What now, for England? After yet another quarter-final defeat, after yet another defeat on penalties, there’s a feeling abroad that all the progress we thought we’d made was just a lovely illusion. We’re no nearer winning the big titles than we were six years ago. To some people, this is an outrage, because it’s so obvious what should have happened and what should have been done. To those people, a mantra: This is Not Championship Manager. Things aren’t that simple.
We’ve been here before – during the agonizing twilight of the 1990 side under Graham Taylor, compounded by long-term injuries to Gascoigne and Shearer, and also as the Venables/Hoddle side faded away under Keegan. What’s different now is a sense that there isn’t anything obvious we can do to put matters right. There’s no obviously better coach waiting in the wings. There isn’t a new generation of players coming through who are superior to the old ones. There isn’t a modernization of coaching or tactics that we can undergo. We’ve had all that, done all that. So what now?
There are answers to the question, although you aren’t going to like all of them. I’m going to present them in two parts. Today, I’m going to look at where we are now, and how we got here, through the medium of a close look at Sven Goran Erickson. Tomorrow, I’m going to consider the wider footballing culture in England, the ways in which it’s changing, and what that means for the national team.
From time to time, England go through periods when the supply of good players dries up. The last of these, 1992-5, was Graham Taylor’s to handle. It was the fact of good players being clowned around by second-rate English coaches, plus the straightforward lack of suitable candidates, that drove the FA to look abroad for Keegan’s successor. We have been able to forget, under Sven, the days when players were forced to visit faith healers (both Hoddle and Keegan used them) and made to sit through the absurd gee-up routines of not-quite-famous motivational speakers. Neither constitutes a mature approach to the mental side of football. We’ve been able to forget such things as Hoddle’s “revelatory” World Cup book, or Keegan’s desperate matiness with his players. Sven was appointed because there weren’t any England coaches up to the job (pace Peter Taylor, whose selections for his only game in charge broke the mould and set the standard for the next five years). There still aren’t any now, although a candidate list of McClaren, Curbishley, and Allardyce represents an enormous improvement on what went before. (There never has been a glut of great English coaches, for a variety of historical and cultural reasons, but that’s for another time.)
Club Coach to International Coach: Crossing the Divide
As the Don Revie era demonstrated, the skills that make a great international coach are different from those that make a great club coach. That’s why a great record at club level doesn’t always translate into success when running a country’s team. On the other hand, there are “specialist” international coaches who have worked for two, or three, or more, different countries, but who have relatively little record at club level.
Sven seems to have treated England as a “little club”. The first eleven changed relatively little over his time in office, and only then because of things beyond his reach – retirements, the personal decisions of players not to make themselves available. Outside of that fixed team, things were more fluid as regards the rest of the squad. Essentially, Sven knew his best side, and played it as often as was expedient, occasionally picking the flavour of the month as a sop to the press, but not in a way that would challenge the place in the team of his established choice.
That club played in two formations. A flat “English/Brazilian” 4-4-2 against weak opposition, a triangle 4-4-2/4-5-1 (depending on the availability of strikers) against stronger opposition.
There’s a lot to say for this club approach, not the least of which is that it would have had Brian Clough’s approval. Clough saw motivating footballers as a matter of providing the players with three things:
- Certainty – certainty of being wanted for the squad and team. Sven’s “club” England achieved this. The press hated it, wanting players to fear for their places. We’ll come back to fear later on.
- Simplicity – knowing what was required of them. Keeping things tactically straightforward, acknowledging that there’s only so much a player can carry in his head at once and draw upon during a fast-moving game. Keeping to two basic formations, which, for all that the press liked to chop them up into e.g. 4-1-4-1 (= 4-5-1 in reality) was essential given how little time an international team has to grow accustomed to one another.
- Attention to detail. Attention to detail was what set Alex Ferguson apart, according to Roy Keane, whose wonderful autobiography is filled with vignettes of Ferguson taking care of one thing and another, as Keane says, “Managing.” It’s also about the kind of real football knowledge that a manager can have – Bob Paisley, another one of these confusing non-shouting coaches (how do they gee up their players) was known for his ability to spot the tiny adjustments a player could make that would transform a match.
