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Sampson And England Women Set Blueprint For Men’s Side

Whether England progress to the Women’s World Cup final or not, Mark Sampson and his side should be proud of making history in Canada. They are just the third England side—male or female—to reach the last four. Perhaps more importantly, Sampson, his staff and players have found a squad formula which should act as a blueprint for the men’s game.

This begins with Sampson, who is an intelligent tactician. Being progressive doesn’t mean consistently fielding unseen formations and styles of play. The advancement in the team’s quality stems from Sampson knowing when and how to alter his side. He is someone who is willing to live and die by making difficult decisions.

Sampson continues to regularly flit between formations, but with good reason. An expansive 4-3-3 was used in the group stage wins over Mexico and Colombia after France got the better of England’s 4-1-4-1. The manager wasn’t afraid to sacrifice striker Eniola Aluko—one of the squad’s biggest stars—after the first game. Toni Duggan ran herself into the ground during the rest of the group stage and round of 16 win over Norway, before Jodie Taylor posted a tireless goalscoring display in the quarter-final triumph against Canada.

Can you imagine Roy Hodgson leaving out big-name players in matches of huge importance? Even if Wayne Rooney wasn’t suited to facing the next opposition, he’d still be in. Sampson sees the bigger picture and has the belief that every squad member can produce a game-winning performance.

Aluko, Duggan and Taylor are all valued and understand their individual strengths will be called upon when needed. How often have we seen Rooney struggle on the big stage because too much pressure is heaped on his shoulders? Did Steven Gerrard suffer because too many managers relied on him to deliver at all times?

The hopes of England’s male side are often shattered when one key player goes missing. Sampson’s management style allows his squad to feel excited and that they’re being picked because they are the right person for the job, not out of necessity. We’ll see equal pay for male and female footballers before Rooney is dropped because he’s too slow.

One of Sampson’s greatest qualities is his willingness to place functionality over style. Too often, Hodgson’s men play cramped, rigid possession football because the manager has them set up to try and mimic other nations. English viewers in general suffer from an inferiority complex that their brand of football isn’t acceptable compared to the tiki-taka of Spain or swashbuckling cut-and-thrust of Brazil. However, Sampson’s side have proven what can be achieved when stereotypical English traits are accepted and readily worked on.

England’s offensive set-pieces have been fantastic throughout the tournament, highlighted by Steph Houghton’s goal against Norway and Lucy Bronze’s looping headed winner against Canada. Defensively, Sampson has drilled his players into an unyielding backline, one that has so far stood strong when it matters. When Solveig Gulbrandsen snuck in to head Norway in front, the English players concentrated harder to stop the same happening again. This determination and grit came naturally and wasn’t quashed through the supposed need to play stylish football.

Much is made of the Premier League’s physicality, but it’s been years since the men’s national team regularly dominated opponents through their combativeness. Individual players—perhaps Rooney and Gerrard—have proven battle-hardened over the years. Even so, this has waned from the men’s game in recent times, with Hodgson (and Under 21 manager Gareth Southgate) more inclined to hold onto possession and execute a slow passing game than to move the ball and win it back through force. Both Sampson and his side know their strengths and how to play to them. Most importantly, England women aren’t trying to be something they’re not.
Sampson has brought together a squad of talented individuals and galvanised them into a national team. Nobody’s looking at who plays for Manchester City and who plays for Arsenal. Nobody knows who the manager is going to deploy next and which formation he’s going to use. Sampson’s approach is that of a man who has complete control and confidence in everyone at his disposal, the feeling that if X is swapped with Y, the side is no weaker.

Many English fans will overlook the achievement of the women’s team. If the men reached the World Cup semi-final, the country would come to a standstill and nobody would debate whether staying up late to watch the match is a good idea or not.

It’s a huge shame, as Sampson and his current squad have found a winning formula without disregarding the natural style of English football. Duggan, Taylor and Sampson have done what Rooney, Gerrard and Hodgson could not. They’ll be dismissed as soon as their tournament is over, with the masses once again turning their attention to what’s wrong with the men’s team. Nothing could be more English than that.

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