Time to haul Capello over the Joe Coles

Player power could see Gerrard and Co taking issue with manager's tactics but will the Italian be as flexible as Bobby Robson was?
  • @stevetongue

The sense of disgust with England's performance against Algeria on Friday was not confined to those who booed, whether in the stadium, the pub or their front room. "England rubbish yet again" was the headline in the Johannesburg newspaper The Star.

Yet behind the insults there was much genuine sadness here, tinged with bewilderment at how players the South Africans watch on television every week could be reduced to this. There was pride, too, that an African country showed up so well against them and, with greater ambition, could have become the first side from their continent to beat England.

Using one of the more innovative tactical formations, Algeria contained Emile Heskey and Wayne Rooney with depressing ease by employing two markers and a covering defender in a manner that no team managed during a qualifying campaign that brought Fabio Capello's team 34 goals, nine of them to Rooney.

Billed as the England squad member who could have as defining an effect on the tournament as players like Lionel Messi, Didier Drogba or Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney has looked thoroughly out of sorts in both games, even alongside – or just behind – a partner in Heskey whom he apparently favours. His outburst at the television cameras when walking off on Friday hinted at the frustration boiling inside, and led to Capello yesterday stating that his star striker was not happy mentally.

From the sound of David James's radio interview after the match he is not the only one, James clearly disapproving of not knowing until "five minutes before we got on the bus, usual standard" who would be playing. While claiming in his idiosyncratic way not to be "close" to any other player, he presumably has some sympathy for Robert Green, who after deposing him as England's No 1 suddenly found the roles reversed again following one mistake against the USA.

Despite clearly ambivalent feelings towards James, Capello at least did not expose Joe Hart to the sort of pressures that did for Scott Carson when he was thrust into a crucial international. The whole goalkeeping saga has, however, been an odd one.

After a couple of bad results at a tournament, players' feelings tend to leak out in this manner. The next steps, which have doubtless already begun, are to blame the media, circle the wagons and come out fighting.

In 1986 – a World Cup that began with a defeat and a draw – and 1990 – a draw leading to press calls to "bring them home" – the next development was for senior players to approach Bobby Robson and suggest changes to the system. Robson, understandably, always denied that this was player power in action, but the fact was that radical change dramatically improved England's prospects.

In 1986, 4-3-3 became a more compact 4-4-2, and the crucial third group match against Poland was won with Gary Lineker's hat-trick; four years later, a sweeper system took England to the semi-final.

Robson, however, was Robson, approachable and flexible; Capello is Capello, and from all we have seen, a different sort of animal. It will be interesting to know what his assistant Stuart Pearce, a veteran of the 1990 campaign, is telling him and, indeed, what input David Beckham, an even more immediate conduit between squad and management, is having.

For what is clear is that the system that demolished the likes of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Andorra is not working. Prompted by Gareth Barry's injury to use Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the centre of midfield against the United States, Capello then switched Gerrard to the role he had largely occupied in qualifying games, wide on the left and coming inside. In fact, the captain seemed to spend less time than ever out wide and in the first half at least was playing almost centrally, as if worried that England would be outnumbered there.

Lampard managed to reach the opposing penalty area more often than normal in internationals, but without producing any of his Chelsea finishing and, like Barry, he frequently lost the ball. Heskey, meanwhile, fell between the two stools of scoring and assisting others with his physical presence and it is surely time to sacrifice him for a 4-4-1-1 system that offers a more forward role for Gerrard, places Rooney right at the point of the attack and, above all, brings in the unused Joe Cole.

Cole must be wondering whom he has upset and how. He deserves the chance that James Milner and Shaun Wright-Phillips have not been able to take, possessing as he does qualities of craft and technical ability superior to both. His other virtue in the present circumstances is that because of an injury in the second half of the season, he is not quite as weary as others in the squad.

There lies another familiar tale of England at tournaments. The very nature of the football that makes the Premier League such an attraction to television companies all over the world and earns the clubs so much money in overseas sales actually acts against the best interests of players who must produce their best form after eight long months of it.

That sort of broad analysis can wait, though as ever it could be the finest of margins that decides how soon the real post-mortem begins. Slovenia produced a curate's egg of a performance in drawing with the USA, who were robbed of victory by a poor refereeing decision at the finish, but in the first half they were impressive, above all through the right-sided Valter Birsa of Auxerre.

The possibilities now offered by Wednesday afternoon's two Group C fixtures are complex (see panel). One of them, astonishingly for a tournament of this importance, is that England could be sent home or sent through by the drawing of lots; if they were to draw 2-2 while the USA were held 0-0 by Algeria, effectively reversing Friday's two results, the two countries would be level on points, goal difference and goals scored. At which point we would discover whether Capello, his reputation suddenly in the balance, really is a lucky general.

What england must do

England play their final group game against Slovenia on Wednesday afternoon, at the same time as USA meet Algeria. These are the permutations:

England win, USA win: Both qualify, and biggest winning margin finishes top.

England win, USA draw: England 1st, Slovenia 2nd.

England win, USA lose: England 1st, Slovenia or Algeria 2nd.

England draw, USA win: Slovenia and USA qualify.

England draw, USA draw: USA likely to qualify with Slovenia, having scored more goals than England, unless...

England draw 2-2, USA draw 0-0: means drawing lots.

England draw, USA lose: Slovenia 1st, Algeria 2nd.

England lose, USA win: Slovenia 1st, USA 2nd.

England lose, USA draw: Slovenia 1st, USA 2nd.

England lose, USA lose: Slovenia 1st, Algeria 2nd.