That’s rather different, isn’t it, from the kind of thing that gets said in frustration by press and some players. People remember Southgate’s “Churchill” comments after the 2002 defeat to Brazil, and now he has the chance to be Winston himself: we’ll see how he gets on.
Different people respond to different things. As the cliche goes, some of us respond to an arm around the shoulder, some to a kick up the backside. The tendency of the press to call for oratory and something ill-defined called “inspiration” makes me wonder what goes on in editorial conferences these days. Do they get shouted at? And would they like it – would their performance improve? About one third of the squad are going to listen to a Churchillian speech and stifle giggles – it’s going to come across, correctly, as bullshit. About one third will feel temporarily buoyed, until the reality of resumed play puts it out of their heads. The other third will be wondering if they can live up to it, and any self-doubt they’ll be feeling will magnify.
Southgate wasn’t playing that day against Brazil. Those players that were, came in, not only just having conceded a goal, but in the first stages of heat exhaustion. At least two players will have been wondering how to keep playing through their injuries. Some of the others will have been wondering simply how to keep going in the heat. Some will have had specific problems with opponents, and what to do about it will have been preying on their minds. With all of this going on, and fifteen minutes only to deal with it, Southgate would have had Sven stand up and say.. well, I hope you take the point.
Clive Woodward won the World Cup in rugby, and we know from his and other accounts what goes on in the England rugby dressing room at half time. It begins – not with an oration – but with a period of absolute silence in which no one is allowed to speak. When things are said, they are specific, detailed, reflective of the challenge ahead, relating to defined aspects of play and tactics. Churchills of whatever kind do not feature. The players take on fluid, and change into fresh shirts (a Woodward innovation, now adopted by all international sides).
You can’t – it’s just not possible – change the mentality of a large group of men in fifteen minutes with a Churchill speech, a hairdryer, or anything else of the kind. It’s a fable, a fairy story. It doesn’t work for English players; it doesn’t work for any kind of players. People – including footballers – aren’t like that. It would be nice were it true. But it won’t work in your office. It won’t work in your factory. It won’t work in your seminar room. It doesn’t help tennis players at Wimbledon. It doesn’t help Tiger Woods on the tee. It doesn’t work. It’s a petulant, childish fantasy and it comes from a petulant, childish place. What happened against Brazil in 2002 was a matter of injuries to key players – no Gerrard or Gary Neville, Owen and Beckham hobbled. It was a matter of weather too hot to play in, prepare as you like (it’s a factor that Erickson talks about at some length in his book “On Management“, dated before the World Cup.) It was a matter of a team that didn’t yet believe in itself enough (but which contained the core side that came back to win against Argentina from behind in 2005). Motivation is a multi-faceted thing, not a magic fluid you can inject into players if you’ve the right personality or the right words.
Clough didn’t shout at half time, either.
Beckham and the Culture Within the Team
Beckham wasn’t appointed captain by Sven – but by Peter Taylor, but it’s likely that Sven would have chosen him in any case. That the role suited Beckham’s own personal needs is only part of the point. From Sven’s point of view, Beckham’s unEnglish cosmpolitanism and ability to operate on unfamiliar territory set the tone for his team. The British Bulldog stuff was over. Sven’s England would be calm, outward-looking, at the level of the Spanish and the Italians and the French.
Sven was looking to build a calm, confident, cosmopolitan team. This team would contain players who would have played against the best in the world, and know that they could cope with that. So, players who were regularly involved in the Champions League, the strongest football competition in the world, would be chosen for England. Talented players who lacked that kind of formative experience would make the squad, but faced a definite disadvantage.
Furthermore, the core of the side, the leaders and captains, would be men who had demonstrated a willingness to take risks on the field of play, to attempt things that, if successful, would win top matches.. and to survive mentally should those things not come off. There is an alternative history of England here: Owen charges the Argentines in 1998, still not a “natural goalscorer” apparently, and, failing to see Paul Scholes in a position to receive a pass, loses possession on the edge of the area instead of scoring a great goal. When Beckham is sent off in the same game, people remember the episode against Wimbledon in 1996 when the arrogant toe-rag forgot his team mates and attempted a Pele lob from his own half, missing by a mile.. except that both attempts, Owen’s and Beckham’s, actually came off. England made it to the 2002 World Cup, very much against the odds, because Beckham refused to learn from four missed free kicks and was ready to attempt a fifth. Sven wanted players who were prepared to take risks to win games. He didn’t find many, but he found some. The last of those was Peter Crouch.
