Football: Midfield Muddle Poses Clear and Present Danger for McClaren ; ENGLAND UNDER McCLAREN
Lawton, James, The Independent (London, England)
Coaches change, new dawns are proclaimed, but when the sun came up over the old mosque in Skopje yesterday it illuminated the most obdurate problem of English international football. It is that there is no wit in midfield, no willingness, and perhaps no ability, to get on the ball and dominate a game. That went out of the team three coaches ago, when Glenn Hoddle finally bowed to the reality that Paul Gascoigne had become a self-destructing shell of the creative midfielder who had promised, with tragic brevity, to install a dazzling epoch of the national game.
With his poignant regrets, Gazza took the last evidence that England could still produce midfielders of the vision and class and energy of Johnny Haynes and Sir Bobby Charlton and Alan Ball.
Here this week a valuable but uninspiring victory over the nation ranked 67th in the world, most of whose key players operate in the lower reaches of the Bundesliga, was heavy with the truth that while the new coach Steve McClaren can cite a thousand statistics from his ProZone file he is powerless to dispute that the English midfield - that area where the best teams shape the game - remains a wasteland.
Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, who would command huge fees in the transfer market, are still at the heart of the problem.
The barrenness of their performances here - which in Lampard's case brought a humiliating substitution as the Macedonians took over the match and pushed for a late equaliser which would have been quite deserved - was the most serious question mark against the ability of McClaren and his hugely respected guru Terry Venables to make any significant advance on the frustrating years of Sven Goran Eriksson.
Where is the solution? Short term it might be to persuade the ageing Paul Scholes to return to international football. The Manchester United player remains, by some margin, the most instinctively penetrative of English midfielders.
Long-term salvation might just come with an unlikely change in the priorities of English coaching, which currently are geared to hard-running efficiency, an emphasis on percentage football that appears to kill at birth the kind of risk-taking instincts which in an earlier generation ensured that every team in the old first division had at least two players whose job was to get on the ball and make things happen.
On Wednesday night one of the greatest offensive burdens was carried by the right-back Phil Neville. Along the right he took all the throw-ins, long and optimistically in almost every case. Gerrard and Lampard? As players willing to take initiatives, to set a progressive pattern, their fingers stayed off the trigger.
In the sharpest of contrasts, Macedonia's gifted playmaker, Goran Pandev of Lazio, was assisted by the strong-running Velice Sumulikoski in attempting to break open the England defence with flurries of one-two passing sequences and sharp and imaginative running. But for a goal-line clearance of Ashley Cole, so reminiscent of his desperate intervention that kept England in the game with Ecuador in the World Cup, this classic policy might easily have delivered at least a draw.
The lesson was probably lost in an English football culture which celebrates the power and the wealth of the Premiership but fails to note that in recent years it has failed to produce a single outstanding home-grown creative talent. …