James Lawton: Capello wages a relentless war against complacency

The England coach has acquired a sometimes chilling eloquence in a new language
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Take away the sense that Fabio Capello has indeed convinced Wayne Rooney that he is the player he more than hinted he might be in the European Championships in Portugal all those five years ago. When you also remove the one that says Jermain Defoe right now could shoot the lights out of any saloon either side of the Pecos, this was a distinctly unconvincing England.

Good, at least in a way. Even at this remove from the regimes of Sven Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren, the last thing England needed before Wednesday's game with Croatia was any excuse for the hubris which can still swoop down on them quicker than a hawk.

Of course a little more cohesion and authority against a Slovenian team who at 54th place in the Fifa rankings are sandwiched between Mali and Guinea might have given Capello rather more peace of mind as he seeks to repeat last year's victory in Zagreb which brought such an instantly solid foundation to his reign.

But the England coach, almost everybody here at last seems convinced, is a football man who knows how to build both the psychology and performance of a team with a relentless touch. However, he is not a worker of miracles and over the next few days he is likely to make this point with some force.

Capello's English may not have advanced as far as he promised when he took up his appointment at the start of last year, but he has unquestionably acquired a sometimes chilling eloquence in a new language. On Saturday night he lamented sharply his team's lack of focus for much of the game, a sharp decline in concentration at the end and, most unacceptable of all, an empty-headed reversion to the long ball. "It is," said Il Capo, "a style I do not like."

There was, his body language had already stated quite unequivocally from the touchline, much else that he not only did not like but positively despised.

We can be sure he hated full-back Glen Johnson's failure to balance the brightness of his attacking instincts with some fundamental certainties in defence – Italians have always loved stylish figures at the back but never at the risk of security – and when Joleon Lescott, all £24m of him, conspired with goalkeeper Robert Green to grant Slovenia a late goal that would have been prevented by elementary competence, you could also wince on their behalf.

Such sloppiness of execution took us back to some of the worst of England's underachieving past and we can also be certain that, rather than agonising too long over whether Defoe claims a starting place against Croatia or retains his current role as the shock troop on whom you might just wage the mortgage, Capello will be attacking most strongly the evidence of complacency from which such catastrophes generally spring.

Emile Heskey continues to be hammered for his failure to score goals but if this had been the criterion for his selection at club or international level he would have disappeared from the consciousness of English football along with his first big patron Gérard Houllier at Liverpool. Heskey's raison d'etre is that he best suits the game of Rooney, a fact which surely comes to the big man's defence when you consider that once again the Manchester United man looked by some distance the best player on the field.

Capello made a small joke of his apparent Defoe dilemma. He said the player always scores when he is brought on in the second half.

For his part Defoe, who scored with that exquisite assurance of all the natural-born strikers when he combined brilliantly with his Tottenham team-mate Aaron Lennon, is handling the situation with commendable intelligence. He scores and he says that he is at the disposal of Capello. He can do no more and it is a policy which has surely made him one of Capello's banker selections for the challenge in the World Cup finals which seems so certain to arrive, perhaps as early as the Croatia game.

Elsewhere other cornerstone players were less overwhelming in their claims. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were committed enough, but at times they seemed to be veering dangerously to the point where they might just revive the debate about whether the best of them will ever be seen while they share the same team shirt.

Gareth Barry remains as earnest and busy as always, but does he have the spark of a true shaper of team performance? A fair-minded jury could not begin to deliberate on the basis of this evidence.

What is reassuring, though, is the feeling that when England under-perform, as they did quite grievously at times when Slovenia started the game sharply to the embarrassment of the home defence, then repeated the process towards the end, it tends to be in friendly matches and provides Capello with the chance to most effectively prosecute his art.

This reflects both the strength of his beliefs about how the game should be played and his understanding of the value of assessing performance and attitudes in games on which your life does not depend. Eriksson and McClaren seemed more intent on limiting the points of contention between themselves and the more powerful Premier League managers than properly exploring the international credentials of the players called upon for non-competitive games.

Capello does not grant cameo roles to anyone but David Beckham, and sometimes you suspect that on occasion he does this with his tongue in his cheek,

Against Slovenia, he was surely impressed by the second-half liveliness of Lennon – a more sharply defined presence than that of Shaun Wright-Phillips in the first half – and the ease with which he linked with Defoe for the goal. He will also be aware that Rooney might well have scored at least two goals – apart from winning an absurd penalty that was nothing so much as another cry for technological assistance – as Heskey performed his rugged if unspectacular work at the front.

More than anything, though, Capello will know that it is time for a little fresh indoctrination, the central point of which will be the same as ever. It is that there is no such thing as a finished team, most effectively only one at least as aware of its weaknesses as its strengths.