Saturday 1 October 2016

Variety and competion key to England's progress

Mark Sampson eager to keep his squad fresh and unpredictable

Louise Taylor

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

England's women celebrate their victory over Colombia
England's women celebrate their victory over Colombia

Managers are frequently criticised for lacking a plan B but there seems little danger of Mark Sampson falling into that particular trap. At times it is easy to suspect the alphabet may not contain sufficient letters to embrace the England coach's tactical alternatives. In three group games the 32-year-old has not only used his complement of 20 outfield players but fielded three starkly contrasting starting formations.

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Norway must be struggling to know where to begin fathoming out England for their round of 16 game tomorrow night in Ottawa. Designed to bewilder the opposition while bewitching England fans, Sampson's kaleidoscopic array of options contradict the conventional school of thought that major tournaments are invariably won by settled sides.

So far, though, Hope Powell's successor is enjoying the benefits of creating acute competition while retaining the sort of squad camaraderie so difficult to maintain when fringe players start becoming disillusioned with permanent seats on the bench.

"To be honest I hadn't planned to use all 20 outfield players by now," says Sampson. "It's just happened - but in a nice way. And all the players are now physically sharp, fit, fresh and good to go."

After 18 months in charge, he is not afraid to attempt the sort of mid-game rotation of systems and personnel that many counterparts shy away from. Plus, he remains adamant an element of mystery offers England their best chance of winning here. "The longer we last in this tournament the more different Englands we'll have to show opponents within games," he says. "At half-time against Colombia [in last Wednesday's 2-1 win in Montreal] we switched from a team very quick on transition and very aggressive in pressing to one sitting a bit deeper, playing on the counterattack and managing the spaces.

"Against the top teams, games ebb and flow. There are times for front-foot football and times where you have to be more careful and manage important spaces. The challenge is recognising when those moments come."

At first glance it can appear off-the-cuff choreography but England's chameleon-like character is the product of painstaking drills on the training pitches and hours of tactical analysis in the classroom. "We always have a strategy," says Sampson. "Over the last 18 months we've played different systems and styles to make sure we had them in the locker come tournament time. It's great to know that we can give a signal and the players will do something different, something to pose the opposition a different problem, or solve a problem of our own."

There is a sense of things coming full circle tomorrow. Sampson's first England match was against Norway in the lower stress environs of La Manga in southern Spain and finished 1-1.

"It seems about 35 years ago," says a coach whose players will not bow out for want of mental conditioning. Big on emotional intelligence, he ensures a sports psychologist is available to the squad. "The emotional development of our team is something we've really worked hard on," he says. "We wanted to make sure this group are the most together unit in this tournament and understand what we need to do to perform at our maximum under pressure."

A quiet confidence is building. "We're excited by the challenge. I really feel this tournament is in our hands," he says. "When we're at our maximum we have great chance of being successful. All the players are available for selection, all happy and content, a really harmonious group. Their focus now is on the fun part of the tournament, the bit where there's no tomorrow, where you've got deliver."

England have never won a World Cup knockout game but Sampson remains undeterred. "The big challenge is can we make history," he says. "That's got to be our focus."

It helps that the newly fit Karen Carney, England's most creative individual, and Jodie Taylor, a key striker recovered from knee surgery, are around to help attempt to set a precedent.

While the influential Carney is Sampson's "wizard", England supporters regard Taylor, who came on for the final 10 minutes of the win against Colombia as integral to their chances. "It's fantastic to get Jodie on the field," he says. "Defending against Jodie Taylor, you can't switch off for a second."

He has been burning the midnight oil analysing the rather stunning makeover Norway have undergone since arriving in Canada. "Pre-tournament, Norway were four at the back, one holding in midfield and one striker. Now they've reverted to two holding players and one striker off another.

"They've drawn with Germany in the group stage. And they have a coach who's been there and done it. So, in every area we're going to be challenged, but we can beat anyone. We're confident. We know we can hurt Norway. They're really well organised, fit, and strong, determined, and if they can't find a way on the floor they'll put the ball in the air. We'll have to manage that direct threat."

An intriguing sub-plot revolves around the highly technical duel between his youthful courage and the wily pragmatism of Even Pellerud, aged 61. Back in 1995, when Sampson was 12, the Norway manager led his team to World Cup victory. Should Pellerud be wrong-footed even the England coach's biggest critic might be happy. "My dad's never pleased," he says. "But let's say he's satisfied at the moment."

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