For the thirty-one years that divided England’s narrow loss to Brazil in the 1970 World Cup Finals and the 5-1 victory over Germany in Munich, there were three kinds of England international. The first kind were against minnows, nations with little football history or few players to call upon. England almost always won these matches handsomely. The second kind were against established football nations, perhaps without England’s deep well of talent, but well-coached and eager to show what they could do. These were usually close games, with little glory in victory for England and only ignominy in defeat. Finally, there were the games against serious opposition – the Italys, Germanys, Argentinas and Brazils. Regardless of performance, it was unusual for England to come away from these as winners.
These days, there are four types of opponent. The minnows, against whom England win narrowly after a demotivated struggle; the reasonable opponents, whom England will beat by two or more goals; the serious opponents, whom England now outplay; and Brazil, who beat us. This is change, at a deep level, change – against better opponents at least – for the better. It’s not been a matter of our having superior players these days – are the current crop really better than the Waddles, Gascoignes, Robsons, Beardsleys, Linekers, Shearers, Butchers, Walkers, Brookings, etc. of earlier years? There’s Rooney, of course, but then there’s also England’s manager to account for this improvement.
What kind of man is Sven Goran Erickson? You’d be hard put to answer that question if all you had to rely upon was the British media, whose reply – “Foreign – ” says more about them that it does about the man himself. Fortunately, there have been a few writers willing to venture into the strange unknown worlds beyond parochialism and bigotry, and they all begin by discussing the calmness of Sven, his unflappability under pressure. Sven himself would explain this in terms of his upbringing, which taught him not to worry about those things beyond his control, an awareness he shares with Jose Mourinho. He’s very well-dressed – uncommon in Britain, and impressive to modern image-conscious footballers. He is by his own description “willing to fail”, meaning that he can fail at what he wants to do without he himself becoming “a failure”, another point of comparison with Mourinho. Sven has two loves in his life – an obsession with sport, and a deep attachment to Italy, a country he longed to perform in as a player and where he was happiest as a man and as a coach. The British find his calm difficult to comprehend without seeing it as some kind of facade – so, behind the facade, is a thrill-seeker, a ski-jumper in his youth, a romantic still chasing fortune and glory in football when other men with his money and achievements would have settled for the peace of the golf course. His temptestuous love-life – the very fact that he can pull – brings him closer to his players and further away from British journalists. He is an excellent communicator, and has an acute eye for detail – two more Mourinho attributes that Sven has, and which are characteristic of great coaches. Overall, I get a picture of Sven as a very unBritish individual – he’s not one of our football men at all, this smart lover of women and fortune and glory, with his cool self-control – and he doesn’t need our good opinion, that’s for sure. But he has the good opinion of his squad, and it’s worth asking why.
On the whole, footballers need three things from their coach in order to thrive. Certainty – knowing what is expected, precisely and simply and when, nothing too complicated, expecially when it comes to tactics and team selection. Security – knowing they are valued and have a part to play, knowing that their coach rates them. Thirdly, they are looking for the chance to improve and win things, caps and trophies. Sven has gone some way in overcoming the difficulty of providing these things within the limited sphere of international football by running England as a little club, with a settled side, hard to get into, hard to get out of. The line-up against Germany in 2001 is essentially the same one as will, with luck, start the World Cup this summer (substitute Rooney for Heskey, Cole for Scholes, Robinson for Seaman and Lampard for Barmby and that’s it, in five years). Within the little club, Sven has set out to create what he calls a “winning mentality”. This is a long-term project.
