A Bizarre Kind of Smokescreen

The sheer wilful perversity of the British football press is something Henry Winter would normally excuse himself from, but he makes up for lost time today:

Yesterday in training, when the Maksimir’s forbidding gates were closed to onlookers, McClaren again put his players through their 3-5-2 paces. The head coach will look at the unpopular system one more time, in a private session this morning, before finalising his plans for a Euro 2008 qualifier that defines whether he can relax or fret in the five months before the next tie.

Every whisper from the camp, every comment emanating from the head coach indicates that McClaren will flood the centre and leave the wide acres exposed, turning the clock back to 3-5-2; an unwanted relic of the past, as welcome as rickets and rationing, is back on the English agenda.

The Maksimir Stadium, the home of touchline raiders like Milan Rapaic and Niko Kranjcar, the lair of 40,000 flare-wielding, impassioned Croats, is no place for experimentation. For all McClaren’s protestations yesterday, his players are creatures of habit and do not relish 3-5-2.

After six games of back-fours and clean sheets, of Paul Robinson moving within 90 unbeaten minutes of equaling Gordon Banks’ England record for seven matches without conceding a goal, McClaren risks guiding them down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

Do you remember what a fuss was made about the presence or absence of a “Plan B” in Germany over the summer? The idea that you played one formation – and kept another one up your sleeve for emergencies – is so staggeringly crude that you can only hope that it’s just one you caught in the corner of your eye from a distorting mirror. There’s a difference between living up to Clough’s maxim – keep things as simple for the players as you possibly can – and seeing a virtue in having only one way of doing things.

Winter goes on:

Few teams play 3-5-2 but McClaren aims to experiment with a system that most countries have discarded as discredited. So Ferdinand, Terry and Jamie Carragher were hurriedly given a crash course in the demands of being a back-three, of when to stick in the middle and when to push out wide.

English centre-halves have been exposed when dragged out wide into these corridors of uncertainty before, most painfully Gary Pallister when seeking to combat Norway’s Jostein Flo in 1993 during the Graham Taylor era. When England briefly used a back-three under Terry Venables, it succeeded because the wide centre-halves were Gary Neville and Stuart Pearce, capable club full-backs.

Tonight, Matthew, they’re going to be one Gary Neville and Ashley Cole, which, if they play as they can, should be more than good enough. And that’s the first I’ve heard about 3-5-2 being regarded in that light overseas – I suspect Winter just made that up on the hoof. Brazil still drop into the old W-M formation if it suits them to do so.

The smokescreen reference in the title is all about Steve McClaren. I’m wondering if his increasing reliance on the language of the English footballing golden age (the one that didn’t exist that we’ve discussed here before) is for real or merely chaff thrown up to disguise from the press an altogether more technocratic approach to team affairs. The press have spent the last few months hungering for a whiff of Finney and Matthews, albeit not in a way either of those two great men would recognise, nor in a way that acknowledges the Finney/Matthews era (in which both had something of a Hoddle experience when it came to being picked for the national side) was responsible for the twin Hungary debacles. The press want nostalgia – is Steve just giving it to them, and following his own agenda nevertheless?

He can’t really mean any of the following, can he?

“Like everybody else, I take opinions and thought and Terry has given me them, and to players. That’s his job. That’s what he does best. We have a very good relationship. We’ve talked about our relationship; it has improved and it will improve more.”

“We need character, pride and passion. It’s about playing for the shirt, about attitude and work-rate. That’s what we ask for against Croatia.”

“When you’re talking about a performance against Croatia, you’re looking for an English performance and Scott Parker epitomises the English performance.”

What? Nonetheless, England to win, and win well, tonight.