Beat Slovenia and you’re through to the knockout phase – possibly as group winners. All of a sudden it wouldn’t seem so bad. No need to storm the dressing rooms now. Fabio Capello would go from being obstinate bluffer to a tactical genius lulling the rest of the world into a false sense of security.
If you go beyond the excessive knee-jerk reaction, in terms of results, although it hasn’t been pretty, it hasn’t been a disaster either. In tournament play, groups can be tight and the main thing is to avoid losing ground to your opponents. That much England have by and large achieved. That’s the optimistic view, but optimism must be in short supply amongst the gluttons for punishment who followed up a dismal first game with a stunningly dismal follow-up. In truth, England haven’t done anything remotely free-flowing since the 4th minute of the opening match. Or, if you’ve got ITV Digital €“ England haven’t done anything remotely free-flowing.
Trying isn’t the issue. Emile Heskey is extremely trying. Against Algeria, each one of the England players appeared to be struck by the crippling fear they must feel every time their WAG has a quick flick through the inbox of his mobile phone. With the ball at their feet the England players are taking the safest option €“ the option least likely to end in a bollocking from the always reasonable tabloid scribes and some disappointed tutting from the manager. The through balls that unlocked defences in the qualifiers aren’t being attempted. The cavalier runs and overlaps are in short supply. The confidence required to attempt a mythical flash of inspiration isn’t there and the result has been a tepid pile of lateral movement.
At this stage of the World Cup, Capello’s system and selection aren’t the problem. Almost any combination of England players should have enough about them to account for Algeria and at least put in a performance that would have you aggrieved rather than glad of a point against the USA. The problem is coaxing good performances out of his players. Aside from dishing out the pre and post match banalities, a large part of a manager’s job is to get his players in an environment in which they feel comfortable and confident enough to express themselves on the field. Brian Clough infamously used a combination of drinking sessions and ego-massaging as his preferred weapon of choice and which of the England players wouldn’t like a bit of that? Throw in a bit of Phil Collins and it’s probably Steven Gerrard’s idea of heaven.
The fact that Fabio Capello delays the naming of his team until as late as possible would seem to suggest he sees a benefit from the extended anxiety within the squad about selection. If players constantly think a good performance in training will be enough to gazump a rival in the starting XI, then he’s likely to get the extra few ounces of effort that could be vital in close matches. That’s the theory, but it seems to have gone too far however and the players look overly cautious and genuinely terrified about upsetting a manager glaring on permanently from the sidelines. He seems to loom over events on the pitch and stifle any flair.
This is a decent €“ not brilliant €“ bunch of players, but gripped by fear they are woefully underperforming. Fabio joining the team in doing bodyshots in a Joburg nightclub is probably a bit much to ask, but a touch more humanity wouldn’t go amiss. It needs to happen fast because this tournament is in danger of running away from England like the ball when Emile Heskey attempts a dribble.
England v Slovenia Odds €“ Wed. 3pm