England’s imperious form in Euro 2017 continued with a fourth consecutive victory on Sunday.
It is a strange feeling supporting a successful England side that plays with confidence, flexibility, intelligence and which is coming to peak fitness actually during the tournament rather than arriving with bits hanging off them.
This is all a testament to the players but also to coach Mark Sampson. His methods appear incredibly rigorous and put to shame many an England coach before him. Last year when England were looking lost against Iceland, we were all crying out for Roy Hodgson to make some sort of radical change to rescue the game but despite his experience, he looked utterly lost. There was no plan B, and in fact plan A didn’t seem like much of a plan to begin with, and it seems to have been that way for many decades.
Euro 2017 has been so different, so far. So very, very different. England have not just thoroughly researched their opponents, they have worked out different gameplans for each outing; if one plan does not work, they have another. On top of that, they’ve played each game differently, deploying not just different tactics but a wholly different style of play in each. The opening game against Scotland saw them play a clinical direct attacking game. Against Spain they effectively used the old rope-a-dope, ceding nearly 80% of the possession, soaking up all the pressure, scoring early and late. Spain barely tested the keeper, so effectively were they shut out.
It is also the in-game management of the players that is making such a difference, so much so that Lucy Bronze was confident enough to recite the handball rules to the referee in the Spain game, and in doing so had a penalty award reversed. Later she said: “Before the tournament, Uefa send referees in to have meetings with you and they said if it hits you or is a deflection, it’s not really a handball – you can’t really help it. There are a lot of grey areas. I really paid attention (in those meetings). I had my book out and everything, making sure if I was playing I knew exactly what was a yellow card and red card. There are some different kind of refereeing laws in this tournament so, as a defender, you really need to be switched on.”
This is just a professional approach to your job, of course, but we have all witnessed many instances when this sort of calm, well-expressed knowledge is woefully lacking in England sides. It suggest these players understand that a game isn’t just about skill, it is won in the mind too.
The Portugal game saw 10 different players take the field, so there was less cohesion to the team but again, they overcame this by going toe-to-toe with the most physical side they’d faced. They wouldn’t bullied by a few wild tackles, stood their ground and came out in the second half, overwhelmed the opposition for ten minutes, took the lead and rarely looked in danger of losing it again.
Then it was on to the game against France, a side they’d not beaten since 1974. Coach Sampson was unusually bullish for an England manager before a big game and I suspect this is partly because of the man’s character, but also because he knows how good his side is, both physically and mentally. Last year’s unlucky exit at the World Cup semi-final stage, and subsequent defeat of Germany to make third place, has only served to galvanise the side. They’ve learned from it.
(For 16 Conclusions on the France game, click here).
When Sampson said “the France coach is a little bit wet behind the ears when it comes to tournament football – his team have played three and won one, whereas I have played 11 and won nine”, he wasn’t concerned about giving any hostages to fortune, the way England managers all too often are, aware of the fact that England usually play awfully at tournaments.
They also look to be the fittest side – 23% fitter than 12 months ago, according to Sampson. Jonno Pearce commentating on the Portugal game (he’s been brilliant with Rachel Brown-Finnis and Caroline Barker on 5live, by the way) said the difference in physique between the English and Portuguese was striking. This superior fitness means that late into games, their dominance tends to grow as the opposition tires. This was once again the case against France.
They had a four-week preparation camp at which they were pushed physically hard. Sampson commented: “They had to taper off for the opening games. When you taper off after such a high-intensity period of work you’re not going to be up to speed for your first two games. A lot of the players have been saying that they’re not quite at the intensity they’d like to be. So the nice thing, physically, is we know that we can raise the bar now: we’ve planned to get fitter, faster and stronger as we progress. That tapering period took its toll in those first two games, but I’m confident now we’re really good to go and we’ll see a stronger England for the rest of the tournament.”
I don’t know if England normally train like this, but I’ve certainly never heard an England coach talk about it in such a way. Of course, it makes total sense to get stronger and fitter as the Euros progress. The way he also talk about using cryotherapy and other recovery processes all speaks to someone who is meticulous in his planning and methods in order to give the team the best chances possible.
England have often relied on one or two special players to try and win games; teamwork has always been a weak point. But not here. The unity of purpose and clear identity is a major asset. And when you combine high talent with a strong team ethic, great morale and togetherness, you get results. Sunday’s victory over a strong French side took guts and persistence. France had 57% of the ball but had just three shots on target as England’s defending time and again neutralised their attack. But when a chance came, Jodie Taylor took it clinically and without an ounce of self-doubt. That’s all they need. One chance. Once chance and they will take you down.
Sampson has called them “street fighters” and when you have a player in your squad in Fara Williams, who actually lived on the streets for five years, doing so even whilst playing for England, ‘street fighter’ isn’t an inappropriate term at all.
It is thrilling to see an England team that isn’t scared of the shirt. In fact, captain Steph Houghton said after the game that “we put our bodies on the line for the shirt”. It’s so inspiring to see a team that is so mentally strong, that is flexible, intelligent and at peak fitness, and that has conceded just one goal in four games and scored 11. This is how you give yourself a chance to win a trophy. And with a tough game against the Dutch hosts to come, that’s still all it is: a chance.
Last year’s World Cup adversity seems to have fed their hunger for success. It has educated them in the art of finding a way to win. So much so that as the white wall shuts up shop once again you catch yourself thinkin, “Hang on, am I really watching England?”
Yes, yes we are. And it is fantastic.