There are three parts to this “winning mentality”, and the first is the simple desire to win. It goes without saying, really. Virtually all players have this, and quite a few non-players too – if you or I were handed an England shirt, we’d probably want to win and do our best to that end. The next stage, however, consists of the simple, straightforward belief that victory is at least possible. Euro 2004 was the first tournament England went into with the genuine belief that they were up to the task, since Mexico 1970, and they were right both times. Practically every member of Sven’s core England side know without question that they are able to cope with playing at the very highest level and know that they are probably good enough to make winning a decent prospect. Great players don’t always share this attitude – Tony Currie, the wonderful Sheffield United midfielder of the 1970s, frequently lost confidence in his own ability, whereas an Owen or a Gerrard will still bet on themselves after a dozen consecutive errors. The final stage is that of feeling comfortable as a winner, of being congruent with it, expecting it, experiencing no dissonance with it. This stage has caused winning English teams terrible trouble in recent years. Both the rugby and cricket teams have achieved on the grand scale, only to revert to their accustomed mediocrity once the achievement was safely behind them. Winning really takes it out of us, creating a kind of mental exhaustion that Australian cricketers wouldn’t begin to recognise. We don’t, as a nation, feel like winners, nor do we like accustomed winners very much. There aren’t that many of them in football per se – Sven talks of Roberto Mancini and Sinisa Mihajlovic within that category, and you might add Zidane and Ronaldinho to the list. I can’t think of anyone in the core England lineup, with the possible exception of John Terry, who might qualify. But for England to possess an entire side who are at least at the second level is a novelty in itself.
Choosing players who have that belief that winning is at possible – that it is doable – is one part of building the mentality across the squad. Sven sees such confidence as catching – which I think is arguable, frankly. He also sets great store by a harmonious squad – one in which conflict is kept to a minimum. He looks for a squad in which everyone understands the goals of the group, and everyone subscribes to the goals of the group. Once again, the benefits of this are arguable. Pursuit of the harmonious squad has probably led to the exclusion of as good a player as Robbie Fowler, and in any case, there is little evidence that harmony outdoes discord at World Cups – in 1974, the final was contested by two camps absolutely ridden with internal dissent and failures of discipline. Some discord can provide that distraction from the matter at hand that relieves performance pressure from players, freeing them to produce their best game.
Sven, like most great coaches, is careful not to be too close to his squad. Like Robson before him, Sven has been accused of giving in to player power. It’s a good story. But the evidence of “player power” – the settled squad, Beckham’s retention as skipper – are products of the press’s imagination. We’ve dealt with the settled squad, and, in truth, even Sven’s hardest critics would be pressed to improve upon it. Beckham deserves lengthier consideration.
David Beckham wasn’t made captain by Sven – that was done by Peter Taylor, who, in his one game as caretaker manager, decided to blood young players and gave Beckham the armband both as a tribute to his recovery from France ’98 and because he was the most experienced young player of the day. Sven kept him on as captain, and has used Michael Owen as back-up on his occasional absences through injury and suspension. That in itself tells me that Sven doesn’t see the captain as a kind of inspirational mini-me representing him out on the field. Rather, the captain stands for the kind of atmosphere Sven wants around the team – calm, professional, good enough to succeed on merit, not having to win against the odds.
Beckham might just need the captaincy to get the best out of himself. Unlike a Scholes or a Barmby, Beckham seems to want the intense attention he receives, not because it raises the stakes for him especially, but – psychobabble alert – because he needs outside confirmation of his own significance in order to perform. He needs some form of sign that people know he is there, that he matters to what’s going on. The captaincy is reassuring for him in that respect. Beckham, like Erickson, is a risktaker – going to Real Madrid to see if he could match the Zidanes and Figos, or, for instance, that halfway line kick against Wimbledon, or taking the last free kick against Greece, or his persisting with England penalty duty after repeated failure. But he is not the calm, control-aware kind of man that Erickson is, nor is Erickson a father figure to him. Rather, Beckham is the most team-orientated member of the squad, buying completely into the goals and ethos of the group Erickson has built. If Erickson’s intelligence is sometimes overrated, Beckham’s is always horrendously downplayed. As such, Beckham – and in the same respects, Owen – well repesents the cosmopolitan, sophisticated and accomplished team that is England today.
I’d describe Sven as having pursued an anti-England agenda, in that he’s had to eliminate from his squad as far as he can some of those very English characteristics that were holding England’s always talented players from achieving their due. Three words sum up what he stands against.
