yesix games, no wins and just two goals from open play: England’s form in the Nations League does not make pretty reading, especially in a World Cup year. With each disappointing performance, more focus has turned on manager Gareth Southgate. It’s possible to create a bingo sheet from the criticisms of the England manager, accusing him of being unable to manage the talents at his disposal, being too ponderous during matches and relying too heavily on certain players. Oh, not to forget the pièce de résistance: Southgate’s conservatism.
While it’s fair to criticize the team for a lack of creativity this year, pragmatism is not such a bad approach in international football. In fact, a look back at major tournaments in recent decades suggests it might even be a strength. It might be at odds with the free-flowing, attacking teams that regularly hoover up silverware in the club game, but winning a World Cup is a different thing entirely.
The obvious reason is that international managers simply do not have the same time to spend with players. The carefully choreographed presses and slick attacking interchanges used to such devastating effect by the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool just are not possible for national teams to replicate. It’s a problem plenty of managers grapple with.
“At club level, you have 60 sessions pre-season to prepare for your first game,” said Belgium boss Roberto Martínez in a new book, How to Win the World Cup. “It’s accepting that I couldn’t work in the same manner because at international level we have five camps every year, so it’s not the same as meeting the players every day.”
Such restrictions naturally lead to sides prioritizing the basics and being hard to beat is the first building block for any international side with serious designs on winning a major tournament. That can be frustrating for fans, especially in the modern age, but it’s worth remembering that many World Cup-winning managers were under pressure at home before setting off for the tournament.
One of the best examples is the Argentina side of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Everyone remembers Diego Maradona’s performances as he guided the country to glory at the 1986 World Cup and then to the final four years later, but Argentinian fans never fully took Carlos Bilardo – in part due to his pragmatism.
An unconvincing qualifying campaign before the tournament in 1986, paired with Bilardo’s perceived conservatism, left many in Argentina questioning if he was the right man to take the side to the finals..
“We received criticism for our way of playing and for the players I called up,” Bilardo later reflected. “Some even criticized me for choosing Diego Maradona as captain. We were not even in the list of contenders, but we took advantage of that.” Things got so bad that Bilardo hastily arranged for the squad to leave South America early, with rumors swirling that he was to be fired.
It’s no wonder Bilardo put so much onus on Maradona, as his star man inspired a well-drilled side to win the World Cup, with the No 10 prospering despite his manager’s safety-first approach. “Bilardo was a coach whose approach was very tactical, but with Maradona you couldn’t talk about tactics or technical aspects because he just created things on the spur of the moment,” says squad-member Néstor Clausen. “If Maradona had accepted the tactical approach set out by Bilardo, he would never have scored the goal he did against the English, in which he just went out on his own field to score.”
Bilardo is not the only manager who has been accused of shackling his side’s creativity. Carlos Alberto Parreira was lambasted for being too defensively-minded before he led Brazil to their first World Cup triumph in 24 years at USA 94.
Four years later, France boss Aimé Jacquet was subjected to the same treatment, due to the perceived negativity of lining up with a midfield of Didier Deschamps and Emmanuel Petit, while leaving more creative players benched. That dissatisfaction grew during the tournament but the narrative was soon forgotten when France beat Brazil 3-0 in the final. Deschamps then repeated the trick to win Les Bleus’ second star in 2018, despite several detractors complaining that he had dropped Karim Benzema and did not know how to handle this latest batch of talented French players.
The roster of European Championship winners also contains plenty of examples of pragmatists triumphing – try telling fans of Denmark, Greece and Portugal that it was not worth it. Even the great Spain side that began a period of dominance by winning Euro 2008 was set up by head coach Luis Aragonés to use possession as a form of defence.
“It was Aragonés who used tiki-taka to protect a defense that appeared suspect (but which he’s worked to improve), maintain possession and dominate games,” wrote Sid Lowe after the Euros victory. Aragonés went into that tournament having been jeered by fans and criticized by the Spanish press after dropping Raúl, proving that unpopularity does not stop a manager winning if his instincts are correct.
Joachim Löw also achieved his biggest success after adopting a more conservative approach. When he took over as Germany manager after serving as Jürgen Klinsmann’s assistant at the 2006 World Cup, there was a suspicion that he wasn’t the man to lead the team to success. Under Löw, a talented Germany side lost to Spain in the Euro 2008 final before being knocked out of the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 in the semi-finals.
This was a Germany side bursting with attacking talent, but Löw realized that naivety at the back was costing them. He had to be more pragmatic to go the distance, so he adopted a more balanced approach and led his side to glory at the 2014 World Cup.
It’s a lesson that frustrated England fans should take on board. Southgate’s team may not be tearing apart opponents as the World Cup edges closer, but they are not as far away from a winning formula at international level as it may seem.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism