Six games, no wins, two goals from open play. England’s recent form doesn’t make pretty reading, especially in a World Cup year.
And as disappointing result rolls into poor performance into unwanted records of profligacy, the focus has turned on manager Gareth Southgate.
It’s almost possible to create a bingo sheet out of the criticisms that are fired out by Southgate detractors, accusing the Three Lions boss of being unable to manage the talents at his disposal, being too ponderous during matches and relying too heavily on certain players. Oh, not to forget the piece de resistance: Southgate’s conservativism.
And while that’s a fair criticism of any team that has shown such a startling lack of creativity in recent matches, being pragmatic isn’t such a bad trait to have in the international game. In fact, a look back at major tournament history in recent decades and it might even be considered a strength.
That might be at odds with the free-flowing, attacking teams that regularly hoover up silverware in the club game, but the truth is that winning a World Cup is a different beast entirely.
The obvious reason is that international managers simply don’t have the same time to spend with players as their domestic cohorts. It means the carefully choreographed presses and slick attacking interchanges we see used to such devastating effect by the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool just aren’t possible for nations to replicate. It’s a problem plenty of managers grapple with.
“At club level, you have 60 sessions pre-season to prepare for you first game,” said Belgium boss Roberto Martinez in new book How to Win the World: Secrets and Insights from International Football’s Top Managers.
“It’s accepting that I couldn’t work in the same manner [as I did a club level] because at international level we have five camps every year, so it’s not the same as meeting the players every day.”
Those restrictions naturally lead to sides prioritising the basics and being hard to beat is the first building block for any international side with serious designs on winning a major tournament.
That can be frustrating for fans, especially in the modern age. Although even some of the World Cup’s most famous former winners have been led to victory by managers who, prior to the tournament kicking off, were under pressure at home. It’s just history forgets.
One of the best examples of this is Argentina’s side of the late 80s and early 90s. Everyone remembers Diego Maradona’s performances as he almost single-handedly guided the La Albiceleste to glory at the 1986 World Cup and then to the final four years later, but the Argentine fans never fully took to Carlos Bilardo – in part due to his pragmatism.
An unconvincing qualifying campaign ahead of the tournament in 86, paired with Bilardo’s perceived conservatism, had left many in Argentina to question if he was the right man to take the side to the finals. That feeling was only further added to by the controversial selection of Maradona – not only in the squad but as captain – due to his poor temperament, meaning the head coach’s unpopularity was peaking ahead of Mexico 86.
Things got so bad that Bilardo hastily arranged for the squad to leave South America early, with rumours swirling that he was set to be fired.
It’s no wonder Bilardo put so much onus on Maradona, as his star man inspired a well-drilled side to win the World Cup, with the number 10 prospering despite his manager’s safety-first approach.
“Bilardo was a coach whose approach was very tactical, but with Maradona you couldn’t talk about tactics or technical aspects because he just created things on the spur of the moment,” said 86 squad member Nestor Clausen in How to Win the World Cup.
“If Maradona had accepted the tactical approach set out by Bilardo, he would never have scored the goal he did against the English [the mazy dribble described as the Goal of the Century] in which he just went out on his own field to score.”
But Bilardo wasn’t alone as a manager accused of shackling his side’s creativity. Brazil’s Carlos Alberto Parreira was regularly lambasted for being too defensively minded as he led a team of Romario and Bebeto to the Selecao’s first World Cup triumph in 24 years as they won USA 94.
Four years later, France’s Aime Jacquet was subject to the same treatment due to his perceived negativity when lining up with a midfield of Didier Deschamps and Emmanuel Petit, while leaving more creative players benched. That dissatisfaction only grew during the tournament in 1998 and Christian Karembeu was added to the mix in a knockout stage progressed with little lustre. But after lifting the trophy thanks to a 3-0 win over Brazil in the final, that narrative was buried.
Deschamps repeated the trick to win Les Bleus’ second star in 2018, despite several detractors saying he didn’t know how to handle this latest batch of talented French players.
The trend continues elsewhere too. The roster of European Championship winners also contains plenty of examples of pragmatists triumphing – try telling fans of Denmark, Greece and Portugal that it wasn’t worth it. Even the great Spain side that began a period of dominance by winning Euro 2008 were set up by head coach Luis Aragones to use possession as a form of defence.
“It was Aragones who used tiki-taka to protect a defence that appeared suspect (but which he’s worked to improve), maintain possession and dominate games,” wrote Sid Lowe for The Guardian after the Euros victory.
Aragones went into that tournament having been jeered by fans and criticised by the Spanish press after dropping Raul, proving that universal unpopularity doesn’t stop a manager winning if his instincts are correct.
While all of the above examples of pragmatism ending in glory start with a desire to be more secure defensively, it’s important to balance that with the story of another manager who found conservatism to be the answer to perceived underachievement.
Joachim Low had taken over Germany after playing a pivotal role as assistant to Jurgen Klinsmann at the 2006 World Cup, but there was a growing suspicion that he wasn’t the man to lead Die Mannschaft to success. Under Low, a talented German side had lost to Aragones’s Spain in the Euro 2008 final, and then fallen short in tournament semi-finals in 2010 and 2012.
This was a German side that was bursting with attacking talent, but Low realised that it was his naivety to throw at the back that was costing them. He had to be more pragmatic to win, taking a more balanced approach as he led his side to glory at the 2010 World Cup.
It’s a lesson that frustrated England fans could do well to understand, too. That while Southgate’s Three Lions may not be tearing apart opposition as the Qatar World Cup edges closer, they’re probably not as far away from a winning formula at international level as it may seem.