James Lawton: The players failed – and they failed their manager too
Capello was left to face the media's inquisition, but it is a generation wrapped up in their own domestic glories that are truly to blame
Tuesday 29 June 2010
A young security guard here at the highveld citadel which England, defeated, discredited England, left yesterday as a wind-scoured monument not to broken hearts but shattered, over-tended egos, said he had been weeping continuously since his heroes were banished from the World Cup 24 hours earlier.
No one had the heart to tell him he was wasting his tears, that the story of the England team for so long now cried not for innocent compassion but at least a little hard-eyed anger.
Yet how else could you interpret the last act of the morality play which saw the stars of English football returning to their mansions nursing all the familiar grievances while their coach, one of the most successful in the history of the game until these last few unravelling weeks, faced the Star Chamber of Inquisition which has become a quadrennial World Cup ritual in the life of the national team?
Fabio Capello made the best of a situation which must have brought pain to each of his bones.
After saying that he wanted to stay as England coach, and maybe build something in the debris of this latest failed campaign, he also revealed that he would be required to wait a further two weeks for the "considered" reflections and findings and consultations of Sir Dave Richards, a figure whose nominal power in English football is exceeded only by his reputation for foot-in-mouth ineptitude.
So there was no real pathos when England broke camp yesterday. It was more of the most morbid tragic comedy – and the bleakest of unavoidable conclusions.
Capello's tactics and man-management were picked over as though he was some embattled department manager of a mid-sized company. If you had come from another planet, or a well-ordered football system, you might never have guessed that in fact he was a man of vast self-assurance, and achievement, who had collided with a culture which had, when the great test of its strength and power to adapt to a new influence was faced, had crumbled into so many small pieces.
Now they were blowing in the wind – as they so inevitably do when the great World Cup party proceeds without them.
Whether Capello is genuinely anxious to continue a challenge which has stretched his composure to its limits these last few days, or is merely manoeuvring for the best of financial settlements, is one of those routine questions which accompany every such situation in big-time football and it permits no sure answer.
However, there were some certainties here yesterday. One was Capello's tacit agreement that he had been handling a team which had more than justified the accusations of Franz Beckenbauer, the great pillar of a German football system which is once again in the process of brilliantly re-making itself, against the English game.
His most cutting one was that the English game simply piled too much physical pressure on its leading players – and that he strongly suspected Germany would prove to be the brighter, fresher team in last Sunday's second-round game. Capello reluctantly conceded the point. Yes, his players had looked tired, even unrecognisable. Plainly he saw in them the effects of an eternal round of games, a Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday cycle. The lions of the autumn were the sheep of summer.
Yet in was only an aspect, it wasn't the whole picture. There was a terrible psychological failure here which he was, perhaps understandably, more reluctant to discuss, but, yes, it was true that in the end Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard and John Terry and, above all, Wayne Rooney had simply failed to meet the challenge.
They came here lauded as challengers for a place at the heart of the tournament. They left yesterday the prime representatives of a football system which gorges itself on domestic rivalries and has virtually nothing left to bring to the wider world.
How can it be so? How could the vibrant Rooney, the player of breathtaking boldness and the most beautifully marshalled skill, turn into the leaden figure which contributed so little in a group of mediocrity, and then virtually disappeared when the challenge was against a German team full of life and movement and, in the end, an exultant self-belief?
How was it that Gerrard, endlessly lionised as one of the world's great midfield players, should look so marginal here? Lampard emerged with some honour in the final grim chapter, and it remains absurd to suggest that when his legitimate goal was disallowed, in the continued scandalous absence of technological assistance for the officials, it was of no possible consequence to the result.
Capello, rightly, continues to insist that if that goal had stood the young German side would had a crisis of their own to deal with and would not have had the advantage of the counter-attacking policy with which they eventually won so impressively.
This isn't a smokescreen. This is a statement of one of a volatile game's realities. However, it will slip into the former category swiftly enough if it is ever used to camouflage the extent of the failure of England's marquee players here.
Yes, Capello's campaign is far from free of sources of criticism. By sending on Emile Heskey at the end, he committed himself to a futile gesture which many seized upon as evidence of a deeper incompetence. This is the ultimate absurdity because Capello is not and never will be open to such a classification.
What he may be guilty of is a failure to grasp, on the first occasion he had his team in a sustained competitive mode, of the inherent weakness built down the years into the nature of the leading English professionals. At home they are built to the skies as they perform their pyrotechnics in the Premier League, which among its more striking characteristics is a generally abysmal level of defensive technique. This provides spectacular entertainment for a world-wide television audience but it does not make a breeding ground for the guile and the resilience required at the highest level of the game.
Capello was yesterday asked to name some the young players who, if he stays, he will introduce into the European Championships campaign. They came, unsurprisingly enough, in a trickle not a gush. Jack Wilshere, the Arsenal prodigy farmed out to Bolton, the Aston Villa flier Gabriel Agbonlahor, Kieran Gibbs, a full-back of promise trying to force his through in the foreign legion of the Emirates and maybe a name from the past, Owen Hargreaves.
At times Capello's voice betrayed a terrible note of frustration. Plainly, in many ways it was the worst day of his life. He was besieged by some who had invested in him some magical quality, an ability to cut through the decades of failure and make something shining, something new and re-charged.
But maybe it had been asking too much, at least as long as the great misapprehension lived in the mind of English football... the one that had claimed for so long that there was a generation of players who could indeed prove the depth of their talent.
We had an echo of that in the denouement of England's failed campaign for the last European Championships. The day after defeat by Croatia, an indignant Michael Owen claimed that if you examined both team-sheets in no case would you have chosen a Croat before his English counterpart. It was a statement that caused some shock among the men who had won England's only World Cup, and not least Sir Bobby Charlton. He said: "We cannot progress if do not accept that every team has to be respected and that our greatest need is always to look at ourselves and our performance."
Here, this obligation has at least been established, surely, in every corner of English football.
It is something that may escape the attention of Richards as he ponders whether England has any further use for the services of one of the great coaches of his generation. But such negligence is something that surely can no longer be countenanced.
The young African wept yesterday for English football. It was a touching gesture but rather irrelevant. For any benefit to be gained such celebrities as Rooney and, if it is not too late, Gerrard must weep for themselves and their own failures.
Players in numbers...
3 Lost the ball in in tackles 32 times in the Germany game – more than anyone other player
55 Completed only 55 per cent of his passes against Germany, less than any other player
9 Failed to score in his last nine England games, his longest barren spell for the national team
10 Struck 10 shots from outside the penalty area, none of which went in
3 Only three of 16 crosses from Gerrard found another player in a red shirt
64 Gerrard's pass completion rate was the lowest amongst England's midfielders
37 The free-kick that struck the bar in the crushing defeat against Germany was Lampard's 37th shot without scoring
16 Has the most shots in this World Cup without scoring
29 of 197 completed passes, only 29 were to a forward
8 Was forced to make eight blocks over the course of the finals, more than any other player at the finals
39 Resorted to playing long balls from the back on 39 occasions
4 The defensive display against Germany was the worst since England conceded four against Uruguay in 1954
19 Fabio Capello has the highest win percentage ratio of any England manager, winning 19 of his 28 games in charge (67.9 per cent)
12 Against Germany, Capello played an unchanged team for the first time.
6 Before losing to Germany, England went 6 games unbeaten.
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