England’s 8-0 thrashing of Norway was a stunning triumph. But it also exposed a failure of leadership.
As the changing room door closed behind them, England’s players could not help but laugh. They were halfway through what was, in theory, the most arduous challenge awaiting them in the group stage of Euro 2022. They were facing a Norway team sprinkled with representatives of Lyon and Barcelona, Chelsea and Manchester City, the powerhouses of the women’s game.
And they had, in the space of a single half, scored six goals.
It was not a cruel laughter, or a mocking one. It was, instead, a disbelieving laughter, a giddy laughter. The entire experience seemed somewhat surreal to many of the players, as if there had been some sort of glitch in the code. Once they had regained some measure of composure, the first question many asked was simple:
What had just happened?
Routs happen, of course. It has not been long since Sarina Wiegman’s England scored 20 goals in a single game against Latvia. It has been only three years since the United States did its bit for the talking-point business by beating Thailand, 13-0, at the World Cup, giving rise to at least a week of discussion on the relative ethical merits of celebrating goals in a blowout.
Routs happen both in men’s and women’s soccer, and in both cases they generally prompt further interrogation about the health of the sport. In the men’s game, as a rule, that focuses on the yawning financial chasm that has spirited the elite club sides away from their opponents. In the women’s, it is more likely to emphasize the difference in resources that separate richer nations and poorer ones.
England’s drubbing of Norway, though, did not fit that pattern. Norway does not, of course, boast a handful of impossibly wealthy clubs pouring money into their women’s sides. It is not home to one of the strongest leagues in the world, staffed now by some of the best players on the planet. It does not, on a very basic level, possess as many human beings as England. Its talent pool, as a result, is naturally smaller.
But Norway is not Latvia, and it is not Thailand. Its developmental structures have been good enough to produce Ada Hegerberg, gradually reasserting her claim to being one of the world’s best players; and Caroline Graham Hansen, a vital cog in Barcelona’s attack; and Chelsea’s Guro Reiten; and Julie Blakstad, a star in the making; and Maren Mjelde and Maria Thorisdottir, two of the elite players who have been tempted to England by the booming Women’s Super League.
This was not a humiliation that could be cleanly attributed to structural inequality, a defeat that could be dressed up as a learning experience, the inevitable denouement of vastly superior firepower. It was not inevitable at all, in fact. It was, in many ways, self-inflicted.
What was most striking, during that surreal first half in which England’s delight metamorphosed first into euphoria and then a dizzying, incredulous frenzy, was the precision of Wiegman’s team’s ruthlessness. It would not be quite right to suggest that England scored the same goal eight times. But it would not be entirely wrong, either.
The plan was simple. Ellen White, the central striker, would drop deep, drawing with her one of Norway’s two central defenders, neither of whom is blessed with what might be termed searing pace. Beth Mead, helped by the relative inexperience of Blakstad, her direct opponent, would fill the deserted channel. With a single pass, either from midfield or from Lucy Bronze, the right back, Norway’s penalty area unfurled in front of her.
Martin Sjogren, Norway’s coach, would later suggest that it was England’s first goal, a rather soft penalty, that had unsettled his team. “We began to crack a little and made some poor decisions,” he said. There is some truth in that. Thorisdottir, having conceded the penalty, seemed to freeze, unsure of her every touch, her every move, as if haunted by her error.
Sjogren’s claim is not, though, the whole truth. To attribute Norway’s collapse exclusively to individual mistakes is, at heart, to confuse symptom with cause. The problem, the one that caused Sjogren’s side to bend and break so spectacularly, was not an isolated series of unrelated incidents but a systemic shortcoming. England showed its hand, and its opponent failed miserably to adapt.
Part of the responsibility for that lies with the players, of course. Mjelde and Thorisdottir, certainly, are experienced enough to have identified their team’s weak point and reacted accordingly: sitting just a little deeper, perhaps, or refusing to be coaxed out of their line by White’s movement, or drawing Blakstad in closer for greater protection.
But a vast majority of it falls on the shoulders of Sjogren himself. A sequence of individual errors could be evidence of some great psychological failing, but it is distinctly more likely to be proof of a flaw in a team’s strategy. High-caliber players make consistently poor choices only when they are faced with limited options. And that, ultimately, is down to the coach.
The caliber of player in women’s soccer, particularly in Europe, has risen steeply in recent years. The slick, technical style that has proliferated at this summer’s European Championship has offered ample proof of that. It is hard to make the argument, though, that the quality of coach has tracked quite the same trajectory.
