We now know for sure that Fabio Capello does not have the medicine to cure the ailments of English football, because, when cornered in a corridor beneath Wembley on Saturday evening, he told us so. "I don't know. Do you know the medicine?" he asked.
This was in the course of a discussion of how on earth the nation could expect these England players - too exhausted to last the distance against a scratch Swiss side, even after the two-week break that all but one of them had just taken – to prosper in next summer's European Championship, in the uncertain event of them qualifying. "We have got quality," Capello maintained. "But the problem is the energy."
We certainly thought we were looking at a man with the remedy when he last prepared an England team to face Switzerland at Wembley, for his first match as national manager on 6 February 2008. "Stern, uncompromising, even a touch scary" was how this newspaper described the players' perception of him that day and the fact that he had ordered Wembley officials to install a hairdryer in his personal dressing room seemed deeply significant.
What a difference – and yet, what little difference – 40 months and 36 games have made. When Capello returned to his Swiss beginnings on Saturday, the perception grew of a man who throws out whichever words happen to pop into his mind. Hence, his pre-match observation that a fresh England were "like children wanting to play" and his post-match opinion that "they trained one hour really well but the game is one hour and a half." The Football Association is paying £6m a year for those powers of observation.
Scratching around for an understanding of the listlessness of his players, which made Saturday feel like a haunting reprise of last summer's World Cup finals, it is tempting to settle on the end-of-era atmosphere Capello created when he said last autumn that he would not manage England beyond 2012. He denied that his announcement was a mistake, of course, in words which were as clear as mud. "No capito? No, no, absolutely not. Absolutely not. Also the captain and the vice-captain played very well. This is?"
He was addressing the effect of his impending departure on his players, but the more salient point is how it is now affecting him. Capello is the one who appears semi-detached, making decisions and statements on the hoof. The extraordinary insensitivity of his observation on Saturday evening that "We spoke too soon yesterday about the quality of Darren Bent" almost escaped without notice. Bent's miss was one of the most extraordinary in recent England history but Capello's words will hardly nurture courage in him for battles to come.
The rigours of the long Premier League season do, in part, explain why England are "lions in autumn and lambs in summer", as Michel Platini once so memorably put it, though by a subtle process of cause and effect it was Capello who made the going heavier, dismantling the side who had cantered so freely across the turf in Cardiff. It was he who decided that Ashley Young's dazzling contribution on the right flank in the Millennium Stadium warranted a place back on the bench; he who cast Theo Walcott into an isolated role hugging the touchline and he who instructed Jack Wilshere to operate at such a remove from Scott Parker and Frank Lampard that they lost each other.
It was also the Italian who again cast James Milner as a left winger for 90 minutes, despite the evidence offered against the United States in South Africa a year ago, borne out by what we have witnessed at Manchester City this season. And it was he who left Peter Crouch - 22 goals in 42 England games - in the stand and out of reach when Bent lacked the faculties to win the game. Crouch is not yet set on retirement but who can blame him for soul-searching, for his is one of the tragedies of the Capello era.
There were fragments of common sense in Capello's explanations of this mess. Young, he has decided, is best deployed centrally, "not left wing or right wing" and it is true that he flourished there for Aston Villa this spring to bring more out of Bent. But it was a baffling – bizarre -– reason to omit him. He characterised England's failings as something beyond his own control – "Look, when you are not fresh, it is difficult the movement of the ball. But when you are fresh the ball moves quickly without problem" – yet this was a disconnect of his own making.
The frustrations would be less hard to bear had England's ranks not grown so exponentially since the dismal events of last summer. Where once there was only Gareth Barry, there is now Parker. The whirlwind Wilshere, a force of nature against the Swiss, has blown away the Steven Gerrard-Lampard conundrum - and may have blown Lampard away indefinitely when Gerrard returns. Young, whom Capello has been starting on the bench since that 2008 encounter with the Swiss, can be in reserve for no longer. Joe Hart, who should take no blame for Milner abandoning an England defensive wall to hand Switzerland their second goal, is a potential successor to David Seaman at last. Leighton Baines's performance augurs equally well. How the pre-eminent Italian coach could have allowed a jagged defensive line to concede to a clipped free-kick of such simplicity as Tranquillo Barnetta's is another story.
Montenegro's 1-1 draw at home to Bulgaria on Saturday night has made this a less calamitous outcome than it might have been and a nervy night in Podgorica on 7 October will probably define the course of England's next summer. That Montenegro, a country whose entire population is barely over 600,000, should be a source of anxiety says more than we need to know about England's prospects of advancing deep into next summer's tournament in Poland and Ukraine.
"In October, it will be different," Capello concluded before he was released from that tight corner. That's what he told us after Bloemfontein. One step forward, one back: there is no remedy for the English disease.Reuse content