The beginning for Fabio Capello – the beginning of the end for Michael Owen? Last night Owen looked set to be the next high-profile victim of the Capello regime after England's highest current goalscorer was left out of training formations in favour of a new striking partnership between Wayne Rooney and Joe Cole.
It will take a brave man to predict Capello's first England team to face Switzerland tonight – and that includes the players. They will be told the line-up only around 4pm today when their coach leaves for Wembley, but The Independent understands that the closed-door training ground practice matches threw up interesting clues as to how Capello is thinking. Owen is not the only first-teamer whose position in the first XI has been thrown into doubt.
In training, Matthew Upson has looked like Capello's favourite, ahead of Jonathan Woodgate, to partner Rio Ferdinand in central defence. Wes Brown has been played in the training first XI in the right-back position rather than Micah Richards. And on the wings, David Bentley and Ashley Young – without a start for England between them – are the favourites. But not even the players know for sure. This is Capello's England; a brave new world where nothing is quite as predictable as it once was.
Yesterday the England manager was giving very little away, apart from naming his captain for this game as Steven Gerrard and announcing that, unlike previous regimes, there would be no golf for the players on afternoons off duty. "I'm not a Messiah," Capello said, in response to size of his task. "I'm just someone who tries to achieve results through hard work."
Tonight we will see how that work manifests itself in a line-up that looks like it could be along the lines of 4-1-4-1, adapting to 4-1-3-1-1. What looks certain is that Owen Hargreaves will be called upon to play in front of the back four with Gerrard alongside him, if a little more advanced, in the centre of midfield. That would free Joe Cole to play ahead of the midfield as a link to Rooney, who would effectively be a lone striker. It is not a role the Manchester United man likes that much – as his red-card performance against Portugal at the last World Cup bears witness.
It is fair to say that the message coming from the England camp is that Capello has had a profound effect on his squad even in such a short space of time. Many of the old certainties have been taken away – even the identity of the goalkeeper tonight is a mystery, although David James is the favourite. Ashley Cole is thought to be the first choice left-back. Stern, uncompromising – some would even say a touch scary – Capello has made an impression despite the limited English vocabulary at his disposal.
Of course, it is always the way with English football that each new regime brings hope precisely because it bears no resemblance to the one that preceded it. Nevertheless, it could only be a good thing that Capello has treated his squad like a group of men under his command rather than – as his predecessor, Steve McClaren, once did – throw himself heartily into the keep-ball sessions like an embarrassing uncle eager to impress a group of disdainful nephews.
Like rebellious toddlers, Premier League footballers require a clear set of boundaries and, while he would not go into detail on the new set of rules revealed yesterday, Capello made no secret of the fact that discipline was an important part of his management style. "I love this job and I believe we also have some obligations towards the fans," he said. "We need to work and we need rules to work by in an orderly fashion. Because we work together for so few days we need strict rules. If we follow those rules, we'll create a group and a specific winning mentality, which is what I want.
"I believe that three days is not a long time to stay in the hotel and create a group mentality. If everybody leaves as soon as training finishes, three days isn't enough to get to know each other. It's important to spend time together. On Thursday they can play all the golf they like," the manager added.
Capello is not yet speaking English to the press and there was a Pinteresque pause before every answer yesterday as he took stock of the simultaneous translation in his earpiece. With his players, however, he has spoken English and made them watch the worst moments of the failed Euro 2008 campaign on video. He has made it very clear to the players that everything they have done in the past, and continue to do, will be studied closely.
"There's been very good games where England played like England and others where they didn't play as they should have," Capello said. And it would have been churlish to point out that the bad ones were actually the games where England were playing like England. Anyway, on the whole Capello said he preferred not to look backwards. "Basically, I'll be showing them the mistakes and telling them that they can learn from their mistakes and improve," he added.
David Beckham, the former England captain whom Capello has dropped, said yesterday that it would have been "unfair" for him to be picked because he was not fit, which was certainly a change of tune from last week when he said he was ready for international football.
Capello's most interesting insight into the current state of the team was on the theme of "playing bravely" – especially away from home. "When we're away, we need to be more confident in our strengths and braver in the way we play." Which translates roughly into: I've seen the video of the game against Russia in Moscow and no team of mine will collapse like that.
The Italian is not the sunniest personality ever to pick an England football team and there will undoubtedly be a time when the novelty of an unsmiling, uncompromising taskmaster wears thin as the Capello creed is imposed on the team come hell or high water.
For now, however, the tough guy is everything England want. Although there will surely be a few big names on the team bus this evening who will not be so thrilled about Signor Capello.
The last word is not lost in translation
He pledged to be fluent in the language within a month of taking over the England reins, but yesterday journalists were still using headphones to listen to the words of wisdom of the new national coach.
"I will not speak to you in English until I am happy I have learnt all the expressions I need," Capello said through an interpreter. "You have a way of twisting words, so I will speak to you in English later on."
The Italian used only one word in English at his press conference – when asked what the players called him, he replied: "Boss."
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