After beating Germany in the European football Championships last week, the England team wanted a period of calm to follow such an emotional high.
So the next day, they took part in a session on breathing techniques led by Ian Mitchell, head of performance psychology at the Football Association.
Mitchell is just one part of England’s backroom staff of sports scientists, nutritionists, performance analysts and physiotherapists who have readied England’s squad of 26 players for the rigours of the month-long Euro 2020 competition, which will reach its climax on Sunday against Italy.
Their modern approach relies less on delivering tub-thumping team talks and more on meticulous preparation. The result has been to create a humbler, more introspective culture around the England team. The process has worked well enough to reach Sunday’s final — the first for England’s men in a major tournament for 55 years.
“Our preparation and the way we gear up to a game is so professional,” said defender John Stones. “We cover every aspect of a game and what we can affect. That’s how we’ll treat [the final] and there’s a big prize at the end.”
The approach is typified by manager Gareth Southgate. At a Christmas drinks party four years ago, Southgate eschewed small talk and extolled the virtues of Wyscout, a technology platform which allows coaches to watch recorded matches from across the world, alongside statistics that detail the action.
Southgate still obsessively uses the system, which was acquired two years ago by rival technology group Hudl, alongside his assistant Steve Holland. The pair have used it to prepare tactical dossiers not only on each of England’s group opponents at Euro 2020 — Croatia, Scotland and Czech Republic — but also every likely opponent they would face in the knockout rounds, particularly Europe’s top ten sides.
This work represents a step change from the not-too-distant past. Prior to England’s humiliating defeat to Iceland at the last Euros in 2016, then manager Roy Hodgson and his assistant Ray Lewington chose to go on a sightseeing tour of Paris rather than watch their knockout round opponents in person. England looked clueless after going behind to Iceland and crashed out.
By contrast, on the night Southgate discovered the identity of England’s second round opponents, he downloaded each of Germany’s three group stage matches and watched them into the early hours.
The information gleaned from such analysis is shared to players in ways that suit their preferences. “Everyone prepares in a different way,” said Harry Maguire, the England and Manchester United defender.
“Some people like more video. Some people like more meetings. Some people like to study the opposition. Some people like to be left alone and focus on themselves. Listen, we’re in a hotel for the majority of the day, so if you don’t prepare well, you’re doing something wrong.”
This level of planning is nothing new for the players, most of whom trained in the youth academies of elite English Premier League clubs and subsequently came of age under the tutelage of detail-oriented managers such as Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp and Leeds United’s Marcelo Bielsa.
The multibillion pound broadcasting contracts that have transformed the Premier League into the world’s most valuable domestic football contest has drawn the planet’s best players, coaches and experts into the English top flight.
They have raised standards which have led to a steady rise in the quality of the England national team too. According to an analysis of “elo ratings,” a measure that assesses football results according to the strength of opposition, England were the world’s 13th best team in 2000.
England’s elo rating has steadily improved over two decades. They are now ranked as the fifth best team. Italy, however, are third. The last time England were consistently in the world’s top five was in the years following their 1966 World Cup triumph.
Recent improvements are also part of a larger plan. Following repeated failure at major tournaments, the FA looked at national youth systems in countries like Spain, France and Germany that had developed stylish and technically-gifted footballers who graduated into world champions.
In 2013, the FA instituted the “England DNA” programme, instructing its youth teams to adopt a passing style and telling players to “look up, play forward” in a manner that has become the norm in elite European club football.
Southgate became the ideal conduit for imposing such principles on the senior side too, after previously being England’s under 21s manager where he managed eight of the current England squad.
Italy have also sought to learn similar lessons. The country’s football association, the FIGC, commissioned the former AC Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi to review the state of national team after its failure to get out of the group stage of the 2010 World Cup.
Sacchi’s remedies were focused on forcing youth teams to play against tougher opposition, while mandating coaches to abandon the country’s traditional defensive catenaccio style for a game designed around ball possession. Many of the products of that system, such as Marco Verratti and Lorenzo Insigne, have been among Italy’s stars at this tournament.
There are also intangibles such as team spirit. Former Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard has previously spoken about “hatred” between England players based around club rivalries. “When you meet up for England, at that time, you pretend to like them,” Gerrard admitted five years ago.
Southgate has wanted to prevent similar issues affecting the current squad’s unity. In 2019, Raheem Sterling confronted Liverpool’s Joe Gomez at an England training camp over an incident at a recent club match. The Manchester City player was dropped from the England side and Sterling later apologised.
Disciplinary measures have rarely been needed, though. Many of the players have spoken about the camaraderie developed from playing together in England’s youth sides. Photos of players frolicking around in a pool sitting on an inflatable unicorn summed up a joyous mood within the England camp.
“It’s not just about talent,” said Southgate after England’s quarter-final victory over Ukraine. “Team building is about so much more than that. It’s about relationships and the strength of those bonds.”