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Saturday, Oct. 14, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

McClaren, Venables must regroup after fiasco in Zagreb


LONDON -- To the surprise, it seems, of nobody except the England coaching team the switch from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 in Croatia was a shambles.

Christopher Davies

Losing 2-0 in Zagreb was in itself no great shock -- after all Croatia has never lost a home qualifying tie in five tournaments.

It was the manner of the defeat that left a nation shaking its collective heads, with a few hotheads shaking their collective fists at manager Steve McClaren after the first loss of his three-month reign in charge of the national team.

It was footballing suicide to change from a system that had seen the side register six consecutive shutouts. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

And if there was to be an experiment, surely better to do it in a friendly when no qualifying points are at stake.

McClaren said he switched formations because England had not been getting the ball forward quickly enough.

"It wasn't a gamble," he said.

He probably doesn't think Russian roulette is either.

McClaren was no doubt influenced by his assistant, Terry Venables, who had a degree of success with 3-5-2 during Euro '96 when he was England manager.

Ten years is a long time in football, and it is surely significant that no top team at club or international level plays a three-man defense.

None of the England players' clubs use it so they were being asked to play in a manner that was foreign to them. Unsurprisingly, at times they looked like a bunch of strangers.

Two of the three center-backs were both going to head the ball clear or tackle a Croatia forward.

The wing-backs didn't know whether they were defending or attacking yet McClaren still said: "I felt we controlled it. We wanted to control the game and dictate possession and we did that after the first 15 minutes."

One of the manager's spin doctors had told him to use the phrase "reality check" after the previous Saturday's 0-0 home draw with Macedonia.

In Zagreb "denial check" would have been appropriate for McClaren.

It has taken McClaren just four games to lose a qualifier, something which took his much-maligned predecessor, Sven-Goran Eriksson, 4 1/2 years.

The main concern with the former Middlesbrough manager is that he is more style than substance.

Maybe there was nothing wrong in undergoing cosmetic dental work to give a toothpaste smile but the hiring of super-publicist Max Clifford, the influence of psychologist Bill Beswick and the courting of certain parts of the media leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

How many other managers at any level have such a team behind them? (Answer: almost certainly none).

It is too early to make a rational judgment on McClaren as an international manager, but with Middlesbrough his reputation was that of someone who underachieved given the generous financial backing of chairman Steve Gibson.

Eriksson's resume included titles in Sweden, Portugal and Italy when he was appointed. McClaren had won the Carling Cup.

Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect England to light a lot of fires. It has a goalkeeper (Paul Robinson) who is almost as likely to make a great save as an error destined for the next bloopers DVD.

The captain (John Terry) has the heart of a lion but lacks the pace needed at the highest level. His partner in defense (Rio Ferdinand) has what it takes but does not always use it.

England has two midfielders (Steven Gerrard, suspended for Zagreb) and (Frank Lampard) who do not play well together, an overachieving beanpole of a center-forward (Peter Crouch) and a striker (Wayne Rooney) who has given up scoring goals.

It's a good but not great team which needed better tactics than were thrust upon it after a couple of training sessions in Croatia.

Robinson made two world-class saves, but was then at fault for both the home team's goals.

The Tottenham goalkeeper was wrong-footed when Eduardo Da Silva headed in Niko Kovac's left-wing center.

Worse, much worse, was to follow.

When Gary Neville played the ball back to Robinson there was no apparent danger, but seconds later the fullback had registered the first goal of his 84-game international career.

As Robinson took a kick at the ball it hit a divot, went over his boot and into the net.

The Daily Mirror's "0-2 to you, misses Robinson" was the pick of the headlines and for all the goalkeeper's declarations that "I went to kick it . . . there was a bobble . . . and then the ball wasn't there . . . it was a freak," the Robinson Clouseau episode could and should have been avoided.

Firstly, Neville should have followed the golden rule never to pass the ball back directed at the goal, always to the side of it. And Robinson admitted: "There were big holes in the pitch."

So why didn't the goalkeeper (a) do some pitch repairs to level out the surface or (b) under the circumstances control the ball first rather than taking a swipe at it?

Aware that his appointment did not exactly have the nation's champagne corks popping, McClaren will need the extra media training Clifford will provide during the winter.

This was England's worst qualifying result since Graham Taylor's team was beaten 2-0 in Holland in 1993.

The Football Association, still paying Eriksson £13,000 -a-day after firing him in the summer, will stand by its new manager who said the only things he could under the circumstances.

"There's still many points to play for. It's not where you are at the moment; it's where you finish -- and there are still many games ahead.

"We've been here before in qualification -- I have. There's always one or two very disappointing results, and the key is bouncing back and making sure we qualify. There's enough points to do that."

How many England will win remains to be seen.

The next game on the Euro 2008 qualifying trail is another daunting fixture -- away to Israel, probably in Tel Aviv, in a game certain to be surrounded by security issues.

Israel is unbeaten in 13 competitive games, dating back to a defeat in France three years ago, and has not lost a qualifier on Israeli soil since Denmark won 5-0 in Tel Aviv in 1999.

The tie promises to be as demanding as the one in Croatia, and England will not be helped by the absence of Ashley Cole who will miss the game through suspension, after collecting his second yellow card of the campaign in Croatia.

The upcoming five-month break from competitive action (England plays Holland in a friendly in November) allows McClaren and Venables time to rethink their strategy.

For England's sake they must learn from the debris of defeat in Zagreb with the selection and tactical errors not repeated in subsequent matches.

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


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