Capello's big calls backfire
World Cup 2010: Rustenburg
Fabio Capello delivered assurances about the improvement England will require to progress at the World Cup - and it must come from the coach as well as his players.
Goalkeeper Robert Green stepped forward into the stocks after his dreadful error, the sort that can define a career, allowed Clint Dempsey to equalise Steven Gerrard's early goal and give the United States a point in the opening game in Group C.
And while Green must take the blame for a mistake that cost England victory, and in all likelihood the West Ham United keeper his place in the team, Capello's part in this stuttering start must not escape close scrutiny.
If England's hopes of winning the World Cup rest on Capello getting the big calls correct, then he left plenty of room for manouevre after the 1-1 draw. He made three major moves and was left with a success rate of nil.
The result must be placed in context before examining the reasoning behind it. England were in a state of disappointment as opposed to despair as the team coach pulled out into the gridlocked road system late into the night in Rustenburg.
Capello, as a keen student of Italy's history, will know many World Cup campaigns have flourished into glory after faltering first steps - 1982 and 2006 to name but two.
But there is no escaping the fact England's display provided few answers to their best way forward in South Africa, and left plenty of questions to ponder.
Capello has had many great nights in his illustrious career. This was not one of them.
The common sense logic behind his selection of Green ahead of David James and Joe Hart stated that the old timer was having fitness problems and the young pretender was too callow to risk in a World Cup opener.
Sadly Green, who looked nervous and has always had the capacity to make such mistakes, saw his technique and concentration crumble in the face of the less than formidable force of Dempsey's speculative shot. Not the "terrible" World Cup balls condemned by Capello, simply terrible goalkeeping.
Capello was understandably sympathetic to Green as he addressed the media, but whether it extends to the moment when he writes out his next teamsheet is debatable. Green may find the mistake has finished his World Cup.
The error was unacceptable at this elite level, and many more levels besides, so if James is still struggling Hart should face Algeria.
Opposite number Tim Howard also offered consoling words as he told me: "As a goalkeeper I had mixed emotions about that moment. I was delighted we scored but that's never nice to see. There is nothing I can say or do to make Robert feel better.
"He made a really big save from Jozy Altidore and that showed his character. He is a top Premier League keeper and he has got broad shoulders. Life is like that as a keeper. You have to understand the criticism, the highs and lows, but he is top keeper and he will bounce back."
Capello's lack of a first-choice keeper was always a source of concern before the World Cup and it has been painfully underlined inside England's first game.
James Milner's inclusion was also a surprise, edging out Joe Cole despite suffering from illness this week. Like Capello's selection of Green, it was a failure.
Milner struggled along, out of sorts for 30 minutes, doing little to help Ashley Cole and was eventually hauled off. He was replaced by Shaun Wright-Phillips, again a puzzling choice given Joe Cole's availability.
The choice of Milner ahead of Cole smacked of defensive thinking, with the focus more on subduing the excellent Landon Donovan as opposed to imposing England's will on a lively but limited United States team.
Capello's show of faith in Ledley King has come under serious examination, on fitness rather than footballing grounds. And all the old concerns came to the surface when he lasted only 45 minutes before suffering a groin injury.
He is already out of the Algeria game, and with Rio Ferdinand removed from the defensive equation, this is a worry for Capello and England.
So that made it three out three calls that went wrong for Capello. Proof, perhaps, that it can happen to the best of them and at least he has time to make amends.
As King departed, the lack of pace in England's central defence was brutally exposed as substitute Jamie Carragher was run ragged by Altidore, who saw his shot turned on to the post by Green.
England's rearguard is now pedestrian at its heart and it hard to see how Capello can remedy the flaw in South Africa. They will live in fear of teams with speed of thought and movement slicing through them should they reach the later stages.
Capello is too experienced to be panicked by events in Rustenburg on Saturday. And he will be right to maintain a measure of calm.
It would be easy to dismiss England's World Cup aspirations at this uninspiring first sight. It would also be foolish - although only the deluded would offer up this performance as evidence to support their claims.
There were some positives. Gerrard led by example, proof that he can carry the cares of captaincy while concentrating on his own game, while England also created enough chances to have won.
Emile Heskey's all-round performance showed his strengths, but his biggest weakness was also on display. Aston Villa's striker works hard, holds the ball up well and gladly takes all the weight off Wayne Rooney - but how long can England sustain a striker who does not score goals?
He cleverly set up Gerrard's goal, but when presented with a clear run on goal early in the second half - and the chance to restore England's advantage - he almost inevitably shot straight at Everton keeper Howard. The same old story.
Capello's optimistic post-match bulletin will have been shaped by the knowledge that Rooney and Frank Lampard will not remain as peripheral as they were here, while Gareth Barry's return will give England's central midfield the solid anchor he craves.
If only Capello would investigate the possibility that two talents as stellar as Rooney and Gerrard could make an attacking partnership work. The closer they are together, the more threatening England will surely be.
It would give England fluidity and allow Barry and Lampard to pair up in central midfield, reducing the temptation to bang the succession of aimless long balls that played into the United States' hands in the final stages of this game.
Capello, however, seems set against such a pattern and it would represent a seismic switch in his tactical thinking to experiment with it now.
Rooney cut a subdued figure, almost as if he was weighed down by the burden of strict discipline after he lost his cool against Platinum Stars on Monday. He must strike a delicate balance between having fire and ice in his veins - Rooney was too passive in Rustenburg and consequently his effectiveness was reduced.
If Rooney can do that and Capello - as he has done more often than not - makes the right moves, then this result can represent a false start as opposed to a longer-term problem.
ENGLAND PLAYER RATINGS:
Robert Green: Desperate error for United States' goal. Hard to see him playing against Algeria. 3
Glen Johnson: Showed signs of his attacking quality, especially with one surge late in the first half. Can still be uncertain defensively. 6
Ashley Cole: Reliable as ever, despite receiving no help from James Milner. Might have done better going forward. 7
John Terry: Mixed bag. Solid defending but distribution occasionally poor. England hugely reliant on him now. 6
Ledley King: Looked uncomfortable at times and now on the sidelines injured again. 5
Aaron Lennon: Pacy but final ball too wayward. Did set up great chance which Emile Heskey missed. 6
Frank Lampard: Quiet night for Chelsea's midfield man. Struggled to make an impact and Fabio Capello will hope for a big improvement. 5
Steven Gerrard: MAN OF THE MATCH - England's captain led by example with an early goal and some razor-sharp tackling. Now push him forward Fabio. 8
James Milner: Looked off the pace after illness, failed to help Ashley Cole and picked up a booking. Off after only 30 minutes. 4
Emile Heskey: So much right about Heskey's performance. Made the goal and put himself about, but missed England's best chance in the second half. Needs goals to stay in the team - or at least he should. 6
Wayne Rooney: Quiet. Shot just off target after the break and set up a chance for Shaun Wright-Phillips, but nowhere near his best. 6.
Shaun Wright-Phillips: Strange choice of replacement for Milner. Why not Joe Cole? Busy but wastes final ball too often. 5
Jamie Carragher: Was exposed for pace by Jozy Altidore and picked up a yellow card. 5
Peter Crouch: Brief cameo. Little chance to shine. 6