Fabio Capello momentarily lost his rag yesterday over his England players taking throw-ins the wrong way. It happened when the team were training at Wembley, although sadly after the cameras had been asked to leave, and it involved a player – as yet unidentified – failing to follow Capello's exact instructions that the ball should be thrown backwards to allow it to be played out from the back rather than hurled down the line for an attacker to chase.
It was John Terry who cited the incident as an example to support his point that Capello had not changed his approach wholesale from the more dictatorial mood before the World Cup last summer. "Even today, when you [press] guys left, he lost it a little bit because he wanted us to do something a little bit better than we did," Terry said. Pushed on it, Terry, fearing he had been indiscreet, said that the incident had been relatively small, but significant nonetheless.
"Don't make a big thing about it. He [Capello] still can do it when he wants something from the guys. We had a meeting [Sunday] night and he spoke about it. It was throw-ins if you must know, and when we did it out there [yesterday] he wasn't happy about it. He wants us to play back and play out rather than always looking to throw it down the line. He can't understand the English mentality of throwing it down the line. It sounds like a small thing to us, but the attention to detail is incredible. When you see him react like that the day before a game..."
Terry has had his differences with Capello in the past but, on this occasion, he was only trying to be supportive; to portray Capello as a man who had the full command of his players. Later Capello gave his side of it. "Why? Because I had a meeting [with the players] and they made the same mistakes today. So why did I have the meeting? They did the same. I just said: 'Stop'. I'm not telling you who [it was who made the mistake]."
As England wrap up their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign – and a win tonight against the depleted Welsh would put them within one point of going to Poland and Ukraine next summer – there is a danger of retreating once more into the belief that it is simply a case of Capello the hard man knocking England's feckless millionaire footballers into shape. It was the same route that the country went down before the World Cup last summer, when Capello was slapped on the back for being resolutely old-school. The result? He exhausted them all in pre-tournament training, bored them to tears in their lonely hotel outside Rustenburg and kept picking the wrong team until they collapsed against Germany.
It did not matter in the end whether Capello was tough and uncompromising and, anyway, the signs are that he has mellowed considerably. Stopping training sessions to shout at people is all well and good but South Africa proved, once and for all, that what really matters is that he gets the team right. It will be important that he does so against Wales tonight, against Montenegro on 7 October and – provided they qualify – it will be crucial he does so at Euro 2012 next year. In South Africa last summer his 4-4-2 formation looked outmoded and by the time Capello had adjusted England were out of the tournament.
Yesterday Capello hinted once again he is prepared to make major changes between now and Euro 2012. He stressed the importance of playing friendlies against the Netherlands and mighty Spain over the next nine months to test themselves against the two top-ranked Fifa teams. "It will be important to qualify and then play friendly games to see these [young] players play against really important teams," he said.
It is the lot of an international manager that circumstances can change dramatically from one game to the next but the evidence suggests Capello is more given to change than most. This is a man who makes his mind up about a team hours before kick-off, and decided to attempt to talk Paul Scholes out of retirement for the last World Cup the day before the squad had to be named. Since the failure in South Africa, Capello has used the 4-2-3-1 system – deployed to such effect by Germany last summer – against France in November and then again in Sofia on Friday. He played 4-3-3 against Wales, Ghana and Cardiff last season. Yesterday he said that once again he was considering switching from the team and formation he used in the 3-0 win over Bulgaria for a different one against Wales tonight.
That may have in part been forced upon him because Theo Walcott is struggling with a hamstring problem that could rule him out. He also wants to change because he expects Wales to defend deeper than Bulgaria did, and therefore will be harder to break down, and also because he wants to try something different to cope with the threat of Gareth Bale on the left wing. But what is Capello's best formation? Does he even know himself?
"I think they understood me better," Capello said of his players. "I'm always focused during training. I want to be focused. We work one hour or one hour and a half. 'You need to do this, this and this. OK?' Afterwards I'm relaxed absolutely and they [the players] can do anything. My relationship with the players was always the same. Now they understand that I'm not an ogre."
As soundbites go, it was a beauty – even if Capello had to check first with the only other Italian speaker in the room that "ogre" was the right word. The contrast between this 65-year-old Italian and his young English charges will always be fascinating, but ultimately what counts will be what formation and what players he alights upon before next summer, and as ever, that seems to be changing all the time.Reuse content