By Glenn Mulcaire
FORGET THE ON-PITCH LOTTERY of the penalty shootout – our young lions need to up the game inside their heads.
No matter how invested they are in the outcome of a game of football, the casual spectator only sees half the battle: the one played out in front of them – be that pitch-side, in the roaring swell of a packed stadium, or in front of the flat screen with friends and family.
Italy’s victorious Euro 2020 team was barely back on home soil when Graham Johnson suggested I write about the other battle – the one we can’t see, unless we’re really paying attention.
Because every player – while they’re fighting for the ball, holding off a defender or drawing a tactical foul – is fighting a private, interior battle between mind games and head games.
For our young England side – despite the outward show of emotional maturity – I’m afraid to say the mind games are winning. Head games are an area we still – after decades of hurt – have failed to recognise and master.
What do I mean by that?
Mind games are the conscious level of emotion that we see England sides succumb to time and again.
The Italians, by comparison, did not succumb. If anything, they used our weakness for mind games to their advantage – they’ve mastered something called perception and situational awareness, armed themselves with all the relevant gameplay information, and got their ‘head game’ all mapped out.
We must quickly learn how to link the mind and head games together by focusing on the user experience – much like many electronic gamers do – and then apply it match time.
Commentators have in the past framed football games like FIFA and Pro Evo in a negative way; Gary Neville famously criticised David Luiz for ‘running around like he’s being controlled by a 10-year-old on a Playstation”.
But watch Kai Havertz’s movement, positioning and perception and how he exhibits himself in an unconscious football waltz through each game he plays.
He polarises with purpose – and if gaming has had any effect on his on-pitch performances for Germany during the Euros then I say we make everyone plug in for an hour or two.
A number of real life experiences put this concept close to my heart. In truth, it’s become a source of personal torment that burdens me to this very day.
Taking my current state of affairs as an example, I’m what you’d call an autrefois convict – I’ve been uniquely convicted of the same crime twice, and I’m suing my criminal solicitors for professional negligence as a result. I’d argue that a dearth of relevant information influenced the perception of my defence, which in turn meant my behaviour went misunderstood.
Net result: I lost twice on prison penalties against the same team. Now the 3rd time replay!
To be victorious, you’ve got to arm yourself with all the relevant information – which, in my case, I now finally have. If the England team and their manager can do the same, their perception of the game changes. They can start winning in as convincing a manner as the Italians.
But – as things stand – we’ve got a bunch of average-to-good thinkers.
Much like the moronic behaviour of some England ‘fans’, and the cliche-heavy commentaries designed to appease five-year-old spectators, the team’s ‘head game’ is still stuck in the 80s. They’re making the same clinical mistakes we’ve seen for years. We need good-to-great thinkers – individually and at manager level.
To the uninitiated, the Italians – lined up for their national anthem and seemingly at the mercy of the venomous and patriotic atmosphere in Wembley – should have been on the back foot.
Instead they sucked up the self-entitled bombardment of ‘it’s coming home’ chants – underpinned by the pomp of Royal approval – and put themselves in an advantageous position… by processing all the available information.
They were individually and team-wise better thinkers, decision makers, and actors who all played crucial roles in a new version of ‘The English Job’. But – most importantly – they had a master’s degree in perception and situational awareness, a qualification which sits on the same shelf as their ‘Masters of the Dark Arts’ title.
From the manager down to the players, they made winning, critical decisions in the key moments of the game.
They adapted, adopted, and applied their strategies to a man. After all these years, this is still a department that we continually fail in from the top down.
Here’s some examples:
Straight after Luke Shaw’s fantastic finish to a well-worked move, the camera panned to the reaction of Italian forward Immobile.
Instead of the bowed, dejected head and emotionally-drained response you might expect, he gave the opposite – a hand gesture that said, ‘Let’s get the ball back in play. We’ve got a job to finish and this isn’t going to get in the way.’ He saw it as a positive tipping point.
When the Italian defender dragged Saka to the floor by his shirt collar, it would have been easy to write off the foul as thoughtless thuggery. In my mind, it was the polar opposite.
Chiellini made a conscious, risk-assessed decision. He knew the ref wasn’t brave enough to stick a red card in his face. And he also knew that if he didn’t put Saka down, he’d have been on his way to setting up a goal.
All done with a business smile on his face.
Football intelligence and the midfield battleground
As each minute passed – with the commentators lauding our defensive blocks and passing lane management – the Italians were playing on our nerves and moving their own defensive blocks side-to-side. No one realised we were in a slow-motion reverse.
The pundits kept telling us we were in control – but failed to identify we were conceding territory inch by inch.
Control my arse!
Perception and situational awareness isn’t a new idea, at least not in my head.
I wrote about visionary thinking and perception in a Wimbledon FC programme on March 26th 2003.
It’s become a universal truth that whoever controls the midfield minefield controls the match. Whether you play a 3, 4 or 5 format, all the midfield positions are unique and require a special way of thinking – and the players in those positions must be aware of what is happening around them if they’re to develop any visionary flair.
But what can we learn from England’s Euro 2020 torment?
Italy excelled at creating an emotional and logistical nightmare for us, with a series of triangles and traps which generated overloads and confusion. We also learned that confinement, control and elite concentration by some players isn’t enough to do the business at the next World Cup. We have an excellent bunch of youngsters and must now equip and train them to be quick thinkers, rather than predictable passers or bystanders of the ball.