Sven’s core team has been very much his own creation. You’ll miss this if you have a short memory. It seems obvious, doesn’t it, that Ashley Cole is our best left-back? Sven picked him after he’d played only a handful of Premiership matches, stuck by him, and supported him through two years of fairly consistent attack from the press. It’s obvious, isn’t it, that Rooney should start if fit – but that’s hindsight: I doubt an English coach would have picked him for England quite as early as did Sven, and find it easy to imagine him still being employed as a super-sub owing to his “suspect” temperament. Suspect for occasional flashes of temper, or suspect for always being up for the game, always being interested and always willing to try the unexpected? Pick one; Sven did.
It has been argued – and I concur – that the very sort of man Sven was helped enormously in winning him the respect of the players. The British press were obsessed with what they saw as his Swedishness – in fact, this was the application of a shamefully narrow stereotype applied to a man as punishment for his failure to play the barrow boy.
Sven is more Italian than Swedish. Italy has been a life-long love of his, and from his teens he has wanted to live and play there. He dresses in the Italian fashion – and his ability to choose clothes chimes with players with a high interest in fashion themselves. His demonstrated ability with women, and to earn money, also ring true for men for whom these are important parts of life. Style, fortune and glory…
Building a Winning Culture
Sven has a clear idea of what he wants in terms of a winning culture. I’ve talked about this before, so I’ll summarize the four levels thus: a winning-culture player has to
- Want to win. Most of us want that. Some players don’t – there are some excellent players whose skills were wished on them by fate, who play because it’s something that they can do well, but who of themselves aren’t actually interested in football per se. Most of these won’t be playing at the top level – but some are. And they don’t care about winning. Others want to win – sometimes. If winning suits their purposes. The proverbial selfishness of footballers..
- Believe that winning is a possibility. FA Cup giantkillers pick up this feeling late on in their great games, and you can sense it happen, a surge within them as what they want – winning – suddenly makes sense in terms of what might be about to happen. Against Brazil in 2002, England spent the second half not believing that they could win, and behaving accordingly.
- Believe that winning is a probability. Adding that clause has just excluded most players from outside of Sven’s core team. Expecting to win, against the calibre of opposition at a World Cup, is unusual, and isn’t something you can just wish into being in a player. It’s not something that always comes naturally to English thinking – we think we should win, that we ought to win, not that we will, and it’s not coincidental that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy identifies “should” and “ought” thoughts as dysfunctional and potential components of depression. Believing that you are probably going to win has different effects for England in different contexts. Against weak opposition, it can generate lassitude; against strong opposition, it generates football.
- Feel comfortable as a winner; feeling uncomfortable not winning. This clause eliminates most, perhaps all, of Sven’s core team. It would make the difference against weak sides, and it would change the outcome of penality shootouts. It’s hard to identify an English sportsman who qualifies at this level. Carl Fogarty, perhaps? This isn’t a reflection on Carl, but comfortable winners – the likes of Michael Schumacher or Jimmy Connors or Carl Lewis – aren’t always the kind of balanced, clubbable individuals that the English prize; they aren’t even eccentrics; they aren’t our role models. For comfortable winners, it isn’t the taking part – it’s often the crushing of opponents, seeing others defeated, that is the drive. It’s just the coming first, not the beauty of sport.
This is an anti-English schedule in some ways. We prize effort and endeavour, above all, two elements that are the preserve of the underdog, another English favourite. Underdogs, or countries who culturally are comfortable as underdogs, don’t fit into winning cultures. You could choose to build an exciting team – or a stylish team – or a team of heroes – relatively easily in England, but building a team that thinks it can win (with all the impact on play that that implies) and is comfortable with the idea (likewise) is almost impossible as things stand. Sven had to settle for one that just thought it could win… and that took five years to build.
