This week, England took on Iceland in what many saw as a meaningless game – a dead rubber in Nations League terms. It was, however, a great chance to show off England’s young stars and for Gareth Southgate to either experiment or consolidate the national team’s form.
In training before the game, England looked sharp, but could they replicate this speed and dedication in the game?
We spoke to The Secret Coach to find out for a coach’s perspective how Southgate might be able to manage England fans’ expectations as well as build a new side to challenge at the Euros in 2021 and the World Cup in 2022. TSC is a professional football coach in English football who will remain anonymous. They’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the game, going through the coaching process in full and is currently part of the coaching team at an English league side… and that’s all we’re telling you. They’ll be honest each week about what they see as they see it. As ever, The Secret Coach pulls no punches!
“England have a good team,” says TSC. “Despite that, the public – led by the media – hype their chances up but are very loyal and extremely passionate about their football which is amazing. Being in a stadium hearing this support is fantastic.”
“Players are honoured to be selected for their country and they want to represent their country.”
What is it about our national football fans that are never satisfied, with a World Cup semi-final, a Nations League semi-final or a qualifying campaign?
“In my opinion, tournament football is about progression and a win is a win!” says TSC. “Don’t jump on the players and staff backs due to a 1-0 where we didn’t play well because that happens. It’s a time to come together and support; you don’t see Liverpool fans booing their team after a bad result. International players are honoured to be selected for their country and believe me they want to be selected and represent their country. But there is an element of fear due to this expectation.”
Is some of that down to the broadcasting popularity of the Premier League?
“We have the biggest league in the world and as a result we overlook the size of the country and the pool of players we have versus the bigger nations. We lack patience as a nation I feel. Look at the younger teams where we have won Euros and World Cups – we have successful teams – but many are not allowed to develop in first team squads in the Premier League due to inexperience and risk of playing them.”
“Bigger clubs are now giving these young players a chance.”
The spending power of the Premier League’s top clubs is scary, too. You only have to look at Chelsea’s expenditure this past summer, with £200m being spent and Tammy Braham’s development suffering as a result with Timo Werner now more or less guaranteed a starting berth. TSC believes that this is not a league-wide status, however.
“That is starting to change; bigger clubs are now giving these young players a chance so we will be stronger in several years’ time, but we have to be patient!”
The England manager’s job is the pinnacle of any English coach’s career, but it is widely regarded as a poisoned chalice due to the demand and scrutiny the role takes place under. TSC puts some of that down to the gap between games in a usual season.
“With no regular games, this pressure goes on longer. One poor game could mean that the next one is not for several months, so there’s plenty of time to hound and pick apart a coach based on his football but also, at times, their character which is not on. Look at Bobby Robson – slated in the press before the 1990 World Cup – mainly for accepting another job – but even after the game against Ireland, for example, he was slated! But then ‘Gazza’ happened and it all changed. If you look at that World Cup, the team did not play well, but the hype and buzz around being in a semi-final was led by the media and what a change, what an atmosphere!”
“One minute you’re a genius, then two games later you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Memories come flooding back to TSC, who adored England in their younger years.
“It was fantastic. Everyone was hopeful, we were there not saying that it was a fluke or that we were poor, looking back at the games. Sir Bobby was fantastic in everyone’s eyes, leading the team but at times, they hadn’t played well. After Germany and penalties, all was forgotten, however and he was praised. Four weeks earlier, he had been hounded in the street and slated in the press. Being a manager is a roller coaster – one minute you’re a genius, then two games later you don’t know what you’re doing – the same can be said of Gareth Southgate.”
The 2018 World Cup in Russia set expectations slightly lower due to previous tournaments not going England’s way, but these expectations were in many ways exceeded by England’s run to a heartbreaking semi-final defeat by Croatia.
“It was a great World Cup,” says TSC. “We were punching above our weight but on our way to the semi-finals we played well and people were behind Gareth Southgate. Just look at ‘Waistcoat Wednesdays’! In Croatia, we played a team who were also in form, who we had beaten before but also lost to before with good players. In that semi-final, we didn’t play as well but it was then slated as missing our best opportunity. That might be so, but don’t slate the manager – build the support, build the praise. We have no divine right to be World Cup finalists just because we have won one. Southgate has been scrutinised ever since.”
International football is very difficult for a manager. A coach will almost always never have the team they want available. You don’t get long with the players, who often play different roles and styles at club level and suddenly have to adapt. I agree with having larger squads with younger uncapped players in to gain experience to see how they do in the environment and if they’re ready use them.”
Despite Southgate going with a largely strong side against Iceland, he brings in Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka. TSC Would like to see Southgate do the same in bigger, more meaningful games.
“There’s no point playing well against Iceland then not playing against Brazil. If you can do it against Brazil then great – [Southgate] will know they can perform against anyone. The difficulty is that it’s not club football – you don’t get long to work on patterns, the shape of the team or how you want to play. You might just have one game then none for months, so you need to try new stuff. In such a short space of time, its difficult and the plans or form can easily become undone in the months after that game. You can start again in the next game – often with lots of new faces.”
“England played the same formation, but some players did not suit the roles they were in.”
With the subject of England’s back three against many of their Nations League rivals coming under close attention from the press and fans alike, where will England go in a standard World Cup game in 2022, for example?
“Gareth has a plan in mind for his first choice 11 and I think that’s 4-3-3. With the current players at his disposal, I think that is positive.” Says The Secret Coach. The England coaching DNA is to get all the best players on the pitch – a difficult thing for international football. At club level, you get chance to work daily embedding the roles and responsibilities of players in certain positions for what you want in attack, in defence and in transition. In International football, you might spend two training camps working on how you want to play a plan A and B but if you don’t get your first choice players from the clubs, then do you change for the sake of the squad you have for just that game or think of the long term? This dichotomy was evident against Belgium, where England played the same formation, but some players did not suit the roles they were in.”
For several years we cruised through qualifying under managers like Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson yet struggled massively in tournaments. Southgate’s team seems to be far more focused on the actual tournaments.
“Continuity is massive at International level, so Gareth is building a squad [for these tournaments]. He probably has an eye not on this squad but what’s coming through. We have some very exciting young players beginning to emerge at big clubs and getting game time which is massive for England, not just in the Premier League but also in the German Bundesliga, but Germans, Brazil and others have world class players in many positions playing regularly against the best players in various leagues. That, as well as our nations love of fixture congestion, does mean we risk burn out at the end of the season.”
Will England burn out or shine brightly at the Euros in the summer of 2021? Gareth Southgate’s men are currently 6/1 to win the 2021 Euros and 10/1 to win the World Cup that takes place a year later. Will Gareth Southgate be manager by then? England expects so… but in football, there’s always a surprise around the corner.
The Secret Coach will return next week exclusively here at Calvin Ayre.