David Beckham dropped; Paul Robinson out too. For the final, crucial game of England's rollercoaster Euro 2008 qualifiers against Croatia tonight, Steve McClaren has become a manager unafraid to take risks – or drop the big names.
The Independent understands that Shaun Wright-Phillips and Scott Carson will be in the England team tonight, after the side was revealed at a squad meeting at 6.30pm last night. Beckham was sacrificed to give England pace down the right flank to pin Croatia back while Robinson had simply lost the confidence of his manager after one mistake too many. Picking Carson as the first-choice goalkeeper was not a decision taken lightly in a game that England must at least draw in order to qualify for next summer's Euro 2008.
For Beckham, life on the bench for England is something he has not experienced since the defeat to Romania at the 1998 World Cup, the last of his three substitutes' appearances among his 98 caps. It is a courageous decision to leave out the former captain, not least because of his popularity with the crowd, but justified on the basis of his mediocrity against Austria. After an injury to his knee in August, Beckham's fitness still remains in doubt. He has played just 207 minutes of competitive football since the friendly against Germany in August.
Most at stake was the 32-year-old's ability to get up and down the right wing to help Micah Richards – occasionally errant in his duties at right-back – defend against Niko Kranjcar. McClaren is conscious that Croatia's first goal during the defeat in October last year came from that flank. For his faults, Wright-Phillips is a willing defender who will also give England's five man midfield an element of pace.
Slaven Bilic, the Croatia manager, said that he regarded dropping Beckham as a "logical option". "I am a Beckham fan and he is dangerous but so is Shaun Wright-Phillips in other ways with his quickness, he can damage you as well," he said. "They are two totally different players. But I suppose if you play with one up front, with Crouch, then it's kind of logical for me to play Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole on the flanks."
In broader terms, McClaren seems eager to use Beckham in what many regard as his best position these days: a squad player. Discarded for the first nine months of McClaren's reign after being a fixture in the team since 1998, Beckham has started every one of the four England games for which he has been fit. Now he finds himself in a new position more suited to his years.
When asked if tonight's game would require a team of experienced players, McClaren yesterday spoke mysteriously of "the innocence of youth" as well as the need for experience. It was not one of his most revealing press conferences, chiefly, it seemed, as he was careful not to inadvertently reveal the team. "It's a big game and we need big-game players," he said. "But it doesn't matter what age you are. You can still be a big-game player whether you're 18 or 33."
John Terry took part in training yesterday although he will not be leading the team out, his operation from a knee injury has not healed in time. In Beckham's absence, the most capped player will be Sol Campbell, making his 73rd appearance. But all eyes will also be on Carson, who is making only his second appearance for his country, six days after his first.
McClaren said on Sunday that he already had the team in his head and deciding to play Carson against Austria on Friday put him at ease that he would be giving the 22-year-old experience before tonight. Carson's selection brings to an end Robinson's run of 26 games for England since he took over as first choice from David James in September 2004. In all he has played 35 out of the last 39 internationals, missing just four friendlies in more than three years.
It is an enormous decision for McClaren, especially as Carson was barely tested against Austria. Asked yesterday whether he would characterise himself as an inherently conservative coach or a risk-taker, McClaren said that he had "a bit of both" in him. Yet in contrast to his predecessor Sven Goran Eriksson, slavishly loyal to so many of the big names, McClaren's ruthless streak is finally showing itself as the stakes get ever higher.
Asked whether he had to be more ruthless now with England's qualification on a knife-edge – not to mention his job – McClaren agreed. "That's right. It's got to be for the good of the team. It's got to be the players in form, for the good of the team, the right blend and balance. There have been big decisions in the past. This is a big game and there'll be more big decisions made."
The 4-5-1 composition of the team is a departure from the 4-4-2 formation that McClaren has adhered to since a variation on the former went awry in a friendly defeat to Spain in February. Given that McClaren only has Crouch as a proven international goalscorer and a wealth of experienced midfielders he is playing according to the resources at his disposal. Crouch would prefer to play alongside a strike partner but is not unfamiliar with the lone striker's role.
The Liverpool man will be asked to do the things he does best – namely bringing the wide players into the game by holding up possession, laying it off to the wings, then getting into the area. Of the five in midfield, Steven Gerrard should be given the greatest license to get forward, playing the ball into Crouch and getting it back. It is a measure of Gareth Barry's standing that he has been picked ahead of a fit Owen Hargreaves.