Sven’s view of a winning culture within a squad involves lack of conflict within the group. He sees internal conflict as detrimental to the mental energy of the players, especially within an international squad that, at a major championship, could be holed up together for as much as a month. Players who are seen as likely disturbers of the peace don’t make the plane. Rumour has it that Robbie Fowler ended his own international career by marking Michael Owen’s injury problems at the 2002 World Cup with selfish boasts about becoming the next Geoff Hurst (Hurst was new to England in ’66, not featuring until the quarter final after injury to Jimmy Greaves; so much for Ramsey knowing his style of play and his best squad…). Jermaine Defoe, so more rumours go, is not team-orientated in other, less intrusive ways.
Hoddle dropped Gascoigne before the 1998 World Cup not because of his performances – even at half-pace, Gazza was the best midfielder in the country by a distance – but because he was an intensely disruptive presence in the camp. (Gascoigne’s problems are not of his own making, and his new book makes it clear to me at least that, having been let down by the complacent unconcern of football (Bryan Robson went out of his way to help, however, and so did Walter Smith) he is now being let down by the mental health establishment, who have little to offer him beyond exhortation).
The Impact of the New Culture
Again, this is something I’ve discussed before, and I’m going to summarize. Sven’s building of a core team, prioritizing those players who knew they could perform against the best the world had to offer, those who were prepared to risk trying things, those who expected to win and those who could deal with a team environment – it’s not just about picking the best players.. changed the pattern of England’s results. It’s been said that England now qualify routinely for tournaments, something they haven’t done before in the modern era. That’s true, but there’s more to it than that.
Before Sven, England had three kinds of opponents:
- Minnows. There’d be problems with these from time to time, but it was more often the case that England would act like flat track bullies, and win by four or more.
- Mediocre sides. (Teams without World Cup stars on their shirts). England would usually win, but narrowly and with a fair degree of nerves and huffing/puffing.
- Good sides. Italy, Holland, Germany (West Germany before 1991), Argentina, Brazil. Occasional friendly victories, almost universal, occasionally glorious defeat should England encounter them competitively.
Under Sven, things have shifted. There are now four kinds of opponents:
- Minnows. Trouble! England find it hard to get out of first gear against such minor challenges, and tend to do the least possible to win. Against Northern Ireland, who want to be seen as a minnow in that context and I’ll oblige them, this backfired.
- Mediocre sides. England will win, almost always, but look as though they’d rather be doing something else. There was far too much of this kind of thing at the World Cup. Portugal were mediocre in standard against us, and relied on our wayward shooting and persistent unpunished gamesmanship to get through.
- Good sides. We play well, and usually win. We needed far more of this calibre of opposition to thrive in the World Cup, contrary to the enthusiasm of both Sven and the press for an easy road through.
- Brazil. I class Brazil differently purely because of the collapse in morale against them in 2002, which has no parallel in Ericsson’s reign. We’ll never know now if England had overcome their awe of the former World Champions.
On the face of it, that might seem like progress. It certainly represents a change: England play top sides with the attitude that they are in the company of their peers and it’s worth getting up for. Lesser teams aren’t.
World Cup 2006
So, where did all this get us?
It’s a shame that Sven’s core team never had the chance to play top opposition in the World Cup. In my opinion – not Sven’s – England needed a group of death. The mental stimulation from proper opposition resulted in that magnificent first half against Sweden, topped by Joe Cole’s magical goal. Against Portugal, being cast as underdogs with ten men did the trick. It’s not Churchill – just the need for a challenge appropriate to the minds of the team. That we can’t get going against smaller teams is a failing, but I don’t see an easy way of solving the problem without sacrificing that essential self-confidence against better sides.
I’m not a big believer in “progress” in football. England have improved under Sven, partly because we’ve had good players coming through (the two Coles, Rooney, Lampard, Terry..) and a coach who will actually pick them (Sven is the first manager of England not to neglect an obviously top talent on the grounds of work-rate). But England improved immediately under Sven – we were better straightaway, in the manner I’ve described. So it’s organisation that got us better, not progress as such.
Good managers generally change things for the better immediately. Results come straight away. If you follow the career of Jock Stein, for instance, you’ll notice that every side he took over, from the very beginning, dramatically improved without any kind of lag time. Alex Ferguson took five years to make anything of Manchester United, but otherwise his record is similar – instant improvement everywhere. It’s the same with Bill Shankly, or Manchester United under Busby. Jose Mourinho has managed the same thing with every club he’s worked at.
