Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 4th July 2006

For the Bahrain Tribune

The challenge for the coach in any team sport is, above all, to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Sometimes a great coach will be able to work with a group of players each of whose individual ability might be modest but who he can mould together into a formidable team unit. In football we have seen this in recent times with the remarkable Dutch coach Guus Hiddink who took South Korea to the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2002 and was unlucky not to quite achieve the same with Australia in 2006. We also saw it last year when Duncan Fletcher moulded England into a cricket team strong enough to beat an Australian team which was comprised of more experienced and higher rated individuals. Any coach would prefer to work with a squad made up of the very best players – but the truly excellent coach will be able to mould more limited individuals into a very good team. This brings us to Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Sven-Goran Eriksson, the England team coach for the past six years, leaves the job without a trophy in the cabinet and with the abuse of fans ringing in his ears. He was by far the best paid coach amongst the teams in Germany – his opposite number Marco van Basten of Holland said that Sven earned the same in a week as he (van Basten) did in a year! But for its money the English Football Association has not only failed to win anything but has also employed a man who has turned a silk purse into a sows ear. The silk purse has been, of course, the cadre of truly fine footballers that Eriksson has had at his disposal. The English Premier league is the strongest in the world and with the money in the league being so great the top clubs can afford to buy almost any player they fancy. So for a club like Chelsea or Manchester United or Liverpool to have English players in their team, alongside the overseas stars, then these players must be the very best. Joe Cole, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Gary Neville, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard are unquestionably world class talents at the core of the squad along with Beckham and Hargreaves who perform at the highest level outside England (at Real Madrid and Bayern Munch respectively). So what went wrong? How did Eriksson manage to turn a group of highly talented and successful individuals into a lousy team – because that, in essence, is what has happened under his stewardship?

There are three key requirements of any good coach. The first is to pick the best players. The second is having the technical understanding of the sport to introduce the right tactics (team formations etc.). And the third, and most crucial, is to motivate the team to perform over and above their individual abilities - to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Over most of his tenure Sven-Goran Eriksson failed on all three counts, but most culpably at the 2006 World Cup a tournament which, given the quality of the players available, England could well have won. Sven’s selections were bizarre – most obviously bringing four strikers of whom two (Rooney and Owen) were far from match fit, one (Walcott) who had never played a top class match of any sort and the fourth (Crouch) who is also comparatively untried at the top level. Eriksson compounded his odd squad selection with tactics which were inconsistent and eccentric. Instead of having a clear idea as to what the coach wanted long before the team arrived in Germany the players had to change formations and styles as they went along. FIFA President Sepp Blatter got it right when he criticised England saying that they should not have “appeared in the second round with just a single striker. This isn't the kind of offensive football you expect from a contender for the World Cup title." (Blatter, in his position, should not have made the statement – but he was right in what he said!).

But it was on the third requirement that Eriksson was most deficient. He could not motivate the players to perform well – and most of the time he seemed not to try. England’s second half performances during most of his time in the job were far worse than their first half efforts. So Sven’s team talks at half-time (such as they were) were actually demotivating! Don’t blame the players for their uninspiring World cup and their under-achievement. It was the icy Swede who made two plus two equal three.