After a successful, if occassionally indifferent 4-0 win over Bulgaria on Friday, England have won 11 successive home games. Before this game, the British tabloids were ready, knives sharpened, to cut England’s manager to pieces. In his England-Bulgaria preview last week, titled ‘Fabio Capello has lost his players and now he will lose his job’, The Mirror columnist Oliver Holt cites Fabio Capello’s body language as proof that he has given up. ‘It’s obvious from his body language’, he writes, ‘…he didn’t celebrate when England scored.’ There are so many instances of the punditocracy fancifully leaping to conclusions on negligible evidence that it would take a million monkeys writing on a million laptops for a million years to come up with them all, but this laughably unsubstantiated claim takes all the biscuits. Capello should be judged on his results, rather than any apparent lack of enthusiasm when England score, and on this score he has been quite magnificent.
Appointed in 2007, Fabio Capello has the highest win percentage of any England manager ever. Ever. Out of 30 matches since taking over the post he has won 70% of them, nearly 10% more than Sir Alf Ramsey, who actually won the World Cup, and over 20% more than Sir Bobby Robson, who led England to a World Cup semi final in 1990. His bravery – playing Theo Walcott in Zagreb when every other pundit wanted (and expected) David Beckham to play – led to an historic 4-1 victory. His team topped a fairly tough qualifying group ridiculously comfortably, leading Jonathan Wilson to write ‘England have more realistic hope of winning the World Cup than at any point since 1970’. Rather than the disjointed, egotistical, blathering nothingness of the Eriksson era, England (in November 2009) actually had a good team who played good football. England, as usual, expected, and England’s best players, whether due to a lack of fitness, loss of form or both, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard and Aaron Lennon – essentially England’s six best players in the qualifiers – failed quite miserably. To blame Capello completely for England’s failure in these circumstances is absolutely ridiculous. Perhaps only Spain could cope with six of their best players completely unfit or misfiring. England quite clearly couldn’t.
That is not to say he hasn’t made mistakes, and he made plenty in South Africa. Picking Ledley King, Terry, Ferdinand, Jamie Carragher and Matthew Upson as his centre back options for the World Cup was a disaster waiting to happen (and it did). The mythically well-stocked English centre back cupboard was a little bare, but picking Joleon Lescott – indifferent at Man City, but surely no worse than the horrific Upson at West Ham – or Phil Jagielka would surely have been a safer option. Upson and Terry were brutally exposed as the sham they were against Germany, where, without the guidance of a more tactically aware (or even quicker) centre half, Terry and Upson leapt around to prevent Klose (yes, that 300 million year old Miroslav Klose) turning, when it really created space behind them that neither had the pace to fill. The centre backs had made mistakes (such as playing offside at a goal kick), but Capello was stuck with them and had stuck himself to them. His reluctance to play Joe Hart, despite the limits (age and talent-wise) of his other options, David James and Robert Green, is also a mistake which looks even more unfathomable with hindsight.
Moreover, whilst England managers have picked injured players to play at the World Cup since the dawn of time, having a palpably unfit Gareth Barry as the squad’s only holding midfielder (he doesn’t even play there for his club), thus leaving Scott Parker and Phil Neville at home, was naiveté to the point of idiocy. His substitutions against the USA and Algeria were fairly uninspired, and bringing on Emile Heskey for Jermain Defoe against Germany was always going to play badly with an English media obsessed with Peter Crouch’s height. The much criticised system, an ‘ancient 4-4-2’ in The (riotously hypocritical) Sun (there is something so curious about Harry Redknapp criticising a manager for playing a 4-4-2), but a ‘modern, continental 4-2-3-1’ for the whole of qualifying, only held England back because of the players invovled. Someone has to tackle in the centre of midfield, and Barry was never going to do that when unfit – so England often couldn’t get the ball back when Germany, Slovenia or Algeria attacked. This failure again is only really damned with 20-20 hindsight, such was the mood of arrogant euphoria before England set off.
Despite these problems and errors on his part, England still reached the last 16 of the World Cup. Their group, rather than being EASY was deceptively tricky. Not only the Confederations Cup Finalists, but the fourth placed team in the African Cup of Nations, and a team who knocked out Russia over two legs – and all three were known for their organisational abilities. England could still have done better, but to dismiss their opponents as muppets would be a disservice. Once in the last sixteen, they were a television replay away from 2-2 having been 2-0 down, and the typical lack of craft and calm when behind the second half was something not even Capello could beat out of English players.
Moreover, since South Africa, England have won twice against sides who performed creditibly in the last qualification period. Hungary threatened to knock out Portugal, while Bulgaria only failed to qualify because of their phalanx of draws. Both were fairly limited opponents, but creditable scalps by anyone’s standards. And there are further successes: Ashley Cole, largely indifferent under Capello’s predecessor, is playing like the player he almost was at Arsenal; Capello has shown that he has learned from many of his mistakes – Hart is in, Upson is out (for now) – and deserves to keep his job at least until the Euros. Rooney and Defoe as a partnership may well struggle against teams who don’t give England early goals, or who can mark Defoe out of the game, but Capello remains very much in credit, whatever the tabloids say.
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