Regular PDP contributor and Talent ID Manager at The FA, Nick Levett, gives us his views on the cultural challenges that are intertwined in English football by examining expectation culture and reflecting on how other European nations view their own football teams.
The pattern comes around every two years for most people who follow the England national team and, of recent years, it has followed a similar theme: breeze through the qualification structures, soundly beating nations that we can soundly beat and then enter the main event. This has more recently followed a similar pattern where England have not competed to our potential in the final stages and have left the tournament to conversations of ‘what could have been’ and ‘what should have been done differently’ between disgruntled fans.
Over recent years we have entered tournaments amongst the top five or six favourites and felt that we have a decent team that can compete with the European or world’s best. However, before starting Euro 2016 it was recognised for the first time in several generations that we were not necessarily there. England had a team of ‘potential’ rather than ‘performance’ that is made up of younger players who, if they continue to grow and develop at their current rate could be excellent in two cycles of football events’ time.
If you look at the evidence of the average age of World Cup-winning teams over the last 10 tournaments they have always been around the 27 and 28 years old mark. England entered Euro 2016 with a squad that had an average age of around 22 and 23 years old, so based upon those rough averages it could be argued we were two tournaments away from having a truly competitive team.
However, there are different elements that interact to affect expectations, and if we are truly going to change the culture long term it is a combination of factors that need to come together to help our chances of success. Do some of these need to change? I’m not sure. Do we need to consider these factors more closely? Possibly.
Effectively, we are entitled to nothing. Being the forefathers of the game globally does not mean a thing in the modern age where everybody is looking to achieve the same thing – winning competitions in high performance sport. Just because there was a set of laws developed at the Freemason’s Tavern, London, during the historic year of 1863 does not equate to an entitlement in 2016 or any further years.
This probably links to the above factor as well but if you speak to other nations around the world there is sometimes a sense of ‘Englishness’ about us – an element of arrogance that in this modern age doesn’t really help matters. Yet this is a view held from others and not necessarily one that we would hold ourselves.
We have had some interesting conversations about the future name of our Federation, because we are called The Football Association. THE! Every other country in the world has a federation that states the name and where they are from; RFEF (Espanola), KNVB (Nederlandse), US Soccer. Would this change represent a less expectant approach and view of ourselves? Who knows.
It could even be argued though that while sometimes we may be perceived as arrogant, often we aren’t arrogant enough! Our core beliefs can almost stop us from backing ourselves enough when it comes down to high performance sport.
One of the big challenges that England players talk about is the ‘weight of the England shirt’. What they are referring to is the huge level of expectation by the country and knowing that their performance in every game will be stripped apart to the finest sinew in the press the following the day. They know that one bad performance or mistake in a game can lead to several days or weeks of abuse and vilification for themselves and their families and children. Think David Beckham in 1998 World Cup v Argentina and getting sent off – the headlines were akin to some of those only saved for the worst criminals and terrorists in the world.
But interestingly in the lead up to Euro 2016, for the first time in many years we entered a tournament whereby the level of hype in the national press could be classed as ‘sensible’. I don’t think I read a single article suggesting we had the players to win the competition and more of a realistic viewpoint had been taken. Therefore the level of expectation generated by the traditionally savage national press is hard to judge.
The Premier League
Without doubt we have an excellent league at the top of our professional game in this country that offers football fans from around the world a level of excitement and engagement that many others fail to do. The fairytale story of little Leicester City beating the powerhouses of club football over 38 games to win the title in the 2015–16 season is one of those sporting feats that comes around once in a generation. It is a truly remarkable story that is testament to the strength of factors such as team spirit, culture, effective sports science and a manager that displayed a media masterclass every single time he had to talk publicly.
It is important we look at this through different lenses and we have to balance what is a fantastic level of entertainment with alternative views. We can sometimes have an expectation that because we have a great league by one definition, this means we are going to win all the club competitions too.
If you compare the Premier League to La Liga in terms of semi-finalists and finalists of European club competitions in recent years then it lags slightly behind. This can potentially lead to a mindset that we believe something is better than it is when judged by different criteria. It is great in some ways but needs to be balanced through alternative perspectives also.
