On Sunday June 11th the England Under-20 football team won the World Cup, beating Venezuela 1:0 in South Korea with the winning goal coming from Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
This is England’s most significant international title since the senior team’s World Cup win of 1966. That’s nearly fifty-one years without a trophy for the home of football, where the Premiership is the richest and most watched league in the world.
So what has gone wrong for the Three Lions, or more importantly, what went so right for those younger under 20 year old lions?
The Premier league is full of foreign managers who have brought a tactical sophistication to teams that British managers simply did not have before.
Just look at Jose Mourinho as an example of this. He instructs players to do a specific job in accordance to a system, and rarely gives players a free role to express themselves. This works when drilled, day in day out.
Foreign managers at international level tend to work the same way. The problem arises when there is much less time to ingrain a system philosophy into players, as national teams get limited time to train together every year.
Players are already bamboozled by systems at club level and tend to get turned off by different or even the same systems playing for the national team.
Arsenal player Theo Walcott once said of Fabio Capello that he “never quite knew what was required” of him in the buildup to the 2010 World Cup. He was eventually left out of the final squad for the competition.
Club politics, fatigue and injury
The international team will want to have their best players available, and invariably those players will play for more successful clubs that play at a higher intensity in more competitions.
Club managers are mindful of a hectic playing schedule and seek to rotate their squad to avoid injuries. When international matches arise; especially friendlies, the manager will do their best to keep the player, citing injury as a reason to not make them available internationally.
In 2013, the then England manager Roy Hodgson admitted that national skipper Steven Gerrard needed a jab for a hip injury to play against Germany in a friendly.
Both club and country deserve credit here, but the issue can be more exasperated when the player themselves doesn’t really want to go on international duty.
Team morale and rivalry
Players have a strong sense of camaraderie with fellow club teammates, as naturally they more familiar with each other, both personally and professionally.
When players come together at international level however, they are suddenly training with players from rival teams.
It’s much tougher to develop a sense of spirit playing with players who you want to beat the following week in a local derby.
The media play a big part in putting a national team under undue pressure. They forget that much of the quality in the Premiership is down to the impact of foreign stars.
The England players are expected to perform as well as the clubs they play for, which is unfair. In some cases, the England stars aren’t even regulars at club level. Ask Wayne Rooney.
Fun and motivation
Smaller nations like the Republic of Ireland and Wales are full of players that are playing at smaller club teams, so when they are chosen to play internationally they revel in the exposure.
These players are all excited and having fun playing at a bigger stage, so this creates a greater motivation to work hard and perform for each other.
England by contrast, is expected to win, and for many players the pressure undermines the sense of fun and motivation that should be present when representing your country.
Terry Venables’ Euro 96 squad had a unique bond and looked like they were really enjoying themselves. El Tel’s extreme light touch management even led to off the field controversy with the famous “dentist chair” boozing debacle in Hong Kong.
The Under-20’s secret
So how did the under twenties succeed where others failed? It seems discipline and organisation were key, according to boss Paul Simpson when speaking to the Daily Mail –
“We had a really structured plan. From day one, we had a massive document for every day mapped out, right up to the evenings when the players went to bed. We had different scenarios if we finished first, second or third in the group. Every scenario. We had a plan for what we were going to do if it went to penalties. The players knew the lists before the game, what the order was. We planned for every scenario. Thankfully it worked.”
This seems a shade ironic, as this methodical approach seems more typical in continental managers like Fabio Capello and Sven Goran Eriksson.
Maybe what it all boils down to is the players feeling understood by their managers. Maybe England players just need to be loved again.
Written by Nicholas Behan
Follow Nicholas on Twitter @NicholasBehan
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