Wednesday 22 November 2017

Self-harm still a thorn in Capello's England side

Rooney latest example of damaging problem, writes Paul Hayward

Fabio Capello must now prepare not for one European Championship, but two. At some point in the group stage -- after one game or two if Uefa extends the punishment -- the England coach will have to take his team sheet for the start of the tournament and rip it up, to allow for the return of Wayne Rooney, who was dismissed against Montenegro for a lamentable loss of self-control.

England's preparations for next summer's gathering in Poland and Ukraine were tossed into the air by Rooney's pointless kick at the legs of a Montenegro defender. Changing the team midway through the group stage could mean altering the shape and offending the striker who deputises for the team's best player while he sits out his ban. It brings distractions and complications.

If Capello is already lining up his excuses, he can start with the sometimes dysfunctional culture he was hired, at £6m a year, to do something about. In his starting XI in Podgorica was a left-back who shot a work-experience trainee with an airgun (Ashley Cole), a captain with a long history of off-field scrapes (John Terry) and a star striker whose father was arrested on the eve of the game on suspicion of involvement in a betting scam.

These are not the kind of circumstances Capello probably expected when the English FA threw money at him in the wake of Steve McClaren's downfall. But the blame is not all with the players. It is football's biggest open secret that the FA would have terminated Capello's contract after the World Cup in South Africa but for the prohibitive cost of sacking him.

Undeniably a proud man, he might have walked, on the grounds that he no longer enjoyed the support of his employers. Instead, he was animated by the desire to repair his reputation and collect another £12m for comfortable part-time employment. But there was probably a less tangible motivation as well: bafflement at England's dire form in South Africa and an urge to put it right.

The England team still fails to reflect the power, money and vanity of the Premier League, its feeder soil, while other nations continue to place technique and patriotism ahead of wealth and glamour. Leaving Podgorica through a national airport building that could fit 20 times into Heathrow's Terminal 5, England were beset by the Rooney complication and uncertainty over whether Jack Wilshere, their most gifted young midfielder, will recover fully from ankle trouble in time for next summer's adventure.

Is Capello now a help or a hindrance? South Africa will have taught him much, if he chooses to learn. First, England players cannot be drilled into obedience or ruled by fear. They are too rich, powerful and independent in spirit. The martinet management style exploded on Capello in South Africa.

But there was a deeper and more worrying flaw. Capello locked England into an outmoded 4-4-2 formation in which they advanced hopelessly in lines and watched the game proceed in the spaces around them.

England have evolved from those iron corset days, but Capello remains capable of recidivism. In Friday's 2-2 draw, he played 4-4-1-1. It was hardly his fault, though, that England stopped pressing the ball at 2-0 up, dropped their pace and spent much of the next hour on the ropes. Here we see familiar failures of intelligence and conviction.

Wilshere, fit, is the best discovery since Paul Gascoigne: a different type of player, certainly, but the one young English midfielder who looks as if he might have been schooled in Spain. Phil Jones is another revelation. Redeployed at right-back on Friday night, he looked an international thoroughbred. The Wilshere-Jones axis is one for England to take into the European mainstream of possession-based play. Ashley Young, too, is an embellishment to a side that once lacked convincing wingers. Now Young, Theo Walcott, Adam Johnson and Stewart Downing work the flanks. Through the middle, Capello will hope Danny Welbeck continues his development to provide a more threatening option than Darren Bent, Andy Carroll or Jermain Defoe in a big knockout game.

From this array of emerging and declining talent many managers would fancy their chances of knocking together a new and quite vibrant England XI. But the self-detonations continue, from Rooney's temper to an inability to regain control of games when momentum is lost.

So get ready for it. When serenity descends, England always look for a way to make life harder, more melodramatic. You look at Joe Hart, Jones, Wilshere, Welbeck and, perhaps, Tom Cleverley, and hope they can transcend this history of self-harm. It's Capello's job to help them.


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