England & Belgium: How the perennial underachievers are trying to break the mould
There are certain sides in recent decades that just can’t seem to put it together in the major tournaments. Should they take inspiration from their smaller counterparts?
The World Cup is synonymous with giving the planet’s best players a platform to showcase their talents.
The biggest nations all go into the finals with heavy expectations on their shoulders. Fans of the likes of Brazil, Spain, France, Germany etc will all believe their country should be winning the whole thing.
But why is it that some countries seem to handle that pressure better than others? Even those with similar squads on paper?
It is a mentality.
Germany are the perfect example. On the eve of the 2014 World Cup, they failed to win home games against Poland and Cameroon. Six weeks later they were world champions.
Going into these finals Die Mannschaft are winless in their last five since sealing qualification against Azerbaijan in the autumn, yet no one doubts they will be a force in the summer. As a group they know how to go deep in tournaments, having reached at least the semi-finals in every tournament since Joachim Low took over as manager in 2006.
So why don’t other big nations have this tournament nous?
Trying to gel
The debate in England about the national team is nearly constant. Who should be selected? What formation should they play? Can X play with Y? It goes on and on.
In the year leading up to Euro 2016, the Three Lions beat eventual runners-up France and winners Portugal, also playing well in a creditable draw with the then reigning champions Spain at Wembley.
But when it has come to the games that have really mattered, England have frozen. They meekly became the first side knocked out of the 2014 World Cup. This was topped two years later with the crème de la crème of major finals meltdowns against Iceland in Nice.
The men clad in sodden white jerseys sunk to the turf at the final whistle after an excruciating 90 minutes so devoid of anything even closely resembling cohesion or even basic skill.
Roy Hodgson was a dead man walking as he trudged down the tunnel, a wounded dog about to be put out of his misery. Another England manager that had failed. Back to the drawing board.
Avoiding the upset
That aforementioned Iceland team punched above their weight all the way to the quarter-finals before succumbing to France in a ding-dong 5-2 battle with their hosts.
A side that were ranked 131 in the world as recently as 2012, wily veteran Lars Lagerback instilled a club mentality and had his men drilled to within an inch of their lives. No shot went unblocked, no run went untracked, no throw-in went short.
This was a limited side playing way above their capabilities, with even their most gifted talisman Gylfi Sigurdsson mucking in with the rest of the troops for the greater cause.
Wales are another example of the classic underdog story. A limited squad built around a deity-like figure in Gareth Bale, they shocked the much-fancied Belgians to advance to the semi-finals.
Hal Robson-Kanu, having just been released by Championship Reading, stole the show with a superb goal. Much like England, Belgium were forlorn and devoid of ideas despite a squad oozing with class and creativity on paper; Wilmots, like Hodgson, was soon on his way.
Costa Rica were a penalty shoot-out away from the semi-finals in the last World Cup. These examples all follow similar blueprints. Organisation and dedication to the cause.
The quality conundrum
Is it possible to get a team of superstars working doggedly both on and off the pitch like their smaller counterparts?
Marc Wilmots’ Belgium looked like eleven men that had never met each other. A theory in the past has been that the perfect international manager doesn’t over-complicate things, as they don’t have enough time to work with the team.
This has now been disproved with innovative coaches like Jorge Sampaoli proving that the right group of players can play with such precision and complexity, with breathtaking efficiency.
Gareth Southgate has taken steps to move England towards a ‘smaller nation mentality’, ignoring bigger names if he doesn’t feel they match the fluid 3-4-2-1 that he has been working on solidly for the whole campaign.
This has meant picking someone like Harry Maguire over Chris Smalling, and a brave approach like that seems to be the route that underachieving nations like England, Belgium and even to an extent Argentina are looking to go down. In the same fashion, Belgium have dropped Radja Nainggolan and Argentina Mauro Icardi.
Some selections may be sneered at, but it is worth remembering that Italy had success under Antonio Conte with an unglamourous player like Emanuele Giaccherini being a mainstay.
The days of shoehorning superstars into a cobbled together system could be over, which is good news for fans of those big nations that always seem to let them down.
Can an underdog win the World Cup this summer? Let us know below.