There has been a lot of media hype concerning the England national football team, the Three Lions, for the last three years. Whatever the narrative has been, it always seems to be cut off at the semi-final- like at the last World Cup.
On Thursday, they were beaten 3-1 by the Netherlands in the semi-final of the inaugural UEFA Nations League.
There is also, a common thread that can be deduced from these disappointments, which can be lessons for the Nigerian national football team, the Super Eagles as they continue preparation for the 32nd Africa Cup of Nations Cup tournament that kicks off in Egypt on June 21.
1. Play to your strengths
There is no doubt the Super Eagles have a good squad – it may not be the best ever but there are players in the current squad that have the potential to develop and win things. However, the coach, Gernot Rohr, must not be fixated on the past and on regimented formations.
If he has carefully studied the players he invited for the final phase of preparations for Egypt 2019, he must then decide the best approach because of the present. Maybe, the 4-3-3 has worked in the past but 4-4-2 could be the plan that would work in Egypt because of the quality of forwards in his team.
Wouldn’t England have been better served if they had played three at the back and used the wingbacks to create goal-scoring chances? This might have prevented the two goals gifted the Netherlands, though mistakes cannot be legislated and predicted.
2. Field intelligent players
John Stones is a quality player, and so is Kyle Walker, but they lack the intelligence that will make them exceptional.
For a footballer, decision-making and timing are two distinct attributes that enhance development. Rohr must be intentional in ensuring that most of the Eagles flying to Egypt must be players who can solve problems on their feet.
The Italian maestro, Andrea Pirlo, said, “Football is played with the head – the feet are just tools.” That saying cannot be reversed where the feet go first before the brain.
3. Be physically ready for 90 minutes and beyond
At the World Cup in Russia, England played well for an hour then surrendered to Croatia and it was almost a mirror image of that against the Netherlands on Thursday.
Tiredness probably caused the mistake Ross Barkley made in the second half of extra time. The Eagles must be physically ready to outlast their opponents, whether it is within 90 minutes and beyond.
Former Liverpool and England defender, Jamie Carragher said this in the Daily Mail: “I think the last one was an element of fatigue. Ross [Barkley] had gone down with cramp just before. And when you’re fatigued errors happen,” though he then added: “I don’t think it’s a case of stop doing what you’re doing.”
4. Have likely solutions on your bench
At 1-0 down, Netherlands manager, Ronald Koeman threw on Donny van de Beek and Quincy Promes. And though the English were culpable in handing out early Christmas presents, Promes was the scorer of the two decisive goals that defeated England.
For the English, Gareth Southgate brought on an out-of-sorts Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard, Jordan Henderson, and Dele Alli. While it can be reported that the Three Lions were very unlucky to have Lingard’s team goal chalked off towards the end of the second half but collectively, the four substitutes were below par and did not justify their entrances.
In choosing his final 23, Rohr must recognise the fact that teams win tournaments, not just the first 11. Pele says, “The only way to win is as a team. Football is not about one or two or three star players.”
5. Be flexible
From Burundi, whom the Eagles will face on June 22 until the last opponent they will face in Egypt, Rohr, using video technology and proper scouting, must be ready to iterate.
The first formation might not always be the best for the opponent at hand, but he has 90 minutes to change formation and his players. It is possible for managers that some ‘big’ players despite not playing well can still deliver – just like Cristiano Ronaldo did for Portugal against the Swiss on Wednesday. But not every team boasts a ‘Ronaldoesque’ player.
If a player does not perform in a match does not mean he has become a bad player – he might just be having a bad day – the manager must recognise and adjust to that knowledge.