Diehard English patriots might not love the fact their national team is coached by an Italian but not since Terry Venables has an England manager been regarded so highly as Fabio Capello. Inter Milan’s brief flirtation with the 63-year-old proved this.
In fact, Usain Bolt couldn’t have sprinted to Capello’s door quicker than the panic-stricken FA bigwigs who desperately reassured the bespectacled boss that no matter what happens this summer they want him to remain in charge until 2012. A wise move, most people would agree.
But despite widespread admiration for two-and-a-half years of almost flawless work with England’s previously bedraggled mob of underperforming players, Capello’s true brief only starts in earnest on Saturday. And within a month his legacy will be decided.
Having been part of four major tournaments – each under a different boss – former England international Martin Keown knows a thing or two about England gaffers. And going against the grain, the ex-Arsenal defender claims he’s yet to be convinced that Fabio Capello is on the right track to fulfil his target of winning the World Cup this summer.
“It’s not been a great build-up to the tournament,” Keown warned. “Selecting 30 players was a mistake that could have caused animosity within the group with some of the lads left feeling despondent and under-used. Capello then spent large parts of the Mexico and Japan friendlies experimenting with players and systems and as a result for long periods we chased around not being able to get the ball. It genuinely concerns me that we don’t have a pattern that suits the players at this late stage.
“I speak to a lot of foreigners and they all say they’d love to have the likes of Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Cole and Rooney in their side,” he continued. “That’s all well and good but I’d like to know if Capello can sort out a formula for these guys to perform. We need a platform for them to play well together and that’s in the hands of the manager.”
Concerns over the fitness of Gareth Barry have increased the focus on how England’s midfield will shape up in South Africa and it’s an area that Keown fears could be exposed, especially during the latter stages of the competition.
He said: “Is Gareth Barry fit or isn’t he? I’m not sure how honest anyone would be with the opportunity to be at the World Cup in front of them. I thought he looked a little ginger as he was walking across the tarmac to get on the plane, so that selection concerns me, as does who plays in the anchor role.
“It’s a big ask for James Milner to play but it looks like he may have to,” Keown added. “Or there is Steven Gerrard who can do the job of making tackles and winning the ball but then you will have to curb his attacking instincts. It’s really not clear how we will line up in the centre of the pitch and that’s a worry. From what I’ve seen we must play three midfielders otherwise we will be over run but I’d like there to be a set-up the players are comfortable with.”
Keown, 43, was part of Sven Goran Eriksson’s 2002 World Cup squad but failed to make an appearance during England’s run to the quarter-finals in Japan and South Korea. David Beckham was part of that side, and despite not being fit to play this time around his former team-mate believes Capello has made the right decision by inviting him to be part of the squad.
“Beckham won’t be involved in training but he will have a quiet word here and there with the players and that’s going to be useful,” he said. “When you’re there for four or five weeks it can become quite boring so it’s nice to have an extra face around the place and Becks is a very good communicator with everyone’s respect.”
The veteran of 43 England games added: “It’s a funny one, I remember being a new kid on the block afraid to venture out of my room and then before I knew it, I was a senior guy knocking on doors trying to get everyone together. In 2002, I spent a lot of time talking to Sol Campbell making sure he was 100% right and I didn’t mind giving a lot more of myself to him because I knew it would help. Now that’s its down to 23 players, it’s all about England winning and the manager and his staff need to help the lads through the challenge. Beckham will be an asset.”
Any chance of England being caught cold by the USA in Rustenburg this weekend, we ask? “If we don’t do well against the Americans it will only be down to not preparing well enough. If we haven’t worked on our shape enough, if we don’t know what to do with it when we’re in possession and don’t know what to do out of possession we could have problems.
“With an Italian in charge I expect us to be well organised when we don’t have the ball but when we have it we need to express ourselves and play with a freedom and belief. That’s what needs to kick in quickly. Confidence can be brittle early on in a tournament. Hopefully Capello has learned the lessons from the friendly games.”
Martin Keown was speaking to Soccerlens at an event organised by Lucozade Sport. Martin will provide regular interviews throughout the World Cup for Facebook fans at www.facebook.com/lucozadesportfootball.