Good managers do not grow with experience out of mediocre managers – they are good from the start. And the teams they take over improve with a jolt, before there’s been time for a culture to take hold and new personnel drafted in – Martin O’Neill’s non-league teams show this, just as much as Celtic did.
No top country beside England suffered so much disruption to their core side at the World Cup. England lost Neville, Owen, Rooney, Terry and Beckham at various stages. Who did Italy lose? Or France? Argentina lost their three best players in their quarter final – because their coach substituted them. Sven has been criticized for not having a plan B, whilst no one in England commented on Argentina’s reliance on Riquelme, or Brazil’s on the magic four (only one and a half of whom showed up). England were on Plan C in the end – an undeservedly disrupted climax for a decent side.
But there’s something else to add; what Sven might himself see as a failure.
England and Fear
I’ve already touched on the way Owen and Beckham have proved themselves to be men who are prepared to risk failure in order to win. It’s a rare mentality in football.
A year ago, I was asked in to advise IMGTV in the making of a programme about Jose Mourinho as part of Sky One’s “Sports Matters” series. I wrote a think-piece about Mourinho (which is archived on this site) from which they put together an interview, broadcast in excerpt but which I have in full on video tape. The core of my approach was to look at Mourinho’s attitude towards fear and failure. He did me proud, confirming almost every guess I’d made as to his attitudes – and demonstrating that these were topics he’d thought deeply about.
Sven has the same thoughts in On Management. The essential idea is this:
If you try something, and it doesn’t come off, if it “fails”, does that make you more likely to “fail” next time, or is what happened irrelevant to your future performance? Does failure in one thing make you, personally and intrinsically, a “failure”? Or are you always immune from becoming “a failure” – the failure always remaining outside you, apart from you and who you are?
If you can keep failure outside yourself, so to speak, then it follows that you are more willing to risk failure, as failure doesn’t have ultimate significance for you. You are willing to try more, free, if you like, to attempt difficult things.
It was visible in England’s play in the World Cup that – until Rooney’s sending off – they were afraid to go for it. Only once they had an excuse for failure – being down to ten men – only once they could be sure that the failure was not down to them as individuals – did they cut loose.
It’s not a new England problem. It was there in the 1990 World Cup, where only in the semi-final – when we’d already overachieved and were guaranteed to come home as heroes – did we finally play football. It was there in the European Championships of 1996 – again in the semi-final, once we’d taken a deserved lead, we fell back on our own penalty area and tried to hold what we had, unsuccessfully. It’s there again and again: the failure to press, to push up, when that’s all that’s needed. And that comes from fear – the fear of being the one to make the error, to let the side down, to let the country down.
For a while, Sven’s England looked as though they were free of the fear – in the marvellously fluid first match against Spain; against Germany in Munich. But no. It was back again in the 2002 Finals – again, the inability, if your team is to defend, to do it high enough up the pitch.
Sven has twice changed a losing culture at clubs – his Gothenberg team were the first Scandinavian team to win a European trophy, while his Lazio won the Scudetto under him for the first time in 26 years, the same gap between titles as Manchester United’s before Ferguson got into gear. He turned England into a side that would like to win the World Cup, that would try terribly hard to win the World Cup, to one that looks back on 2006 as a lost opportunity.
It’s a lost opportunity because of the enemy he didn’t see off – the fear of failure.
Sven leaves us with a settled side, some promising young players who’ve more experience at international level than an Englishman would have given them (Sven has never “gone for experience”, unlike his predecessors), seriously raised expectations, and some stirring memories. The problem for his successor, you’ll find, is not in taking things forward, but in matching them. This will not be like Hoddle’s takeover after Venables, when the team stayed together for another two years; the break goes further down, and the distress at events greater.
I don’t think McClaren can do much on his own about England’s fears of failure, individual and collective. Asking men to do the impossible is the perogative of football journalists, and I’ll leave them to it. (Isn’t it interesting that intelligent people who wouldn’t dream of taking their politics from the Sun, Mirror or Express are so incredibly eager to take their views on football from those places and their echo-chambers in the heavy press?)
But there are cultural reasons to be optimistic. There were other things evident at this World Cup that lead me to believe that the circumstances for a substantial drop in that fear of failure, that performance anxiety, that – insert your preferred term – are taking shape. I’ll talk about that tomorrow.