Welcome to England. The land where, in the words of the Paedofinder General from Monkey Dust, “every man is innocent until speculated guilty.” John Terry, although a pretty horrible man on all accounts, has not been proven guilty of racism towards Anton Ferdinand, but was punished by the FA as if he had been. With the captaincy pretty inconsequential, the removal of Terry as captain was just a precautionary measure, however it wasn’t really their decision to make: the captain is decided by the manager, so Fabio Capello let the FA decide who will manage England at Euro 2012.
It isn’t the first time Fabio Capello’s bailed when his superiors haven’t supported his authority, but it seems odd for him to leave what was his dream position over a fairly petty disagreement. Although, given his treatment after the 2010 World Cup, it’s been surprising it took him this long to step down.
After the debacle that was Steve McClaren’s brief tenure as England manager, the capture of one of the greatest coaches of all time meant that surely the only way was up for England. England fans initially had some issues with the more patient play he brought in, booing when the ball was passed backwards in one of his earlier games, but the strong-jawed disciplinarian the media liked to spin him as was generally welcomed with open arms.
After some early experimentation, Capello settled England into a fluid 4-4-2 – also managing to solve some of the issues that had been plaguing the “Golden Generation” for years. While Rio Ferdinand and Terry were beginning to struggle with injuries, particularly the latter at the start of Capello’s tenure, the two were the obvious candidates for the centre back roles. Ashley Cole was an even clearer choice – Leighton Baines has proved himself to be an excellent player since his move to Everton in 2007, and Stephen Warnock had his moments, but whatever questions you could make about him off the field, you couldn’t question his performance on it, continually putting in world class performances for Chelsea. Glen Johnson’s defensive abilities could be called into question but with no real alternative, it made sense to take advantage of his attacking talents.
The Steven Gerrard-Frank Lampard midfield partnership had been a constant headache for previous England managers, but with David Beckham and Michael Owen no longer as deserving of a place in the side, Capello could tailor his side more towards them. There’s no high quality English proper holding midfielders, excluding perhaps the permanently injured Owen Hargreaves, meaning the possibility of a 4-3-3 was ruled out, but sitting Gareth Barry alongside Frank Lampard in front of the defence was a decent solution. It curbed Lampard’s ability to get forward a bit, but also gave him more room to spread passes around.
Gerrard on the other hand was moved to the left wing. A problem position for England for years, Gerrard may have thought he was back on an opposite-sided graveyard duty like his early days under Gerrard Houllier, but the flexibility Capello wanted his England side to play with meant Gerrard flourished in the role. Having started his first game with Gerrard in behind Wayne Rooney, Capello decided that Rooney wasn’t cut out for the lone striker role but he linked up well enough with Gerrard to base their play around this. Playing just off the striker, Rooney was to free to roam, generally looking to move out to the left hand side, which allowed Gerrard to cut in and Cole to provide width on the overlap.
While having these three world class players linking up is obviously a positive, having them all squeezed into one area may make England predictable, which made Theo Walcott’s inclusion important. Ordered to hug the right flank, Walcott’s job was to stretch the opposition – Gerrard, Rooney and Cole could keep the ball near the left, enticing defenders towards them then hit it cross-field to the speedy Walcott to suddenly give England a new angle of attack. The best example of this was in the 4-1 away win against Croatia, where Walcott scored a hattrick, although Joe Cole played in place of Gerrard for that match. With Walcott staying wide, Johnson wasn’t needed to provide an outlet high wide right, so it’s fortunate he’s unusually good for a full-back at coming inside – as shown by his goal against Mexico – adding an extra man to the middle.
The furthest player forward was the much maligned Emile Heskey. Although no longer at his best, he remained a very good target man and would bring out the best of those around him. One of his main benefits however, was ensuring that teams couldn’t just sit deep to cut out the threat of Walcott in behind: do so and England could pump balls into big man Heskey close to goal.
The only really big issue for Capello was the goalkeeping situation. David James had matured out of his “Calamity” stage but would be almost 40 at the 2010 World Cup, Paul Robinson had been broken by numerous mistakes, while Scott Carson had been broken by one against Croatia. Robert Green had been in good form but is something of a 2 to 1 keeper: for every two decent saves he would make, he would do something poor. Joe Hart was good in the final season before the World Cup, having got some playing time at Birmingham, however he was untested at international level – seeing how Carson’s career had been ruined by one mistake for England, it would have been extremely risky in both the short and long term to make Hart England’s number one.
All in all, England went into the World Cup deservedly among the favourites despite their keeping woes (as poor as they were, only Spain, Brazil and the Netherlands really went into the tournament looking good and Holland were pretty unconvincing too despite making the final). A handful of changes however ruined everything.
The most basic problem was an injury to Ferdinand in training before the tournament. There was a number of options but, put simply, all of them were a downgrade on Ferdinand. The best replacement Ledley King only lasted one half before pulling out with injury issues of his own. King’s replacement Jamie Carragher found his lack of pace exposed and Matthew Upson was drafted into the starting line-up – an okay player, but a large step down from Ferdinand and severely hampering England’s ability to play out from defence.
The second problem was Walcott failing to follow instructions in pre-tournament friendlies by coming inside all the time. His failure to stay wide meant England didn’t stretch play as effectively and he found himself dropped from the tournament squad. He was replaced by Aaron Lennon, who, although a good player in his own right and maybe better than Walcott, posed a different kind of threat, struggling to impose himself on the games he was involved in.
The third issue is one that can be pointed at Capello. He had initially tried to play Rooney as a lone striker in his early days as England manager to little success, but Sir Alex Ferguson had managed to play him in the role for United in the 2009-10 season. Wherever he’s been, Capello has attempted to play with a “proper” goal-scoring striker if possible: Marco van Basten at Milan; Gabriel Batistuta at Roma; David Trezeguet at Juventus; Ruud van Nistelrooy at Real Madrid. Although doing a good job for England, Heskey has rarely been described as a goalscoring striker, so Capello took the chance to play with one by moving Rooney higher to partner him.
The problem with this was that fitness and off-field issues meant Rooney lost his form and moving him meant completely changing the system. The fluid 4-4-2 was replaced by a very rigid one: Gerrard was forced into a now unsuited role out wide, Cole couldn’t bomb forward and the central midfield pair were now forced higher. England just about toiled their way through what should have been a simple group to a last sixteen tie with Germany. I’ve covered it on the site before, but let’s just say it didn’t go well.
Since bombing out of the World Cup, Capello’s avoided using the 4-4-2 (it takes something pretty big to turn England against the 4-4-2!) and managed to take England through their Euro 2012 qualifying group undefeated. There was no coming back after South Africa though – his reputation in England in tatters, not even a win against world champions Spain could help raise his status among the fans or press. Capello may have only resigned a month ago, but he hasn’t really been England’s manager since July 2010.