Hope remains, the dream lives. Tomorrow’s papers will be bursting with optimistic rallying cries rather than gloomy obituaries and angry rants. The headlines will be oozing with the juices of glory and we, the long starved masses, will enter a phase of frenzied belief, salivating as we devour every cautiously hopeful word that makes us think “maybe this year…” The doubters and pessimists will remain a constant presence, this is England after all, but they will be shunned and ostracised. Against Slovenia the patient was revived and for a while buzzed with a brightness we all insisted was there all along. No matter that he only just staggered to the next ward for further treatment, elbowed to the side by a forceful American on the way. For the time being we’ll laugh and say it wouldn’t be England without the tension and the worry.
There are genuine reasons for enthusiastic optimism. This was the best England performance in a long while. It was a match played at a Premier League tempo often called for by commentators and fans, who rightly question why it is their heroes perform so much better each week for their clubs. Capello also appeared to resolve some selection dilemmas once and for all. James was a solid presence in goal under considerably more pressure than he was against Algeria and Upson passed a tough test to emerge as the sensible partner for Terry in defence. Milner proved himself a performer in midfield and particularly as a winger with some beautiful crossing and much needed running at the full-back. Defoe showed he could score when it counted and that the team played better having to think about their service to him, as opposed to mindlessly lumping it up field to Heskey. Capello shall also no doubt win plaudits for his passionate touchline display of emotional gesticulations that would have been unthinkable from a certain ice cold Swede.
Capello was also right to decide against the diamond midfield formation that Eriksson toyed with unsuccessfully as England coach. The BBC commentary debated whether this was due to the Slovenian full-backs attacking tendencies and represented it as a last-minute tactical change of heart by Capello that was proven a masterstroke by events. In reality Capello would have recognised the gamble of changing the system well into a tournament and its possible destabilising effects. I believe Capello wrongly came to this World Cup without a plan B. He had a qualifying campaign that ended prematurely and warm-up games in which to experiment with other formations and has not done so. I accept there is a strong argument that England’s players play their best football in a 4-4-2 and over complicating the system will not help them. I also think Capello would be unwise to change the formation again now at this tournament. Where Capello should be surer however is who plays where in his formation, most crucially in midfield.
The best teams at this World Cup and those that are successful will be the ones who arrived with a well practiced system, understood by all the players and a regular starting eleven, with healthy competition from the bench. The best managers will be those who can choose the right substitute at the right moment of a game to change things on the pitch for their team. Tactical changes that have the most impact will be minor tweaks to existing formations rather than wholesale switches between them. This is Capello’s first World Cup and in many ways it is showing. He failed to change things decisively against Algeria, resulting in a surge in pressure for the Slovenia game and ultimately a second place group finish that may lead to the tough task of Germany on Sunday.
Capello’s biggest failing at this World Cup has been the personnel of his midfield, just as it was for those who preceded him. Having settled on 4-4-2 the Italian has not been bold enough, despite a media image of him being above the celebrity status of footballers, to axe one of his better players. This is not, as may have been the case with Eriksson and Beckham, because the manager is blinded by a player’s fame but from a genuine desire to select the best eleven players available. However an England midfield given more balance by the exclusion of Gerrard or Lampard from the starting line-up would surely lead to more of the football seen in the better spells against Slovenia. Joe Cole on the left and Milner on the right seems to be the way forward against better teams, as a wandering Gerrard would leave Ashley Cole exposed. Capello has left it too late to try a five man attacking midfield in support of Rooney properly, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Cole or Gerrard unleashed as effectively a second striker or fifth midfielder, depending on who has the ball, should England go far in the knockout stages.
For the next game I can’t see Capello changing things and I hope England can replicate their best moves against Slovenia with more end product. Rooney’s brief rest at the end of this match will have him rested and hungry for goals and I still can’t help but think any real England hopes rest on whether or not he can find form. Our opponents in the next round should be fearful if he can, with 60 million souls greedy for glory getting behind him, as well as a manager who might’ve wasted opportunities in preparation but still holds the keys to success. Come on England!