England are succeeding because – finally – they make sense

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
July 9, 2018
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It made sense. England’s performance against Sweden made sense. It came with imperfections and the scoreline owed something to Jordan Pickford’s reflexes, but it came courtesy of a performance which had clear identity. After the nerve-shredding experience of those 120 minutes against Colombia, it was also exactly what the nation needed. No more hiding behind pint glasses and sofas, instead just the calming sight of a team executing its gameplan.

England were smart in Samara. Having watched and reviewed Sweden’s previous four games, their coaching staff had clearly identified a side who had to be respected with the ball, but who were vulnerable to speed and swift passages of play. It was a fatal flaw. While some of the early exchanges were quite impotent, England were effective in disrupting the shape of Janne Andersson’s defence. Raheem Sterling broke the line several times, even if he wasn’t properly rewarded, and that proved the emblem of this win. Given how stubborn the Swedes were expected to be, England’s mix of passing and their range of penetration made them look surprisingly porous.

As previously, it was also a result which depended on set-pieces. However, rather than tempering the praise for what was achieved in open play, that too serves to underline why this tournament has gone better than expected.

England are coachable. These players are pliable and, really without modern precedent, they’ve allowed themselves to be built into a team which accentuates their strengths and minimises their weaknesses. Thinking back to previous tournaments, that really hasn’t been the case. Rather, there’s usually been an anomaly – a positional faux-pas of some sort, or a player being asked to job for which he’s not suited. Whether it be Harry Kane taking corners, Paul Scholes operating from the left of the pitch or, most notoriously, the imbalance of a midfield, England were masters of making ridiculous mistakes.

Rightly, Gareth Southgate is being celebrated for opposing that trend. He’s a level headed coach with a cogent set of ideas for how the game should be played and, evidently, is blessed with a knack for communicating them well. But this also speaks to the type of footballer this country has started to breed. Social media has been flooded with examples of the current squad’s humanity and the videos and pictures of the players with their friends and family are enchanting. That’s nice to see and it certainly makes it easy to wish them well. More impressive though, have been the various on-pitch responses which have occurred throughout the tournament – the problem solving, to use the voguing phrase.

The logic goes that if a player properly understands his role and those of his teammates, then events which occur during games can be overcome more easily. Tactics are important, team selection too, but without accountability and situational intelligence on the field their effect can only be so much. Pleasingly, this England have shown a capacity to think their way through difficulty – to that critical equaliser against the Tunisians, to the end of extra-time against a resurgent Colombia. There were elements of luck and chance involved in each scenario, but they were both descriptive of how healthy this working environment is.

For some time, it often seemed as if English national teams took the field with an imperfect understanding for how they were supposed to play. That apparent confusion would manifest in staccato football which was limited to drawing its strength from the abilities of the individual players.

That’s no longer true. Southgate is not fielding the eleven best players in the world, some of them aren’t even in the top-five in their position, but there’s a clear cohesion to their play. It may not always work, but the patient build-up phases, the harmonious high-press and those well-oiled set-pieces betray a team who are now performing as they have been designed to.

Again, that’s new. It’s perhaps a development which can be traced to broadening Premier League horizons – British-based players are exposed to better and more diverse coaching than they were 20 years ago – but it’s progres which the Football Association has also driven.

Apparent for some time has been the change in players who are part of the England system. Whether it’s seen on the pitch, on media days or fleetingly in mixed zones, the profile of the international player in this country has been evolving. Even at a young age, footballers are prone to reticence, but there’s still something impressive – or different – which radiates from them. They’re capable of holding conversations. Talk to them after a game and they’re able to diagnose victory and defeat with more than just platitudes. More often not, they understand why they didn’t win games and what it is that needs improving.

Referring to England DNA still tweaks the gag reflex in some and there will always be those who have a distaste for Dan Ashworth. Nevertheless, the effects of that movement have been clear for some time beneath the senior team and now, with a World Cup final just a game away, they’re becoming very difficult to deny.

Maybe the problem lies in interpretation. England DNA was never supposed to be focused purely on talent production and the creation of a small army of world class players. It involved that – certainly – and the glut of talent emerging will one day leave a fine legacy. Nevertheless, it was a broader initiative: it aimed to change the culture of international football and to alter the representative experience. While clearly important to raise the technical standard, it was also essential that the social and preparatory aspects of playing for England were altered, too. In have come the homogenised formations and the collective planning and analysis,¬† and so too the staff who are willing to work within that structure. It’s quite a strange sentence to type, the past makes it sound ludicrous, but

The critical piece though, has been Southgate himself. Not because he’s a rare coach or a gifted tactician¬† – we’re still largely unsure of his abilities – but because he believe in the system itself. Had The FA reacted a different way following Sam Allardyce’s departure and appointed from the high echelons of the club game, they would voluntarily have created an obstruction within their own pipeline. In fact, Allardyce’s appointment had been exactly that (and remains absolutely baffling). Millions of pounds had been spent in pursuit of an identity and, with one reflexive hire, Ashworth appointed a man who would have made the senior team an island. From the u16s upwards, graduating players would have been indoctrinated in ball-retention and smart defensive exits, only to see that – at the highest level – the country was still wedded to an archaic approach. At best, that ideological synapse would have been discouraging, at worst it would have squandered a generation’s worth of promise.

Opposition to Allardyce was too readily dismissed as snobbery. It wasn’t. He was just clearly, clearly the wrong person for the job.

Read: England slay their dragons

In Southgate, England have the right man. It’s not a coincidence that with him, a company man, now in charge, everything now seems to make a bit more sense. With regards its senior international side, the FA has built itself into an organisation defined by the quality of its processes – meaning, of course, that those with the most influence must believe whole-heartedly in that direction. That’s what makes Southgate such a complementary fit. As a coach, he was raised and conditioned at St George’s Park and, having worked at different levels within the organisation, he has a broader oversight and a finder understanding than anyone barring Ashworth himself.

And, ultimately, who better to manage and communicate with this current generation than someone who was actually involved in modifying its genetics. He has spent seven years with The FA now, starting as its head of elite development in 2011, working through three different cycles with the u21s, and now sits at the top of an organisation which he really helped to build. His name might not appear on the flashy documents, but he has been part of the fabric for almost a decade and understands the fibre of the contemporary English footballer better than just about anyone.

So of course it’s going better. For once, England have thought beyond the superficial.

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