BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa -- On Friday night, shortly before Spain's match against Chile at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, a couple of English journalists were accosted by a German colleague. Who was the better manager, he asked his British counterparts, Fabio Capello or Joachim Löw? The puzzled look on the faces of Her Majesty's football reporters suggested the answer was not quite straightforward. They weren't able to offer an instant verdict but it's quite possible to imagine Capello's reaction to this query. The 64-year-old would probably have shaken his head indignantly, then left without further ado. To him, the question itself would have surely smacked off impertinence.
If Sunday's second round game against England will really be decided by the managerial pedigree of the two men on the benches, Germany might as well call it a day now and spend a day doing something a little bit more fun instead. On the one hand, there's Capello, Don Fabio, the Feldmaresciallo (field marshal), as the Italians used to call him. Record: Four Italian championships with AC Milan, one with AS Roma, two with Juventus (both rescinded after the Calciopoli scandal). Two more championships with Real Madrid in Spain. Plus a Champions League, in 1994, when his Milan side destroyed Johan Cruyff's widely fancied Barcelona 4-0. It was the best European final performance in modern times.
On the other side of the fourth official: Jogi. The 50-year-old will no doubt look resplendent in a suave outfit that matches co-assistant Hansi Flick -- a bit creepy that, some might say -- but he certainly can't outgun Capello when it comes to his CV. One German FA Cup with Stuttgart (1997), one Austrian championship with Wacker Tirol (2002). In between those two triumphs, he also took Karlsruhe down to the third German division, although that doesn't really count as an achievement, not even in Stuttgart, where they hate their rivals from KSC.
Löw might become a Capello one day, of course, especially if he manages to secure a job at a European heavyweight team in the future. In the meantime, we must conclude that Capello has been there and done it at club level, whereas Löw has only been an intern, looking at the work of great managers like Arsène Wenger who've been there and done that.
A great club record alone is not in itself proof of a good national team manager, however. And a good team manager might not be cut out for club management at all: remember Brazilian World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari at Chelsea? So in order to really answer the "who's better?"-question, it's necessary to treat past club titles (or lack thereof) as mere background noise and look at their respective performance with Germany and England in isolation:
It's now largely forgotten but Capello did try all sorts of different formations after taking on the "Impossible Job" (copyright English tabloid press) in December 2007. His first game against Switzerland (2-1) saw a 4-3-2-1 formation with Wayne Rooney as a sole striker. It didn't quite work. It was a 4-2-3-1 against France in Paris next, and his first defeat. England lost 1-0 and looked as disjointed as ever. In the 2-0 win over the U.S. at Wembley in May 2008, the Italian went back to a traditional 4-4-2, then experimented further, without much success. "He's the first England manager [the press] has fallen out with before a competitive match," said the Daily Telegraph's Henry Winter at the time, exasperated. In the end, Capello concluded that the players were most comfortable playing what they knew best, and like Sven-Göran Eriksson before him, chose a good old fashioned 4-4-2, with Emile Heskey as a support act for Rooney, Theo Walcott on the right and Steven Gerrard pushed out wide left to accommodate Gareth Barry as a holding midfielder. The personnel have slightly changed since then but the system hasn't. England keeps its shape fairly well and it's a system that's efficient in it's simplicity. It relies on crosses to the forwards, or Gerrard/Lampard breaking into box from midfield. Against skilful teams who play between the lines, however, England can look vulnerable and lack of possession makes them prone to panic against defensive opposition. Then they start running a lot more and playing a lot less, as happened against Algeria.
Löw is much less of a pragmatist than Capello and more of a footballing ideologue. He was the brains behind Jürgen Klinsmann's Premier League inspired Germany of 2006 and made sure that the gung-ho approach had a bit of a defensive backbone. After taking over Klinsmann's mantle, Löw took the 4-4-2 and got rid of its over-reliance on wing play. For a brief period, Löw's team was the best and most fluid outfit in Germany, better than any club site. It couldn't quite replicate its form in the 2008 Euros, however, and the catastrophic 2-1 defeat against Croatia convinced Löw to adopt a 4-2-3-1, with Michael Ballack playing behind two holding midfielders. Germany plays the same system at this World Cup and now benefits from the emergence of Mesut Özil as a natural man "in the hole" behind Miroslav Klose. The Germans employ a style based on possession, with an ambition to go forward all the time. But there's a suspicion that's a bit too open to get past the bigger and better teams, since Bastian Schweinsteiger (doubtful for the England game) and Sami Khedira are both not orthodox holding midfielders.
Capello has surrounded himself with fellow Italians, with Ray Clemence and Stuart Pearce the token English men on the coaching staff. Before the 1-0 win over Slovenia got England out of its group, Capello's staff were briefing against some of the players (John Terry, Rooney) while some players publicly demanded a different formation, complained about boredom and the Italian's knack to name his starting team only two hours in advance. A picture emerged of a camp plagued by tension and disharmony. Capello didn't give in on the big issues (4-5-1, Joe Cole) but has since softened his stance a bit. He allowed the players a beer, for a start. James Milner also explained that "shape work" a day before the Slovenia game had given the starting players "an inkling" that they would feature but it's hard to understand why the Italian doesn't do more through tactical drills with his starters during the week.
Germany's young, amenable players are eager to please and learn. Löw has had no difficulty with them because he identified potential troublemakers (Kevin Kuranyi, Torsten Frings) in advance and left them at home. In the Euros he was happy to hear the input of senior players before changing his system. Few teams will have practiced specific attacking moves as thoroughly as Germany at this competition. If it fails on Sunday, it's not for a lack of training, but because the players are not quite good enough just yet.
Result: Narrow win for Löw
Winning things is an addiction that Capello is happy to feed. "I exist to win," he said. He's remained incredibly cool in the face of imminent meltdown this week and made all the right calls during the Slovenia game, even to the point of taking (the slightly injured) Rooney off. He exudes the aura of a man who gets the big decisions right. Even in the friendlies leading up to the World Cup, his substiutions and slight tactical alterations at halftime have continually brought benefits. You'd trust the man they called Geometra (the surveyor) during his Juve playing days to see things clearly in the heat of battle and draw the right conclusions.
Löw is a great planner and strategist but not the greatest of improvisers. Two painful defeats -- a 2-1 against Croatia in the Euros and the loss to Serbia last week -- demonstrated that when the going gets tough, Löw doesn't get going. He panicked and needlessly changed the shape of the team by over-loading the box with strikers and making substitutions that backfired badly. Bringing on David Odonkor, a pacy winger who's nothing without space to run into against deep-lying Croatia was the opposite of a master stroke and Marko Marin for Özil versus Serbia didn't go to plan either. Must do better.
Result: Easy win for Capello
Conclusion: Capello and England triumph but it's close.