The first of these is Passion. Passion – the ranting, heart-on-sleeve, veins-on-forehead approach to football, is much loved in England. But it’s counterproductive. It doesn’t work. Why, if you wouldn’t expect shouting to get more from Bjorn Borg or Tiger Woods or Matthew Pinsent, do you think it might make all the difference in Darius Vassell, who at the end of the day is just an athlete playing a sport? Why look to Churchillian rhetoric, when the (successful) England rugby team actually chose quiet and concentration at half time, instead of shouting? A tight game is a hysterical situation enough on its own without the coach adding an extra layer on his own account. What a Clough worked towards was distracting his players from the occasion, not ramming it down their throats, because he knew – and Erickson knows – that raising the temperature is only going to increase performance anxiety and fear of failure. It’s not going to raise your or anyone else’s game. Passion is the resort of those who know that their skill isn’t up to the job, who know that they aren’t going to win, but are going to “do their best” (they probably won’t, because they’ll be too het up). Passion can blind a team to their true quality. In this season’s FA Cup, Luton Town built up a lead over Liverpool by playing cultured, passing football – but, shocked by this turn of events, they resorted to headless chicken “passionate” football and threw it all needlessly away, when calmness would have won the match.
The second of these words is “tricks”, the English word for an excellent level of ball skill. Only a certain level of skill is truly acceptable to the English, and anything beyond that is either supernatural or dishonest. Or the result of “natural rhythm”: it took Simon Clifford to go to Brazil and discover that the secret of their success wasn’t samba and beach football, but superb coaching and high standards. We still haven’t properly heard what he has to say – his treatment at Southampton was a disgrace. It’s OK for a British player to lose the ball through ineptitude, lack of technique or clumsiness – but if he dare lose possession because he was using his skills then he is to be condemned as a “show pony”. That’s not the same as saying that the Joe Coles don’t need to learn to work for the team, because they do. That’s something all players have to learn. And it’s not saying that fans don’t love their genius-level players – because the fans know better than the coaches in this regard.
The third phrase is “mind games”. It’s disreputable in the English game to recognise that there is a mental side to playing football. Not so in athletics, or golf, or tennis, or rowing, or rugby. Clough, Paisley and Shankly knew. But those were intelligent men, who knew that they did more than “kick one up the backside, put an arm around the other’s shoulder”. Although some part of the poor reputation psychology in football “enjoys” is down to the childish interchanges between Ferguson and Wenger, for instance, there’s some of the same suspicion here that gets shown to skill.
If only proper mental preparation – of the kind Clough promised were he given the England job – be allied with our existing teamwork, and with excellent ball skills – England could succeed. No more “Do I not like thats”, no more where-do-we-fit-Hoddle-Waddle-Le Tissier-into-the-team. Remember the spectacle of the most skilled England players not being picked because the coach didn’t know what to do with such ability. It was a big issue only ten years ago. It’s been thirty years since Ramsey’s England played Brazil in 1970 and matched them with a sophisticated, mature, aware and exciting performance: now, once more, England are on a level with the very best in the world.
This is an England team that has learned to pace itself across a tournament. After leading Portugal, England suffered injuries, and fell behind – only to demonstrate the ability to change the pace and course of the game. Only a tight refereeing decision, and bad luck in the penalty shootout, prevented an English victory that would surely have been followed by victory in the tournament as a whole. That an England team shouldn’t play flat-out all the time may be anathema to watching journalists, but the same strategy won world cups for Italy, Argentina and France in previous tournaments. In 2002, England were reduced by injuries and sapping heat, but even more so by their own beliefs that they would never beat Brazil; that negativity may well be gone now if the performances against Argentina and Uruguay are anything to go by.
It was odd enough winning the Rugby World Cup – even wierder to carry off the Ashes. Something wrong here.. so it’s just as well that the coach who has brought English football to this point is leaving in the summer. To be replaced, perhaps, by someone more in the Churchillian mode.