All Hail Fabio Capello
Italian manager has the Three Lions roaring again ahead of trip to South Africa
If England wins the World Cup, Fabio Capello should be instantly knighted by the Queen, have gold statues of his likeness erected all across the country and the new Wembley Stadium renamed Stadio Capello in his honour.
Such has been the influence of the Italian who took over as manager of the English national team over two years ago at a time when the side was mired in crisis and chaos.
With one or two exceptions, this is the same England squad that sputtered under previous coach Steve McLaren, hitting rock bottom when it embarrassingly failed to qualify for Euro 2008. Yet in a very short period of time, Capello has managed to come in and with the same players at his disposal, rebuild England into a legitimate World Cup contender.
How did he do it? By displaying all the callousness and cold-hearted calculation of a hardened mafia boss, the Italian manager has whipped England into physical and mental shape, and let the players know, without a grain of uncertainty, who's in charge.
There's one man calling the shots: Don Fabio.
"It's almost a monastic setup. It's gone from holiday camp to boot camp under Capello," Henry Winter, chief soccer correspondent for The Daily Telegraph newspaper in England, told CBCSports.ca.
The Gerrard-Lampard Problem solved
Liverpool's Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard of Chelsea are universally recognized as two of the best central midfielders in the world.
But despite their unquestionable world-class skill and ability, Gerrard and Lampard have generally failed to produce the goods when they've played together for England's national team.
The stark contrast in the level of their performances for club compared to country led many pundits to believe that Gerrard and Lampard couldn't play together in the same starting lineup because, in effect, they cancel each other out.
But Fabio Capello has shown that the two Premiership stars can, indeed, function together for England. All it took was a slight tactical change — Capello has shifted Gerrard out to the left wing, and dropped Lampard further back.
"He's withdrawn Lampard and played him in a deeper midfield role," explained Henry Winter. "England's preferred starting formation is 4-2-3-1 and Lampard is almost used as a holding midfielder alongside Gareth Barry or Owen Hargreaves [as part of a midfield pairing in front of the defence] with a licence to go forward and join the attack."
Although Gerrard starts out on the left flank, the Liverpool star isn't by any means tied to that side of the field.
"Gerrard has essentially been given a free role by Capello. England has such a great attacking left-back in Ashley Cole, so Gerrard can be stationed in a loose, left-wing starting position and then drift inside," said Winter.
These two tactical shifts were designed to benefit Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney, England's main source of goals.
"When Capello has these players together, it's all about what brings the best out of Rooney," Winter explained. "So Emile Heskey plays up front because Rooney likes to play off of him and Gerrard, who is almost Rooney's football soul mate, is on the same wave length and those two just link up time and again."
Whereas players didn't suffer the consequences for their poor performances under McLaren and his predecessor Sven Goran Eriksson, Capello has demonstrated a zero tolerance policy for underachievement.
"Things were a bit relaxed under Eriksson and McLaren," Winter explained. "The players always had the impression that it was very difficult to get out of the first team once they were in there. So even if one or two players didn't hit the heights in one game, they still knew they would be starting in the next one.
"With Capello, everyone is on their toes. They know they have to deliver, and they go through training sessions and video sessions, and then he goes back to them and if he feels if someone isn't giving 100 per cent in every second of every training session, he tells them plainly that he'll bring someone else in."
Capello has drawn from his experience as a player (he was a star midfielder with Juventus and AC Milan in the 1970s) and as a club coach (he's won titles while in charge of AC Milan, AS Roma and Real Madrid) to conduct demanding and gruelling training sessions.
The results speak for themselves. England easily won a difficult World Cup qualifying group with a nearly-perfect 9-0-1 record, clinching a berth with two games to spare following a comprehensive 5-1 thrashing of Croatia, the same team that eliminated England from contention for Euro 2008.
"When the team has played back-to-back games, England normally does fairly well in the first but then spends the next 72 hours training under Capello, and they invariably produce a better performance in the second game, which is a testament to how hard he works them and how they've responded to him," Winter said.
Another of Capello's major achievements is the way he's fundamentally changed the culture of the English national team.
During the 2006 World Cup, the English tabloids provided non-stop coverage of the socialising and shopping activities of the WAGs (the wives and girlfriends of England national team members) while in Germany. It was frequently suggested that England's perceived "softness" and the Hollywood culture that enveloped the team, not to mention the distraction of the WAGs, manifested in its early exit from the tournament.
Capello put a stop to such nonsense.
"He came in with an incredible CV as a player and as a coach, so I think he had that instant respect," Winter stated. "He's instilled discipline, and helped to get rid of that WAG culture and the circus environment that was surrounding the national team in recent years."
Capello has also managed to instil belief and get the very best out of collection of English players who have not managed to duplicate their stellar form with their pro clubs while on duty for the national team.
"It's almost as though he's been a psychologist with the players, the way he's built belief in them and got players such as [Steven] Gerrard, [Frank] Lampard and [Wayne] Rooney to play for their country as they do for Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United," Winter said.
Indeed, many critics believed that this golden generation of players would wrap themselves in glory in Germany and end the country's lengthy World Cup drought — England has won the World Cup once, in 1966.
This time, they are better equipped to succeed, thanks to Capello.
"Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Gerrard, Lampard — this is really their last chance," Winter stated. "They've done it all at club level and won Champions League and Premier League, but what they haven't got are international medals.
"They know they'll be considered good players, but history will really lord them to the heavens if they do something internationally for England."