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Hi again!

I hope you all enjoyed England losing another game of football. I know I didn't! If you're reading this on Wednesday or later, you might have seen the Lionesses lose another another game of football, which would be a real shame.

In today's newsletter, I'm thinking about what Sarina Wiegman could do or not do in order to put a stop to this horrible plague!

I'd love to know what you think about the England team at the moment, or indeed any hot takes you have about the upcoming men's Euro 2024. If you'd like to be in touch, you can reply to this email or send a message to [email protected] or DM me on Twitter or on Instagram. Very modern, very connected.

Lots of love
Flora xx
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No Plan B

Sarina Wiegman has been fighting off critics coming for the very essence of her Lionesses team ahead of ‘Le Crunch’, their next European Qualifier against France on Tuesday night.

By the time you read this, you will probably be able to tell me just how crunchy it was. Ahead of the ‘must-win’ game, I’m trying not to get too het up about it. Probably it’ll be fine and the Lionesses will qualify for the Euros. If not, I’ll find something else to do next July, or follow one of the other teams instead. In fact, come to think of it, England not qualifying would save me the inevitable pain of losing to Spain in the final, which I've just discovered is slated to take place on my birthday. Save me the disappointment.

Of course, none of that is true. I'm desperate for England to participate in the next big tournament. But it’s fun to try on different identities sometimes.
It was clear from the unchanged starting team which Wiegman sent out for every game at Euro 2022 that she is not fond of experimentation, and it is clear from the fact that England won the tournament that there is merit in this approach.

But what worked for the 30-game unbeaten run with which Wiegman began her tenure as England manager isn’t working so well now, as the Lionesses’ defeat to France at St James’ Park on Friday was their fifth loss in their last 20 games — which doesn’t feel like European Championship defence form.

Time for a change of tack?

"We are trying to be unpredictable," Wiegman said after the defeat. "We want to improve our game all the time, in possession and out of possession.

"We have an identity. We are not going to throw everything overboard because we want to be unpredictable for our opponents, because then we are going to be unpredictable for ourselves.”

Is it possible to be consistently unpredictable? Can I depend on my favourite football team to surprise me on a long-term basis? Do I need to know the difference between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 in order to understand that things have got a bit stale?
As the stumps of my fingernails will attest, bitten off amid a morning of uncertain wall-staring, it can be difficult to find new ways of doing things you’ve been doing for ages. Having dreamt it up, to then commit to a deviation from the familiar is more challenging still, an investment of time and energy with no promise of return.

What if….?

Invention can be exciting, too. There’s a thrill in the threat of badness that comes with a gamble. To give it the best chance of working, you have to be all-in against a possibility of failure which doesn’t exist with your tried and tested ideas.

The difference between me and Wiegman is that something a bit shit or ridiculous which I have single-handedly executed will be forgotten tomorrow, whereas the radical new formation that wakes up Wiegman at four in the morning requires hours of development and the re-training of 20+ other people before it can be put into practice, before it potentially leaves Wiegman with a lasting legacy as the manager whose naivety and rashness squandered England’s most talented generation to date.

Fortunately, Wiegman is not prone to rashness, nor does her profoundly sensible nature preclude sensible changes.

Remember when England’s World Cup hopes broke with Keira Walsh in the second game of the tournament? Wiegman’s flair for adaptation showed as she shimmied her way out of that pickle and all the way to the final.
The question of sticking or twisting has always plagued football managers. It became a pressing concern in West Yorkshire at the start of 2022, when Leeds United badly lost four Premier League games — 3-0, then 4-2, then 6-0, then 4-0 — conceding 17 goals in one fortnight. Manager Marcelo Bielsa's unique and effective playing style got Leeds promotion from the second tier and applause from entertained neutrals everywhere, but brilliance is most startling when it is new. The shine goes as people begin to understand the mechanism behind it.

Modern football is scrutinous. It wasn’t long before hours of video analysis had turned Bielsa’s football from something that happened ‘as if by magic’ into a series of functions which could and would be targeted and prevented.

With teams increasingly understanding how to overcome his Leeds United, stubborn Bielsa doubled down on his ideas, insisting that the only ‘plan B’ was to do ‘plan A’ better.

It was a stance that earned him the admiration of a lot of people but ultimately got him sacked, as the Whites’ consistent predictability left them too close to the relegation zone for the liking of the Leeds United board.

The aura that surrounded Bielsa during his time at Elland Road proves that the question of whether to stick with your style of play or to twist and try something new is not merely a matter of tactics.

With the strength of his principles, Bielsa earned the unwavering trust of his players. How would it feel when those principles leave you with egg on your face, losing 6-0 on Wednesday and 4-0 on Saturday? Who do you turn to when, demoralised by defeat, you look for answers about where to go next? And how do you react when he tells you to do the same thing again next weekend?
Marcelo Bielsa and Andres Clavijo talking to the press after the Spurs match
Conversely, if it was the force of his conviction that inspired you to put your faith in a manager, how would your perception of him change if he suddenly abandoned his former beliefs? And after two years of playing football one way, would you feel confident stepping onto the pitch tasked with doing things differently?

Tactics are not something that happen in an office, or even a room full of enquiring journalists; they’re subject to the confidence, trust, insecurity, comprehension of the players that carry them out. Wiegman’s task is deciding ‘what’ to do, while managing those other things as best as she can at the same time — otherwise the 'what' can't happen at all.

In terms of what the ‘what’ is, it seems there’s nothing drastic on the horizon.

"We want to build on what we already have and do a couple of things better with a couple of little tweaks,” she said on Friday.

Evolution is slow. But will Wiegman tweak things quickly enough to make the deadline of the Euro 2025 kick off, and even then, might it be too late?

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