It demonstrates a level of confirmation bias. We believe we are correct with a view, or something specific is, and we then look for evidence and facts that support this. We then discount anything that may contradict our view of the world even if that offers a perfectly objective and factual perspective. It’s just human behaviour, and subconscious, but recognising we have a whole heap of these biases going on is an important factor to overcoming them.
Let’s look at some of the other countries involved in Euro 2016 to see how they compare to England. While this will not be an exhaustive list of socio-cultural factors that influence proceedings, one or two points are worth noting.
Wales: taking into account the background and journey of the squad, many will have gone through some challenging experiences on their pathway, yet through the tournament they demonstrated a real sense of togetherness. Was this the strength of adversity bringing people closer? Possibly. But certainly don’t underestimate the work of the excellent psychologist, Ian Mitchell, that would have galvanised and created a superb group of players.
Was there something to prove? Not a one-man team? Clearly not. Aaron Ramsay would certainly get into many top teams in the world, and other players gave levels of performance far greater than what their FIFA 2016 PS4 ranking would have suggested. There is a lot to be said about the power of the group, pulling each other up by the bootstraps.
What lessons can be learnt from teams in other sports that have been a success based upon principles of teamwork? The work of Gregg Popovich at San Antonio Spurs is interesting to consider and how successful they have been, stating, “For us, it’s easy. We’re looking for character, but what the hell does that mean? We’re looking for people — and I’ve said it many times — [who] have gotten over themselves, and you can tell that pretty quickly.” It is crucial to effective teamwork.
Cultural expectation level: low
Iceland: how did a team with a national population akin to that of a small city do so well in the competition? Probably some similar factors at play to Wales: a collective spirit of endeavour, yet organised and functional with a clear game plan that utilised their strengths.
There are lessons that can be learnt from their system of coach education and development, investment and general approach to fostering players that have got a love of the game in one of the coldest places in the world. Notice it is about learning, not copying.
Cultural expectation level: low
Spain: following a tough tournament in Brazil at the last World Cup there was a level of expectation on this group of players. Losing in the last 16 of this Euro competition probably showed some elements of progress but also highlighted the importance of succession planning and generating the next wave of players into the system of play that a country delivers.
While I’m not entirely sure of the press reaction to the defeat at that stage of the competition, I do wonder how this has been managed by their fans, media and Federation. Has it led to a full ‘root and branch’ investigation of what has happened and the revolution in their entire system? Is it just seen as essential learning for the players as they continue to evolve their playing philosophy? How much pressure was there on the players to win and how is this felt?
Cultural expectation level: high
Portugal: and there are the winners. Finding their way through the group stages without a huge amount of glamour, they went on to win the final despite losing their talisman early by pulling together as a group to find a way. Did the players enter the tournament feeling the pressure that they had to win or was there a belief that they could win it?
The group of players, with the “love-to-hate” figure of Pepe being so defensively solid and bringing through the young Renato Sanches at 18 years old proved the mix of players to be effective.
Cultural expectation level: medium
What is clear from all the countries that entered Euro 2016 is that many will have different expectations before, during and after the tournament. England are developing a DNA programme through the youth teams and this is very much in its infancy – it’s a long-term plan that could take 10 years to fully embed yet many have questioned whether it is working some two years in. Football development and high performance sport cannot change in such a short space and with many factors at play across the psycho-socio-cultural landscape it was unlikely to bear fruit in this recent tournament. Nevertheless, it was under scrutiny as soon as England were eliminated.
Taking all this into account and the fact we have a culture that permeates the breeding of expectation, is it a bad thing? I’m not sure it totally is. Having the desire, belief and mindset that we can win a high performance sporting event is crucial for players and coaches – they need to believe they can win the whole thing from the outset. This is how Portugal felt – with the players available they believed they could win, so that set a certain level of expectation. But they did not feel they had to win, nor did they feel the breath of the press pack on their backs.
Certainly belief is a good thing, as is a certain amount of expectation. However, there is a line that can be crossed whereby we are just being silly and stupid! But, little Leicester City managed it, didn’t they…?