So England fail to get the draw necessary to guarantee qualification to the 2008 European Championships. Technically they lost to a superior team. But what about the mentality of the England team?
Early on in the game, the English defence had opportunities to give debutant Scott Carson an early touch of the ball. Get him into the game. Make him feel involved. Those opportunities were declined. Instead, in their anxiety, the English defence moved the ball forward. Away from the nervous keeper. Carson subsequently had a first-half to forget. This was not a team that was thinking clearly. Or thinking at all.
Clear and lucid thinking under pressure comes from excellent preparation and a self-empowered team. Players given responsibility to resolve on pitch problems. Self leaders. Who can think on their feet. Able to respond to the needs of the moment.
The England players seemed reluctant to take responsibility for the mess they were in. Put their hand up. Say – this is not going to happen on my watch. Instead they appeared content to leave things to the person next to them. To take the blame for failure.
Lack of self-leadership can arise when a team is overcoached. When there is little or no opportunity for self-empowerment. Players look to the dominant authority of the coach for answers. Which is fine if the coach is a master motivator or tactician. A coach who can solve all problems from the touchline. But not all coaches can. And when the team look to the coach for all the answers, it means that they are no longer looking within themselves.
Players become overcoached when the manager wants to leave nothing to chance. It’s a strategy to try to manage the game. But football is not a game to manage. Preparation contributes to 2/3rd of the outcome. The other 1/3rd is live. Down to the players. How they respond in the moment. How they have been made ready to think on their feet.
The England players were also perhaps restrained by having to follow the coach’s game plan. Restrain their individuality at the expense of the team shape and dynamic. Having to follow too many orders. A system too complex for the players to feel at home with. To play their natural game.
So, having clawed the game back to two all, England then sat back and invited Croatia on to them. A third goal was inevitable. England were defending out of fear. Fear of defeat. Fear of failure. Fear of not qualifying. Too much fear. Under these conditions it is no surprise that England have underperformed. Yet again.
When Sven Goran Eriksson was invited to manage England, it was felt that an outsider to the English game would not be subject to the same mental and emotional limitations that had undermined his predecessors. For a while it looked as if Eriksson had escaped those ghosts. But he hadn’t. And neither did his successor. It’s like being Prime Minister. You enter the role fresh-faced and enthusiastic. Then you become inveigled by the politics of it all.
England are now locked in a serious stop situation. One which they had the chance to break out of. But failed to take. It will take imaginative, new-thinking to break free of these shackles. Fresh thinking. Future thinking. The question is, do the English FA have that calibre of mind-set?