McClaren era begins with trouble up front

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Nothing in this tournament became England so well as the leaving of it, but that should not mask their failings, writes Jonathan Wilson.

They might well have have beaten Portugal on Saturday had Wayne Rooney’s ill-discipline not reduced them to 10 men 17 minutes into the second half, but even after their first reasonable display in the World Cup, penalties are not an excuse. For this squad, supposedly the most talented to leave English shores since 1970, to produce in five games only one performance worthy of the tournament is, as departing manager Sven-Göran Eriksson admitted, “not good enough”.

It was presumably in recognition of that failure that David Beckham resigned the captaincy yesterday, although he was probably pre-empting the inevitable. The fact that Eriksson’s successor, Steve McClaren, has been working alongside him, and the absence of alternatives makes a radical restructuring of the squad unlikely, but there will be changes, and handing the armband to John Terry or Steven Gerrard is an appropriate way to mark the beginning of the new era.

The desirability of continuity has long been stressed but now that England, for the first time, have appointed from within, it seems of questionable value. There can no longer be a dogged faith in the holy trinity of Beckham, Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Eriksson’s greatest long-term failing was an inability to solve the conundrum of fitting them into the same midfield, either with Paul Scholes two years ago, or Joe Cole this time around: Gerrard and Lampard are too similar to play together in a flat four, but if a holding player is brought in to facilitate their forward surges, Beckham’s lack of pace becomes a significant problem.

Personnel and modern tactical trends would suggest that McClaren will continue to deploy a holding midfielder, which after Saturday’s performance must be Owen Hargreaves. Aaron Lennon’s pace and sheer nerve suggested he may be a long-term replacement for Beckham on the right, but Hargreaves was the real positive – tireless, brave and intelligent.

Cole has done enough in this tournament to secure his place on the left, which means either Gerrard in the middle and Beckham on the right, or Lampard in the middle and Gerrard on the right. McClaren must face the reality Eriksson could not – that the three cannot play together.

Eriksson’s loyalty generated a remarkable loyalty from his players in return, but the cost of that was an inflexibility when it came to selection. In this tournament, the straitjacket was in part self-imposed.

The greatest single mistake of Eriksson’s reign was the decision to bring only four forwards, one of them Theo Walcott, who, in the Swede’s post-hoc rationalisation, it turns out was here merely for the experience. His PlayStation skills, at least, should have come on in leaps and bounds.

“Where are the other forwards?” Eriksson demanded yesterday, vigorously defending his decision not to pick Jermain Defoe. “I saw him 15 or 20 times,” he said, “and you have to take the best players.”

Given he did not see Walcott play at all, that is a damning verdict on the Tottenham striker.

The forward line must be McClaren’s biggest immediate concern. In the short term, Rooney is likely to be suspended for at least the first three qualifiers for the 2008 European Championships, matches Owen will miss through injury, which means either Peter Crouch up front by himself or with a recalled Defoe.

In the longer term, there is no guarantee Owen will ever recover his sharpness after a year out, while Crouch, for all his effort, remains what he has always been – a shock tactic who performs a certain limited role extremely well.

That leaves them to rely on Rooney, whose ability continues to be undermined by his volatility. Although he protests an innocence of intent, it is hard to see his stamp on Ricardo Carvalho as anything other than irresponsibly thuggish.

“He is the golden boy of English football,” Eriksson insisted. “Please, for your sake, do not kill him. You need him.”

He is right about that, just as he was right to blood him as an international when he was just 17, and he is right too in his claim that to strip Rooney of his temper would be to diminish the player – his beauty lies in the beast.

England’s reliance upon one player, and such an unreliable one at that, howerver, speaks of the poverty of the country’s position now in comparison to the end of the last World Cup. Back then, England had a golden generation; McClaren starts his reign with merely a golden child.

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