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Monday already and England fans are slowly switching from the despair of drawing to Macedonia at home to the new uncertainty of playing away to a bullish (and a team much stronger than Macedonia) Croatia.

It’s not new, this. The summer gave us plenty of such moments, and if memory serves me right, England has always been like this for me. Mercurial, predictably underperforming and rising to greatness only to raise false hopes.

To think that this is a side more talented than Portugal or Germany (the two losing semi-finalists in WC 06), and possibly on par with Italy and France…

Sometimes I think we’re being too harsh, but the mark of a good team is that they put their chances away and not concede silly goals. Preparation and Execution. And when things go rough, make everything simpler and focus on getting the basics right.

I’m not sure McClaren and England have the necessary insight to change from within and work on winning the game instead of playing well.

Yes, there is desire and a hunger to win. But out-of-form teams win and out-of-form players score because they pack bodies in front of goal and attack in numbers, working to tap in loose balls, deflections, headers, maybe win a free-kick or a penalty.

I don’t know which England will turn up, but if McClaren is as smart as has shown himself to be in front of the media then England on Wednesday will look for an early strike but after that close shop, focus on controlling the game and only after they can boss the midfield will they go forward to attack. There’s no point in playing football at this level (and with such high expectations) if your midfield cannot control the game.

Yes, 3 of England’s first-choice midfielders (Gerrard, Hargreaves, Joe Cole) are out injured. So is Aaron Lennon. Another one (David Beckham) is being overlooked for selection. But doesn’t England have enough in the tank? There is SWP on the right, Neville and Parker as backups for Lamps and Carrick, Richardson as backup for Downing. Yes, these are not ideal, but they are all quality players who can fight hard. Then there is Jenas as well, plus Rooney could always drop back into the midfield to shore things up.

Outrageous? Overreactive? Probably. But the point is, the injuries we have are no excuse for a poor performance. When your star player (Lampard) is getting simple passes wrong and is crowding up on your holding midfielder (Carrick), you have little chance of bossing the midfield. And when your holding midfielder isn’t tackling hard then you’ve got little chance of winning the ball. King or Ferdinand (whoever plays in Croatia) cannot be expected to bail them out every time.

England need to focus on getting the basics right. Tackle, win the ball, move, pass, move. Always keep moving, always focus on being part of the game.

New Formation?

The Guardian (more accurately, Kevin McCarra and Daniel Taylor) is predicting that McClaren could shift to a 3-5-2 in Zagreb. Without the benefit of seeing England play in training, I have to say that this would a ridiculous move. Because of public knowledge of this ‘plan’, Croatia would already have prepared for it, so it’s not as if England are springing a surprise on them (why aren’t such tactics kept secret?).

It would make sense if England went with a 4-5-1 to shore up the midfield in Gerrard’s absence, although any defensive posture is liable to be met with a lot of criticism.

If England are looking to switch formations, they should be flexible enough to play the same 11 in all formations – that is, 4-4-2/4-5-1(4-3-3)/3-5-2. Hypothetical and wishful as that sounds, it will give England a lot of strength and resilience. Switching between 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 can confuse the hell out of most teams if they’re not prepared, and I doubt that Croatia will be prepared for mid-game switches.

Then again, I doubt that England will be doing something like that.

Michael Carrick

When Hargreaves was being criticised, Eriksson pleaded with everyone to give him more time. I hope that McClaren does the same with Carrick and gives him an extended run in the middle of the park. He has to improve, yes, but he will improve by playing more games and by being given extra responsibility. Being laid back is no detriment to good form, as Fabregas has shown at Arsenal. Then again, Arsenal have Silva mopping up for Fab, while Carrick has to do it himself.

Could McClaren drop Lampard and play Scott Parker instead? Parker is more attacking than Hargreaves and Phil Neville but also strong in tackling. Carrick will be best served by playing alongside someone like Gerrard or Parker than with Lamps. Then again, Lamps is still undroppable so unless Steve sticks with Carrick (which he should), England will probably start with Parker and Lamps in the middle.

One alternative would be to play Phil Neville in Carrick’s place. He’s done a great job in that position in the past, and if England plan to use a 4-5-1 (with Carrick/Parker and Lamps playing with a holding midfielder) then Neville is the ideal man for the job.

Wayne Rooney

Give him time, you say?

I doubt that Rooney needs more ‘time’. He needs better service, and he needs better positioning on the pitch. Hopefully Ferguson can ring up McClaren and tell him how to use Rooney better, because right now Rooney is turning up in all the wrong places and doing the wrong things with the ball. How would Rooney work with Defoe? Crouch, for all his talents cannot draw away defenders with any threat of pace.

Either Rooney has to change his game and suit the system England are playing (with Crouch being the main striker) or one of Rooney and Crouch has to be dropped. Put Rooney up with Saha in United’s lineup against Wigan on the weekend and I could bet you top dollar that Rooney would be a changed player (for the better, if you’re wondering). With Crouchie, he’ll have to adapt and play runner himself.


Both Macedonia and Croatia have played up England’s poor performance by doubting their chances in qualifying. It’s cute and will feed the common desire to gang up on Team England whenever they put a foot wrong, so in a sense you can say we’re looking for it. All BS, but boy wait till England muckup in Croatia – that will cook them for a month for sure.

It doesn’t matter what Terry or McClaren or Ferdinand or Neville say about England or Rooney – the public and the media thrive on negativity and as long as there is reason to doubt England you will keep hearing bollocks from people who shouldn’t be allowed out in the public without supervision.

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Ahmed Bilal created Sportslens in 2006. He is a business consultant and entrepreneur who helps businesses identify and overcome their biggest challenges. He’s also the founder of Football Media, an online advertising agency that specialises in sports and male audience targeting, with a monthly reach of 100m+ sports fans in the UK and US. He’s also the previous owner of Soccerlens.com – a sports news site that reaches 3m+ readers / month.