What we witnessed was the Italian football version of Mixed Martial Arts, taking in the best of Dutch TIPS – technique, intelligence, personality and speed – Spanish rondos, all the way to Germany’s modern defending, pressing and high energy models.
Whilst the Italians were honing their considerable craftsmanship en route to the finale, we were getting caught up in the same old sideshow. Our approach was one of blind control, and relying on experienced and key players to make a memorable moment.
As Italy flowed with mesmerising movement, interchangeable positions, and patterns of play which demonstrated an abstract form of football art, professional players and fans alike slowly developed symptoms akin to Stockholm syndrome.
Sadly, it was a case of defensive death by a thousand cuts, and our stitch-up policy started to run out of thread. I can hear you screaming ‘cliche!’, so let me explain how possession and passive play doesn’t necessarily win games – until they’re combined with perception and situational awareness.
Possession and passive play are key components – but the trigger is the perception of play, for example going ahead in a match and reverting to an early defensive mindset as an away side would do – and England also predictable did, to no avail.
As the quote says, ‘football starts in the head and finishes at your feet’ – so the alternative is to play in a counter attack/fluid way, with the caveat that you have to maintain the backup of a very high level of concentration which keeps you tidy when you’re tired. It’s the Swiss cheese approach – mistakes will be made by players, but the layers are there to cover them so the holes don’t line up! Know who your runners are and know who your players are.
What needs to change?
It starts with some of the punditry-level terminology that unseats our understanding of the game.
Game Management must become game understanding, because we are always learning new information.
Instead of ‘taking pictures’ we should be thinking in terms of motion mirrors and monitoring. A picture is a still. As soon as you take a picture, it’s past tense. The situation has moved on. Our focus must be on the present.
Rather than scanning the pitch, we should be using radar to process all the information on the fly, in game time. In the case of Italy, that would have meant – for example – identifying their passing sequences and applying surgical intercepts for rapid transitions.
While we were at it, we should have been employing sonar, too, by learning some key Italian words so we had a chance of understanding what their players were saying to each other when they set up for a corner or free kick, or in the tactical time breaks when players go to ground. The Italians were tasked at team and individual level for a guerilla campaign of planning for trouble. They exploited the opportunities and knew how to finish well. Will comes before the skill.
When I was the reserve team coach at Wimbledon, and U.16 at Sutton Utd, I’d tell my young players their radar and scanning should be switched on as soon as they got out of bed, and only turned off when they went to sleep. It can literally save your life – say, crossing a road, helping somebody or avoiding trouble!
I told them to focus on all the information, not just the ball. Getting distracted or attracted by an object – aka ball watching – is futile. To that end, I coached the 100-yard rule of knowing and recording all the information around you as you see it, then processing it and applying it to gametime. If a player, pattern, or collective sequence repeats itself on the pitch – is it a danger or an opportunity?
Measure it – improve it – manage it
We have a unique set of extremely talented youngsters who unfortunately lack the mental prowess of other national sides. They need to develop brain games which will enhance rapid information processing and decision making.
Grealish, for example, has an admirable natural talent – but his reading of the game has to match it for him to go from good to great. He’s effective in key offensive areas and at what I call tactical touch management (TTM) – initiating contact fouls to win set pieces for our big guns to get the ball in the box. But this ability can easily be identified and neutralised by the opposition. How does he respond?
Each player must be in control of their own above-average radar and scanning ability to record and process information game time, and this can be done by educating, informing and giving players the right tools to enhance this side of their head game. Only then can they begin to interpret all the available information data and translate them into the best outcomes for themselves and the team.
Drills for skills
I wrote a piece in a Wimbledon FC programme back in 2003 about boosting youth players’ confidence on the ball through movements, triangle passing and learning shape patterns. This was all about possession football and creating a certain level of skill, acuity and confidence. At this stage of development there’s no point banging a 60-yard pass to the forwards and creating a 50/50 challenge in favour of the defender. Of course, if the transition and percentage changes to the better then it makes sense to go long.
In one match that year, I banned our goalkeeper from kicking the ball out – it had to be a pass only in order to develop sweeper-keeper confidence. Similarly, I get our youngsters playing in triangles to create angles, with a player in the pocket and the out ball for direct transitions. Play is heads up, keep the opposition chasing tails.
I also developed training sessions to enhance perception and situational awareness in young players.
For example, they’d play in complete silence, or in complete noise. I’d have every player wearing swimming goggles, or impose a rule where only designated players with certain colour bibs can receive the pass. I changed goal posts to alter spatial awareness and used virtual reality tools to train the data brain.
Perception and situational awareness applies off the pitch as much as it does on. From the fans to the field, we must be able to process all the information in order to alter our blinkered perception, and change behaviours for the good of the game.
We’ve seen how hooliganism and racism persists among a certain sector of the fans. This toxic mentality seeps into our society as a whole. Our perception needs a reset.
Meanwhile, despite having an easy route to the final – playing on home turf and with a ghost penalty decision to help us on the way – our national side were out-thought on the pitch once again.
The FA has responsibility to identify the key components our good young footballers need. If it still fails them, it should be held accountable.
They are a bunch of excellent players. Let’s code them properly so they know all the moves, before they happen, on and off the pitch.
Let’s avoid a rerun in Qatar of FA to Sweet FA.