Fabio Capello given wake-up call by England's draw
After appearing virtually bomb-proof throughout the qualifying campaign, Fabio Capello has entered the business end of the World Cup looking remarkably fallible.sports Updated: Jun 14, 2010 12:45 IST
After appearing virtually bomb-proof, Fabio Capello has entered the business end of the World Cup looking remarkably fallible
What England get for their six million quid a year, it seems, is a manager who brings two and a half years of preparation to a climax by committing the series of errors that led to a familiar sense of deflation as their opening match against the USA unwound to its conclusion. After appearing virtually bomb-proof throughout the qualifying campaign, Fabio Capello has entered the business end of the World Cup looking remarkably fallible.
Better to make mistakes now, perhaps, in order to expose previously hidden or ignored truths about his squad in time for the fixtures on which England's fate in the competition will be determined. But a winning start would have encouraged a squad riddled with old anxieties, and instead doubts have been sown or reawakened about the real strength of the forces at the manager's command, and perhaps even about his own capacity to override their manifest weaknesses.
To their credit, England were lively throughout the 90 minutes. On a chilly late autumn evening in the Pilanesberg mountains there was none of the lassitude seen in the higher temperatures experienced in Japan and Germany during the past two tournaments. They ran and fought with the sort of commitment absolutely necessary if they were to maintain parity with Bob Bradley's well-prepared side.
England's supporters, of course, will always have the comforting memory of that shapeless draw against Uruguay which prefaced the ultimately triumphant campaign of 1966. Given his own nationality, Capello will be particularly aware that opening matches are not necessarily the most reliable of indicators. Back in 1982 Italy drew their three group matches against Poland, Peru and Cameroon in the most abject fashion before proceeding to sweep aside Argentina, Brazil and West Germany en route to the title. But Enzo Bearzot's team contained names such as Zoff, Bergomi, Scirea, Tardelli and Rossi, and not even by the most strenuous effort of the imagination could the present England players, for all their celebrity, be exalted to an equivalent level.
Since that tournament in Spain 28 years ago the last six winners of the World Cup have all announced their arrival at the tournament with a win in their first match. Anyone who had been looking to England for a similar start and finish must now be subjecting their optimism to a profound reassessment, most worryingly in respect of the manager's performance.
Ledley King's departure at half-time forms the basis of the first indictment of Capello's preparations. Only fit players would go to the World Cup, the manager announced long ago as part of his mission statement. But then he took a chance on King, whose medical history has made him an irregular starter for Tottenham Hotspur, who prepares himself apart from the rest of the squad and who succumbed to a groin injury picked up in the opening minutes. Capello took a risk, and it did not come off.
Had Sven-Goran Eriksson or Steve McClaren made the decision to pick King and then been forced to withdraw him halfway through the opening match, the tumbrils would have been rolling in the direction of the Tower. Eriksson's gambles on the physical condition of David Beckham, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney were all better rewarded than this.
Of the squad's three goalkeepers, Capello picked Robert Green for this match. Would David James have made the mistake that presented the opposition with a goal in the 40th minute? Quite possibly, given his past record. Would Joe Hart? Possibly not, given his excellent season in the Premier League. But that is all speculation from the sidelines. Capello is paid to know, and he and his many assistants (including two goalkeeping coaches) have not been short of time in which to assess their candidates. If Green's error was the result of a momentary slackening of concentration combined with a minor technical flaw, they should have been able to spot the potential for such a lapse.
Here is where Capello's policy of announcing the line-up as the players board the coach, two hours before the kick-off, is wanting. Apparently he acquired the habit after once needing to replace a player injured in the warm-up and discovering that the replacement had suffered a drop in mental alertness resulting from the belief that he would not be playing. The Italian resolved never to let this happen again. Countless other top managers, however, have found that letting the team know who will play well in advance can create a valuable sense of confidence and security if the players also know that complacency will be punished.
In the circumstances, whichever of England's goalkeepers earned selection at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium would have known he was on trial, and it is hard to imagine that, with so much at stake both for the individual and the team, this tension did not play some part in provoking Green's blunder. Goalkeepers above all derive a psychological benefit from knowing that they are trusted, as well as from a close bond with their defenders.
The choice of James Milner to fill the hole on the left of midfield, so soon after the Aston Villa man had missed training sessions through sickness, was another gamble that misfired. Embarrassed by the persistence of Steve Cherundolo, the USA right-back, Milner had to be withdrawn after only half an hour to save his team from the consequences of a potential second yellow card. That will have done his confidence no good at all, and Joe Cole's morale is unlikely to have been improved by the sight of Shaun Wright-Phillips taking Milner's place.
Anyone who cared to make a compilation of Wright-Phillips's contributions to the final hour of the match would possess the evidence with which to make an unanswerable case against the Manchester City winger's inclusion in the squad in the first place. Yes, very occasionally he does something extraordinary. Far more often he dribbles the ball over the byline, sends the simplest passes astray and fluffs good goalscoring opportunities, all of which he did against the USA. Capello, who included him in the squad for his very first match, has had two and a half years to work this out.
Gareth Barry's return ought to improve the side's shape and help to restrict opportunities for opponents to get into shooting range, as the USA forwards had started to do in the minutes before Clint Dempsey saw his tame effort reap an unexpected reward. But what England would give for a screening player performing as Kagisho Dikgacoi of Fulham and South Africa did in the second half of the opening match of the tournament, making shrewd interceptions and timely tackles before releasing the glorious pass that sent Siphiwe Tshabalala in for the goal that set the 2010 World Cup on its way.
Capello can look back with pleasure on Steven Gerrard's well-worked goal, Aaron Lennon's liveliness, Ashley Cole's diligence and John Terry's solidity. Emile Heskey's astute pass to Gerrard was cancelled out by a pitiful shot when Lennon put him through early in the second half, and Frank Lampard's subdued performance reached a nadir 10 minutes from time when, just inside his own half, he played a long square pass behind Glen Johnson and straight into touch. Most of all, however, the manager has to look at himself and start making the right calls again.