Or, perhaps better, the type of coach. There has long been an emphasis on player development in the women’s game, for wholly obvious, entirely understandable and broadly admirable reasons. It is that focus that has allowed the game to foster a whole galaxy of emergent stars — Vivianne Miedema and Delphine Cascarino and Lauren Hemp — and help them flourish.
But development coaching is a different skill, a different art, from what might be termed results coaching: The first is concerned with process, after all, and the second with outcome. It is hard not to wonder if a coach more focused on the latter might have acted more swiftly to staunch Norway’s bleeding, or even to shut the game down entirely, accepting a 3-0 defeat as the price to pay to avoid embarrassment.
It is that which may prove the decisive factor at the Euros over the next two weeks. Most of the genuine contenders for the trophy — England, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and, at the outside, Spain — have an abundance of attacking talent. Generating players who can decide games is where women’s soccer, like men’s, now pumps most of its resources.
It is possible, of course, that the tournament’s eventual champion will simply be the team with the greatest weight of sheer, glimmering ability, the one most capable of expressing its own brilliance, the one that shines brightest. It is more likely, though, that the team left standing will be the one that is best prepared and most willing to make everyone else look dull.
Not as Old as They Look
Received wisdom would have it that Chelsea’s decision to spend $40 million on Kalidou Koulibaly is a bad idea. He is already 31, and by the time his contract at Stamford Bridge comes to an end, he will be 34. Even if he has proved a wise investment, there is precious little prospect of the club’s being able to recover any of its costs.
The general rule of thumb, when it comes to accepted best practice in soccer, is that well-run teams buy young and, with a degree of cold-eyed dispassion, cull the old. Chelsea’s decision to commit so much money to a veteran central defender like Koulibaly, by those standards, suggests that the club’s new owner and sporting director, Todd Boehly, has not quite internalized the game’s abiding logic.
That logic, though, feels somewhat outdated. The idea that players are old — and therefore worthless — as soon as they hit their early 30s dates to an era before the sport took things like nutrition seriously, when players did not have personal osteopaths, when their every move, from their early teens, was not governed by the diktats of sports science.
It may well be, in fact, that being 31 today has very little in common with being 31 in 2010, or being 31 in 2000. Koulibaly — his quality perhaps slightly underestimated by the fact that he has spent the last eight years of his career in Italy — could yet have six or seven years of elite performance in him.
It should be noted that Thiago Silva, the player with whom he will partner at Stamford Bridge, arrived at Chelsea a couple of years ago, at age 35, for what many assumed was a swan song. It has gone rather better than that. Perhaps, for elite players, the clock ticks a little more slowly now.
An Update on Barcelona
Last week, you may remember, Barcelona was busily trying to persuade Frenkie de Jong — a player who does not appear to be in any desperate rush to leave Camp Nou — that the only way that he might be allowed to stay is by agreeing to a new, reduced contract.
This week, you will be delighted to know, the very same Barcelona has spent somewhere in the region of $65 million to acquire Raphinha from Leeds United, and then granted Ousmane Dembélé — a player who excels in exactly the same position as the Brazilian — a new two-year contract.
These two Barcelonas — the one that needs its current squad to take pay cuts to stay and the one that can lavish a vast sum on new contracts — can exist because the club’s president, Joan Laporta, has hit upon the brilliant strategy of selling tomorrow to pay for today. Barcelona’s parlous finances mean it needs to raise $3 for every $1 it spends. Laporta has accomplished this by selling a portion of its future broadcast income. It may yet cash in some of its future revenue from hosting major events, too.
Of the many and varied problems with this approach, perhaps the most galling is that Barcelona is risking its long-term health for players that it does not really need. This is a club, after all, whose very identity is rooted in its ability to nurture homegrown talent.
For all its troubles, it continues to do just that. In Gavi and Pedri — a cheap signing, rather than an academy product, admittedly — it is already in possession of a midfield that will last a decade. Ansu Fati, should his injury issues abate, is as bright an attacking prospect as there is in world soccer.
And yet still, Barcelona remains addicted to short-term fixes, to stocking its bloated wage bill with players who are, if far from mediocre, hardly the sort worth risking everything. Andreas Christensen, Franck Kessié and Raphinha are all fine players. They all make Barcelona stronger. But are they worth gambling with tomorrow? Come to that, is anyone? Is the idea of a couple of trophy-less years nurturing a new generation so unpalatable to the club’s board and its fans that it is compelled to spend money it does not have?
That’s all for this week. As ever, all thoughts, questions, ideas or responses are welcome at [email protected], and some of them are welcome on Twitter, too. And remember: If you’re in the general vicinity of Britain, you are four days away from the last ever Set Piece Menu*, so feel free to come along and wave us off/make sure we’re finishing.
Have a great weekend,
*Unless we all get fired