am not so sure that Craig's on-field record is too much a problem," said Toshack. "It is not something I have considered or felt the need to think about with regard to making him captain.

"But his desire in the red jersey cannot be questioned. I have a hunch that it will give him something else to think about other than next week's court hearing.

"I am confident that he will not let me down. I have known him for a while and his commitment with us has always been first class."

When Bellamy was at Newcastle his exasperated manager Sir Bobby Robson once said: "He always wants the last word. If you were married to him you would want a divorce.

"He does have to zip his mouth up. He has to learn. He's a terrific talent but he's a precocious kid and he's always chatting away . . . he must have the last say."

Just the qualities for an international captain.

THE BIGGEST revelation of the week is that the people who live on the blue side of Merseyside were shocked by the sight of Manchester City midfielder Joey Barton's backside.

Barton was ill-advised to indulge in a spot of mooning after City's 1-1 draw at Everton last Saturday.

But the Football Association has seen fit to charge Barton with improper conduct and bringing the game into disrepute, the bottom line being that he will probably be fined.

I was not at the game, but I can say with confidence that most of the Everton fans who were horrified by the sight of Barton's botty had let rip with extremes of foul language directed at City, the referee and linesmen.

That's OK, though.

Swearing in the vicinity of women and children is acceptable because that's what people do at football, isn't it?

The ref deserved to be called a ****** because he gave a decision against Everton. And every City player, especially the one who used to play for Everton, is a viable target for abuse.

But when a player moons . . . well . . . how awful.

Shocking.

Or as many Everton fans would say ****** shocking.

No doubt all the Everton supporters, who are delighted to see Barton charged would have also been, er, over the moon and applauded the F.A. had it charged one of the home players if he had gone sunny side up.

Christopher Davies was a longtime soccer correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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