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Oct 5, 2006

The big decision

As England prepare for their Euro 2008 qualifying double header with Macedonia and Croatia, media savvy manager Steve McClaren is saying all the right things to distance his new regime from the old era.

So far this week the former Boro boss has highlighted the importance of his players being flexible within a number of formations - naming-checking the 4-4-2, 4-5-1, 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 - and has expressed his desire for his squad to carry their Premiership passion into the international arena.

A dearth of passion and a lack of plan B were both criticisms levelled at McClaren's predecessor, Sven Goran Eriksson, and it appears the current incumbent, who has called on the skills of publicist Max Clifford, wants to declare himself the antithesis of the old regime.

McClaren has continued to exile former captain David Beckham, despite numerous injuries in his midfield, and goalkeeper David James has failed to win a recall to the squad despite conceding only a single goal at time the squad was announced.

Both these players had come in for criticism during the Eriksson era; 36-year-old James for failing to prepare properly and conceding four goals in a 4-1 defeat to Denmark and 31-year-old Beckham for the media sideshow he attracts and his inability to recapture top form for the Three Lions.

Their initial exclusion was welcomed by the majority of fans but isn't it time the chastened duo are allowed near the squad again? With McClaren's great young hope Aaron Lennon joining Owen Hargreaves on the injury list and Jermaine Jenas looking doubtful can Beckham not offer the squad something? If not now then possibly in the future? This exclusion certainly appears to be the death knell to his international career.

As for James, is he not a better option than England's back-up keepers Chris Kirkland and Ben Foster? Kirkland has been tipped to hit the heights for many years but has never been able to stay fit long enough to reach this much promised potential. While Ben Foster is a young keeper with only limited experience at Premiership level.

Selection should surely be based on form, ability and experience, not by agenda? Or is this an age thing?

McClaren's calculated words and actions seem to be working as England will face Macedonia on Saturday in front of the biggest ever post-Wembley home crowd. 71,000 will turn up to watch McClaren's side in a match he may well use as a trial run for a much more testing clash away to Croatia on Wednesday.

Wayne Rooney is available to McClaren for the first time and the England manager will be keen to give his star turn a run out against Macedonia, a team Enlgand have already beaten away from home, before the game in Zagreb. The forward has struggled to find his best form at Manchester United since returning from suspension, following a red card at the World Cup and in pre-season, but his stand in, Jermain Defoe, has equally struggled at Tottenham this term and should make way on Wednesday.

The England boss has described Liverpool striker Peter Crouch as 'difficult to drop' after scoring 11 goals in 14 internationals and the 6'7" targetman will more than likely play in advance of Rooney - mimicking the two-pronged attack against Sweden at Germany 2006, the only time the duo have played together.

McClaren's main concerns are in midfield, where Newcastle United's Scott Parker and Manchester United's Michael Carrick will be hoping to capitalise on Hargreaves' absence. The Bayern Munich player, who was one of the few to enhance his reputation at the World Cup, started the last three matches, all victories, and will be badly missed with a broken leg.

Parker, who last represented England in the 1-0 defeat to Sweden two-and-a-half-years ago, went head to head with Carrick at the weekend as Newcastle lost 2-0 at Old Trafford. Carrick came out on top in that particular battle and it is likely he will edge out Parker for a place in the England team.

But McClaren has hinted that he may use this opportunity to move away from the 4-4-2 system that has been 100% successful for him thus far. The list of formations he rolled off during England's press conference this week was obviously an attempt to smooth the way for a decision that proved troublesome for Eriksson - who can forget the doomed 'quarterback role' that resulted in defeat in Northern Ireland.

The clash with Slavan Bilic's young and talented Croatia, who have a phenomenal record at home, may well be the key factor in his thinking. Flooding the midfield was a favourite tactic for away games as Middlesbrough boss.

But to tinker with England's traditional formation has proven unpopular in the past and this threatens to be the first decision McClaren makes that may not improve that carefully constructed PR image.

  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.