363 days ago, at the beginning of their World Cup qualifying campaign, I wrote that England’s 4-1 victory over Croatia in Zagreb was just as lucky as good, and we shouldn’t expect it every time out.
I was so cocky in my cynicism, I actually wrote, “But if I were a betting man, I’d put money on Croatia to win at Wembley in a year’s time. Ah, pessimism. I love following England.” Yikes.
Needless to say, I couldn’t have been more mistaken. One year later, England’s won eight of eight in qualifying, securing a trip to South Africa with two games to spare. So much for English mediocrity. And that’s the difference Fabio Capello makes. To slightly defend myself, I did write this when Capello was hired.
England beat Croatia like a drum from the opening whistle. The visitors never had a chance to establish themselves. A penalty claim within three minutes (yeah, ball to hand might have been harsh, but it’s Stevie), a penalty won by the outstanding Lennon within seven, and two goals to the good before 20 were off the clock. Croatia simply could not breathe for those 20 minutes.
I like Slaven Bilic (and Croatia definitely missed Modric), but Capello ran circles around him. Trying to exploit the right with both Pranjic and Pokrivac, Lennon and Johnson took them to the woodshed. Lennon’s pace was a constant threat, Johnson ably supported, Barry nullified most everything in the center (Kranjcar is no Modric, as Spurs will soon find out), and Gerrard was always a threat cutting infield (hence the two headed goals).
The second half saw three more from England, but an embarrassing consolation. Lampard and Gerrard both scored, with Gerrard starting the moves for both (while Johnson provided the typical run plus a clever cross for Lampard). Then Croatia pulled one back as Johnson let the cross in and the three other defenders stood and watched as Green strove to keep a clean sheet, only failing after two excellent saves (Eduardo with the goal, naturally). Rooney summed the night up after a Robinson-esque blunder from Croatia’s keeper, who kicked his clearance straight to the Manc standing 10 yards out. Never a smart idea.
England’s been fortunate with injuries as Joe Cole’s been the only long-term casualty, but I firmly believe this is all down to the manager. McClaren’s last game, the 2-3 loss to Croatia at Wembley in November 07, lacked Rooney and Terry and saw players like Richards, Carson, Campbell, and Wright-Phillips start, but it’s not as if the squad under Capello’s been radically different.
The difference is the inmates aren’t running the asylum. The difference is every player seems to know his role, and somehow, they’re all playing to their potential. And they’re playing hard from start to finish – not many sides still chase long balls at 4-1 with 15 minutes to play. I cannot emphasize how impressive that was; that is the definition of a well-coached team – when players are utterly frightened of giving the manager a reason to single them out.
Man management and tactics make all the difference. In hiring Capello, as opposed to the likes of Second Choice Steve and Svennis, the FA finally acknowledged it. Now, they’re reaping the benefits.
Still, it’s England. History's taught me to be pessimistic, and the next 8 months of “44 years, now England can win another World Cup” will probably make me more so.