THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

England’s draw in Israel met with predictable catcalls, but was it as bad as the papers and fans made out? Jonathan Wilson believes Steve McClaren was short of luck as well as ideas in an awkward fixture

Were England really so bad in Israel? Given that they largely outplayed a side that had gone seven years unbeaten at home before losing to Croatia in October, it could be argued that they actually did rather well. After a nervous opening 20 minutes or so, they never looked like losing, Jamie Carragher hit the bar, Frank Lampard glanced an effort a fraction wide, Andy Johnson fluffed a great headed chance and Dudu Aouate, the Israel keeper, made three useful saves. Presented with the same opportunities, another team on another night would have won comfortably.

Steve McClaren is not an habitual fount of wisdom, at least not in press conferences, but when he compared the game in Tel Aviv to the match in Azerbaijan in October 2004, the point was a good one. On that occasion the conditions were similarly difficult – a result of the atrocious weather as opposed to a fervent home crowd – England created rather less, but came away happy thanks to a Michael Owen goal.

This is a fundamental truth that is rarely acknowledged: there is a large element of luck in football and all a manager can do is to try to weight the dice as far as possible in his favour. Percentages are everything. If a team has only a 25 per cent chance of winning a game, but their manager has them break up the play, obstruct their opponents and slow the game down so their chance becomes 30 per cent, he has done a good job.

Israel’s coach Dror Kashtan, recognising his side as underdogs, had his men defend deep, tried to prevent England from playing, tried, as far as possible, to randomise the outcome, and was rewarded when the dice fell his way – in the case of the Carragher and Lampard headers, he was saved by a matter of inches.

Over the course of a domestic season, teams who win the title would perhaps play ten away games like that England faced against Israel, and, thanks to a moment of brilliance or a great finish or sheer grinding determination, they would win seven of them. Results change the perception, all the more so in international football, where there are so many fewer games on which to base opinions. Look, for instance, at Italia 90, England’s best performance at a World Cup since they won it.

In Italy, they won only one game inside 90 minutes – a turgid 1-0 victory over Egypt. They were appalling against the Republic of Ireland and extremely lucky against Belgium and Cameroon. Only against Holland and West Germany did they play well and both of those games finished as draws. Yet that was a triumph.

The dice tend to fall for those who are winning already. Comebacks and late goals tend to come in clutches (Nigeria at the 1996 Olympics, Manchester United in 1999) because teams believe that they can score late and opponents fear that they can. A confident player is more likely to score, or to make the defence-splitting pass or the crucial challenge, than a nervous one. And that is where we come to the crux of ­England’s problem.

At the moment, their mentality is such that they are not maximising their chances. In terms of formation and personnel, it is hard to see what else McClaren could have done differently in Israel – at least from the start. Where he disappointed was in his failure to shake the game up once it had settled into its stale pattern, an inability to direct its momentum. That is, in part, down to the limitations of the squad, for Jermain Defoe and Stewart Downing are not players to strike terror into the opposition. But why, for instance, was Aaron Lennon not given a go on the right? You just hope McClaren wasn’t merely seeking to avoid the diplomatic difficulties of rejigging ­Steven ­Gerrard and Lampard again.

There is a lack of decisiveness and incisiveness about the side, something that seems to reflect McClaren’s style of leadership. His obsession with news management means he refuses ever to provide details, to talk in anything but the most superficial generalities. Asked what he had done to help the players feel at home in international football, he replied that he could talk about the subject all day, but then didn’t even for a second.

Everything with him seems just to drift. There is no sense of the purpose you get with José Mourinho, Rafa Benítez or even Aidy Boothroyd. That is why “time to deliver” will become his epitaph. He is asked why England fail to perform, and replies that they will. When? Now. Why? Because this is time to deliver. The circularity does nobody any good. It frustrates his listeners, it makes McClaren look silly and, unless he is far more dynamic and charismatic in the dressing-room than in the press room, it communicates a lack of ideas and direction. “Only the believable is achievable,” Ljupko ­Petkovic, the coach who led Red Star ­Belgrade to the 1991 European Cup, once said. McClaren at the moment would ­struggle to make a baker believe in bread.

So that is the paradox of Tel Aviv: it was probably England’s best performance under McClaren, but it also highlighted the weaknesses that are undermining his reign.

From WSC 243 May 2007. What was happening this month

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