Fabio Capello's team selections have been edicts. There have been tweaks here and there, but the England manager has largely had the luxury of restating his judgments. It has taken shaky results to make those assumptions wobble and now everyone waits to see where a person of such self?confidence can find solid ground.
Considerable pride is at stake, to a degree Capello has never known before, because the present context is without parallel over his decades in management. He will have changed tack countless times when in charge of clubs, and no one would have made much of it. Fixtures come so thick and fast when there is a league title to be sought and a European run to be maintained that nobody dwells unduly on alterations to a line-up unless one of the stars is ditched.
? Follow the Guardian's World Cup team on Twitter? Sign up to play our great Fantasy Football game? Stats centre: Get the lowdown on every player? The latest team-by-team news, features and moreWith England, each match at a tournament becomes a chapter in the life of the national team. Some of the choices managers make are recalled forever, particularly the misguided ones. Following the draws with the USA and Algeria, the accuracy of Capello's calculations for the match against the Group C leaders Slovenia will determine his team's fate and the manner in which he is regarded.
The misery of failure would linger and in the unlikely event that he stayed in the post, there would be a two-year wait to redeem himself at a mere European Championship. This game with Slovenia has therefore assumed an improbable significance in his career. Apart from the selection itself, there is a decision to be made about the formation.
Capello conveniently views every tactic he employs as 4?4?2. During those high-scoring qualifiers, though, the regimentation was not so marked. That was a line-up of angles and options, with Steven Gerrard narrower on the left than, say, Theo Walcott was on the right and Wayne Rooney deeper than Emile Heskey. Those nuances are not so prized now.
There has since been an adoption of a 4?4?2 pattern so rigid as to look like a parody. It is also dreary, even if Gerrard had dispensation against Algeria to run virtually anywhere he liked so long as he scampered back to his post the moment possession was lost. England, in that system, still had no impact.
Capello has been bemused that the verve of those qualifiers now looks beyond reach, but he himself sacrificed it because of an accompanying vulnerability in defence that would have been more ruinous still if it had been displayed at the finals. You can argue that the present sort of 4-4-2 allows England more cover in each area of the field, when the opposition had the ball.
Perhaps it is working since the single goal conceded at the World Cup arose from a Robert Green howler that could not have been forestalled by any tactical plan. In the process, all the same, England have choked off themselves as much as the opposition. Capello has inadvertently stymied his own men. If anyone was born to eradicate staleness it is Rooney, yet he has not scored in a club match or an international since 30 March.
When the goals vanish so do the preconceptions. Heskey's impact is once more in doubt. That is a little odd considering that he has largely been in better form than anticipated, especially with the expert pass that set up England's solitary goal so far, when Gerrard opened the scoring against the USA.
That would have bolstered the manager's long-established conviction about Heskey's relevance. In the two warm-up friendlies the Aston Villa player was on the pitch for only 13 minutes, against Japan. This was not marginalisation, just proof that Capello then had no questions for him to answer.
That faith is no longer within easy reach. Irrespective of Heskey's own deeds, everything really depends on his effect as a catalyst for Rooney. That chemical reaction has lately been out of operation. Since the Manchester United striker is at the core of England's hopes, it is his partner who comes under review.
In Rustenburg, all sorts of speculation swirls around the squad. Some foresee England switching to 4-3-3 for the Slovenia contest. The midfield could have Frank Lampard and Gerrard kept apart by Gareth Barry, with Rooney flanked in attack by Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips. It would be a radical approach since it excludes Aaron Lennon, the sole truly quick player.
In addition, it contradicts Capello's declaration that his "style" always entails having two forwards. What is more, the emphasis on Cole would see the manager bowing to the lobbying for his inclusion by the dissident John Terry as well as to public opinion. Ultimately, however, it should be more important to release the side from their difficulties than to save face.
There is minimal satisfaction in England's hesitant opening, but it does confirm that the World Cup is a place apart. Anything that the team achieved in qualifiers could not be imported into South Africa. Manager and players alike have to vindicate themselves all over again. That, indeed, is one of the pleasures of a great tournament.
This is comment. GNM does not necessarily support the views expressed.