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Why is England's superstar football team so bad?

Why is England's superstar football team so bad?

Perhaps management theory can return the favor and explain why England’s performances at the Euro 2024 football tournament have been so dismal.

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Last Updated : 29 June 2024, 10:23 IST
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By Matthew Brooker

There’s a rich literature on the lessons business can learn from sport, a controlled competitive environment that can serve as a laboratory for ideas on leadership styles, motivational culture and decision-making processes. Alex Ferguson’s career as Manchester United manager was even the subject of a Harvard Business School case study a dozen years ago. Perhaps management theory can return the favor and explain why England’s performances at the Euro 2024 football tournament have been so dismal.

It’s a conundrum. England entered the quadrennial European championship as one of the favorites with bookmakers. Under manager Gareth Southgate, who took over in 2016, the team has enjoyed its most successful period since winning the World Cup in 1966. England reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2018 and the final of Euro 2020 (played in 2021 because of the pandemic), the first time in six decades it had gone that far in a major tournament. In the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, England lost narrowly to holders France in the quarter-finals.

Yet the team’s performances in the first round in Germany have been greeted with almost universal disappointment. Despite topping their group with one win and two draws to progress to the round of 16 — where England will play Slovakia on Sunday — the style of play has been condemned by pundits and former players as shapeless, overly defensive and lacking in energy. BBC presenter and former England striker Gary Lineker, who won the “golden boot” for the most goals at the 1986 World Cup, described England’s performance in the 1-1 draw with Denmark as “s***,” drawing a rebuke from the team’s captain, Harry Kane, who is the country’s all-time top scorer.

What makes the situation more perplexing is that England entered the tournament with the strongest array of talent it has amassed in recent memory. Kane has just had his best-ever season, scoring 44 goals in 45 games after moving to Bayern Munich in Germany last summer. Since the 2022 World Cup, Jude Bellingham has established himself as one of the world’s brightest young superstars, becoming at age 20 the linchpin of a Real Madrid side that last season won Spain’s La Liga and the Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious club competition. Back home in the Premier League, 22-year-old Cole Palmer at Chelsea and 19-year-old Kobbie Mainoo at Manchester United broke through to become two of the players of the season, leading a clutch of young players challenging England’s first-team regulars for places.

Kane, Bellingham, Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka and Manchester City’s Phil Foden are all valued at more than $100 million, and earn the equivalent of more than $250,000 a week. The English Premier League, where the bulk of the squad plays, is the richest and most-watched domestic football competition in the world. How can a team featuring so many multimillionaire star athletes underwhelm so badly?

“The too-much-talent effect suggests that in team sports such as football where interdependence is key, too much talent can impair performance,” says Martin Kilduff, a professor of organizational behavior at University College London, whose research has included studying coaches’ careers in the US National Football League. “Teams with too many dominant individuals produce disputes over within-group authority and status that ultimately undermine performance.”

Teams such as Georgia, which qualified for the second round despite being ranked 74th in the world by global governing body FIFA, seem to have better coordination because the status hierarchy is clear, according to Kilduff. A radical idea for England would be to keep Kane as captain but include younger players who are not-quite stars so as to reduce the status confusion. This might require benching Bellingham, he said.

There have been no obvious signs of ego clashes in the England camp — though we don't know what goes on behind closed doors, and this has indeed been an issue for earlier generations. One way to suppress power battles within the ranks is for the manager to maintain an iron grip. Ferguson adopted a dictatorial approach at his club, regarding it as essential to achieve a position of comprehensive control. That, though, is close to the opposite of Southgate’s management philosophy, which is based on communication, empathy and empowerment.

His style has unquestionably been successful up to now, evidenced not only by England’s tournament results but by the apparent freedom and fluency with which the team has played (at least some of the time) during his tenure. It is this elan that’s now gone missing. Some contend that Southgate’s naturally cautious tactics are unsuited to the riches that he now has at his disposal. With players of this caliber, England should be more ambitious, goes the argument, aiming to sweep opponents aside rather than trying to protect a lead as soon as it goes one goal ahead.

If you think tactics are the problem, Britain’s sporting press has you covered. There’s almost no permutation that hasn’t had an airing in the blanket coverage of England’s failings: Drop Kane; build the team around Kane; play Bellingham further back alongside Declan Rice; drop Bellingham; play Foden in the center; drop Foden; play Palmer on the right and Newcastle United’s Anthony Gordon on the left; play Saka as a left wing-back; drop Saka. And so on.

Perhaps the biggest issue isn’t tactics or an excess of talent, but something simpler: the burden of expectations. England’s loss of cohesiveness and energy is the recurrence of an age-old problem. The 1966 World Cup win and the country’s status as the birthplace of the modern game gave English supporters the unrealistic view that the national team would always be a contender for tournament glory. This was a lot of weight for successive generations of footballers to carry. In the cliche of the sporting pages, “the shirt hangs heavy.”

Southgate’s great achievement was to liberate England from this mindset. But six years of relative success and the flood of talent that now adorns the squad have raised hopes once again — and with it, the psychological burden on the players. An intriguing 2018 study in the Academy of Management Journal found that when tennis players with high external performance expectations encounter early setbacks, they may be less likely to persist than those with low expectations. The shirt doesn’t hang heavy only on footballers.

The study doesn’t offer a solution, so this armchair pundit will: Care less. Have more fun. Football careers are short, and the high points pass quickly, so don’t waste time worrying. England is still in the tournament, and the team may yet click. It’s all still to play for.

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