Repino (Russia) (AFP) – England’s return to the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in 12 years is no fluke as the team reap the rewards from coach Gareth Southgate’s meticulous eye for detail.
A first-ever World Cup penalty shootout win in the last 16, against Colombia, followed months of practice from the spot and psychometric tests on the players to determine who was best placed to handle the pressure.
Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford even switched his water bottle before the shootout for one with where the Colombians preferred to put their penalties written on the side.
“We’d done all the hard work on the training pitch and we were able to execute when we were there,” said defender John Stones.
“It’s about covering all the bases and making sure that you are taking in every detail to give you the best advantage you can. That’s down to the staff, down to the players, the hours on the training pitch.”
Much of that preparation comes from Southgate’s own experience of missing a penalty in the semi-final of Euro 96.
Had things gone to plan for England, though, he would not even have been in charge in Russia.
After a humiliating Euro 2016 exit to Iceland, England’s Football Association backed the experience of Sam Allardyce.
But his reign lasted a mere 67 days, Allardyce standing down after a single match in charge following a newspaper sting.
– Bold decisions –
Then under-21 manager, the appointment of the affable Southgate was seen as a safe option.
However, he has defied expectations with bold decisions by jettisoning some experienced figures to take the third-youngest squad in the competition to Russia.
Southgate’s open and honest attitude has won admirers among a normally hard-to-please press pack and back home, where his popularity has soared.
The choice of the remote wooded town of Repino, 45 kilometres (28 miles) northwest of Saint Petersburg, has allowed the players to get on with the job at hand free from off-field distractions and the tensions that have blighted previous campaigns.
“There’s a fine line of where a manager has got to have his football brain in gear, talk about football and know when we’re working and then know about when we should relax,” added Stones. “He balances that as well as anyone I’ve seen.”
Southgate has certainly left no stone unturned in attempting to transform England’s fortunes at major tournaments.
Last year he took the squad on a weekend training camp with the Royal Marines, where mobile phones were confiscated and players made to complete underwater assault courses and camp overnight to foster team spirit.
Weeks later Southgate spent a month travelling around Russia with assistant Steve Holland, scouting potential training bases and the Confederations Cup for an insight into what England could expect on and off the pitch at the World Cup.
The decision was made that England would play with a back three as they did in reaching their past two semi-finals, at Euro 96 and at the 1990 World Cup.
Three centre-backs comfortable with playing out from the back in Stones, Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire have allowed England to enjoy far more possession, but they have still relied on set-pieces for seven of their nine goals.
Credit for a new-found danger from dead balls goes to Allan Russell, a one-time journeyman in the lower leagues of Scotland, England and the United States, hired by Southgate as a strikers’ coach who has adapted set-piece strategies used in the NFL and NBA to England’s playbook.
“He’s brought in a lot of new ideas in two years… now we’re seeing the results,” said Stones.
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