Fabio Capello’s Mission Impossible

Even a manager as decorated as Capello was going to struggle to turn England’s chokers into world-beaters.

Duleep Allirajah

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If Capello can’t revive England, nobody can. That was the view of many pundits, myself included, when Fabio Capello was appointed England manager in December 2008. Capello has now gone and those same pundits have anointed Harry Redknapp as his successor. We’ve put aside our nagging doubts that the players just aren’t good enough and crowned Harry the saviour-in-waiting because, well, he’s English.

Capello’s reputation in England will forever be sullied by England’s wretched performances at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It doesn’t matter that he successfully steered England through two tricky qualifying campaigns. Nor that his 66.7 per cent win ratio is better than any previous England manager – even Sir Alf Ramsey could only boast a 61.1 per cent win ratio. Few England fans will judge Capello by these statistics. No, he’ll be judged by the clueless England performances in South Africa. He’ll be judged by the shambolic 4-1 defeat to Germany in Bloemfontein. And he’ll be damned because, as his bewildered touchline demeanour so frequently betrayed, he proved incapable of fixing the problems he inherited.

After his first game in charge of the team – an unconvincing 2-1 friendly win against Switzerland – Capello identified fear as the key problem: ‘I understood everything when they played Switzerland in the first match, the same players who played well in training played with fear, with no confidence, and I said this is a big problem of the mind.’ Frankly, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to work out that English players too often shrink when they pull on the national jersey. Capello wasn’t just paid £6million a year to diagnose the problem. The English FA recruited the most decorated club coach in Europe to provide the cure.

At first, we thought the Italian coach was Ab Fab. His ‘tough love’ approach delivered results. A 5-1 win in Croatia kickstarted an assured World Cup qualifying campaign. Fans and football journalists welcomed his disciplinarian regime – it seemed like the perfect way to manage the pampered, brattish superstars. He insisted on punctuality and correct attire at mealtimes, prohibited the use of mobile phones and banned WAGs from the England camp. ‘We’re going to South Africa to play, not for a holiday’, he declared.

However, his perceived strengths were hastily reinterpreted as weaknesses after the debacle in South Africa. England players were reportedly bored in the Rustenburg camp. John Terry had to plead with Capello’s assistant Franco Baldini for the players to be allowed a post-match beer. Capello’s communication skills were also called into question – his professional distance from the squad was now seen as poor man management. As one journalist put it: ‘Capello’s reputation pre-World Cup was almost impressive enough to justify his salary. His medals and stony self-belief rightly inspired awe. But suddenly this very rigidity has made him look like a hapless figure; or like – to borrow football terrace parlance – something of a muppet.’

Capello blamed tiredness and fear for England’s limp performances in South Africa. ‘We played not with confidence but with fear. I don’t know what we have to do to improve the mind of the players’, admitted the coach. But it was Capello’s job to ensure that the team arrived in South Africa with the right physical and mental preparation. If he didn’t know how to ‘improve the mind of the players’, he was in the wrong job.

He must also take responsibility for the team’s tactical shortcomings. Capello’s tried and trusted 4-4-2 formation was made to look woefully prehistoric in South Africa. Darling, 4-4-2 is so-o-o-o last century. It’s all about false nines, inside-out wingers and forwards interchanging positions these days.

Capello must shoulder some of the blame, but England’s woeful performances also pointed to more deeply rooted problems. The players were incapable of keeping the ball, they laboured to unlock well-organised defences and there was a serious lack of pace in both central midfield and defence, which Germany ruthlessly exposed. The players, in short, weren’t as good as we thought they were.

Capello did try to address some of these problems in the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. Younger players were blooded, the rigid adherence to 4-4-2 was relaxed and, despite a few stuttering performances, he successfully guided the team through the qualifying group. Yet the scars of South Africa were still there. Self-belief is not something a coach can instill simply through motivational techniques; it’s a by-product of success. A virtuous cycle. Winning builds confidence that, in turn, translates into results. When I saw England play Wales at Wembley last year, the fragility of the team’s psyche was all too evident. After taking the lead, England grew increasingly nervous and, by the end, they were hanging on. Similarly, against Montenegro, England cruised to a 2-0 lead but sat back, allowed the home team to take the initiative and lost their discipline and composure.

So where does all this leave Harry Redknapp, the man who would be king? He’s the best English candidate in a shortlist which frankly isn’t very long. Harry can’t boast a CV as illustrious as Capello’s. As a manager he’s won the FA Cup with Portsmouth and, er, that’s it. The press corps adore his chirpy Cockney bonhomie. He has a reputation for excellent man-management. And, above all, he’s English. That’s pretty much the sum of his qualifications. Maybe Harry will be able to instill a more positive team spirit. He might be able to repair the national team’s damaged reputation. He may even restore England to its rightful place in football’s world order, namely serial penalty-choking quarter-finalists. But can he transform England into world beaters? That still seems like Mission Impossible to me.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside

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