From Steve Holland talking about a two-year plan to beat France, to Kyle Walker declaring England will not “roll out the red carpet” for Kylian Mbappe, to Kieran Trippier discussing how relaxed (a word he used three times in one answer alone) the squad are and recalling the barbecues he used to have with Antoine Griezmann – it has been quite a week for England since defeating Senegal.
Tactics off the pitch over the past few days have been almost as intriguing as those Gareth Southgate is planning on it for Saturday’s potentially epic World Cup quarter-final against France.
England are meeting the challenge of facing the world champions on the front foot and want to take that into how they play. Southgate wants them to impose themselves on their opponents in what they say as well as what they do.
There is no deference; avoidance or attempts to play the contest down. But no arrogance (that old English disease). The words have been lucid and measured. But also confident and, importantly, with the right hint of aggression.
Whether that is placing the focus firmly on France’s two most important players – Mbappe and Griezmann – or exuding a chest-out air of belief that appears to come from a particular play-book.
In the week that Eddie Jones was sacked, after a poor run of form and an abrasive run of relationships, it may appear strange to reference the now former England rugby union head coach.
But Southgate and Jones have a strong bond and have heavily influenced each other. They have been part of “Leaders P8”, which connects those at the highest level in sport, along with Arsene Wenger, Sir Dave Brailsford, Sir Ben Ainslie, Mercedes Formula One chief Toto Wolff and Dan Ashworth, Newcastle United’s technical director.
Southgate and Jones are also in a WhatsApp group which involves other elite coaches and managers and have exchanged ideas and welcomed each other into their England camps. Southgate is a firm believer in the psychology of sport and drawing on other sports.
Jones has said he has taken from Southgate’s coaching manual; Southgate made reference to Jones’s book Leadership: Lessons from my Life in Rugby when he discussed picking valued players – such as Harry Maguire – even if they were not regularly competing at the highest level for their clubs.
Southgate has also borrowed Jones’s term “finishers”, which is designed to empower substitutes – and it is possibly not all that he has borrowed.
England’s public approach this week bears clear similarities to the way Jones’s England prepared for the 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-final against New Zealand. The messaging has a closeness and appears to be part of a deliberate strategy to show that England are up for the challenge and shrewdly want to shift the focus on specific topics and specific opposition players. The only element it has lacked is controversy, but then Southgate is less abrasive than Jones.
But…everyone is talking about the threat posed by Mbappe? So, England addressed it. Whether it was Holland, Southgate’s assistant, revealing there would be a plan to combat his “super strengths” (does that sow a seed of doubt?) or, even more pointedly, Walker, the player most likely to be up against him, discussing what that was like. Also, remember that Walker got the better of Mbappe when they met at club level, with Manchester City beating Paris St-Germain in the Champions League. That is a little reminder to the French.
Griezmann is hugely influential? Let Trippier, his former team-mate at Atletico Madrid, talk about him as a friend and, therefore, an equal. There is nothing to be afraid of.
Ahead of facing the All Blacks in Yokahama, Jones and his players delivered a series of messages spread across the week of build-up: New Zealand are the greatest ever but England can beat them; England are not fazed by the All Blacks “aura” and, in one that chimes with Southgate, “we have the chance to make rugby history”. England, of course, won 19-7.
Clearly, the difference this can make is minimal. But if it makes any difference at all, and top-level sport, to use Brailsford’s phrase, is all about “marginal gains”, then it is absolutely worth it. Trippier’s friendship with Griezmann stems from their time together in Madrid when they lived in the same exclusive complex, La Finca, along with other players from Atletico and Real Madrid and had barbecues after training. “What more can you ask for? Know what I mean,” Trippier said. “It was like a big family.”
Smothering “Griezy” with kindness? Maybe. It also showed that Trippier, while praising Griezmann’s talent, is not fazed by facing him. The 32-year-old also talked up the experience they could now draw on.
“If you go back to Russia , it was my first tournament and a lot of the players’ first tournament. Four years later, you can see the experienced individuals we have got. They’ve played in big finals or they’ve played abroad,” Trippier said. “You can see in the young players now a big shift. We got to a semi-final, the Nations League [semi-final] and then the final of the Euros. Of course, we shouldn’t be ashamed to say we want to win the World Cup.”
England have made their point.