Having just arrived home from Glastonbury where I foolishly thought I might get to watch England in the knockout stages of the World Cup on the big screen with thousands of people in the blazing sunshine (I got massively carried away), and feeling lethargic to say the least, I’ve decided it’s only appropriate to write a quick piece reflecting upon the same old story for England. (Although this time we didn’t even make it to penalties.)
I’m sure most of you have by now exhausted conversation about where things went wrong, and despite the fact that this blog is primarily concerned with the psychological aspects of subject matter, I am nevertheless going to begin with a few of my own opinions of why we failed this time because it may help to justify some of my later points, and furthermore such a complex and emotive topic will invariably generate some discussion of this kind anyway (feel free to post your views).
Firstly, and this is something I can be quite sure I said as soon as the squad was announced (aware of the prevalence and trickeries of hindsight bias), Ashley Cole should not only have been in the squad, he should have started every game. He is still far and away England’s most accomplished left-back, and both Baines and Shaw are completely unproven at that level. The Italians would still be picking Cole for the next World Cup. Similarly, John Terry could have been persuaded out of retirement so he could partner Cahill at the back.
I also think that having essentially only two midfielders and four attacking players demonstrated naivety in England’s tactical approach. If you’re going to play that formation you at least have to press the ball high up the pitch as the Costa Ricans did, but we didn’t even do that. Perhaps our personnel were better suited to a 4-3-3 formation, with Wilshere alongside Henderson and Gerrard just behind, and then Rooney the central striker with Sturridge and one of either Sterling, Welbeck, Barkley, or Lallana on the other.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I didn’t expect England to lose the first two matches, and my post-tournament conclusions are ill-informed when compared with experts. However, it is the management team who must have the foresight and understanding to prevent these calamities. England were given a horrendous draw, facing first an Italian side unburdened by expectation, and then a Uruguay side rejuvenated by the return of Suarez and needing a result. Nevertheless, this is still no excuse. I like Hodgson a lot, as I’m sure the players do, and his decisions to bring in Steve Peters, and to give young players and attacking football a chance have to be admired. But such a performance can only merit one thing: the sack. That may sound harsh, and it may be that he could dramatically improve things in two years time, but that seems unlikely and he has had his chance. Furthermore, it is the psychological wellbeing of the new generation of young players which now needs prioritising.
The England squad of 2014 has effectively brought an end to the Golden Generation of the last decade and a half. Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard (from the starting eleven) are the last survivors from the perennial underachievers which over that period included a host of world class footballers in the likes of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, David Beckham, and Michael Owen. However, for many of us, the end of that tragic era brings with it the hope of a new mentality in the next generation of England players. Robbed in 1998, beaten only by a freak goal from the eventual winners in 2002 (a Brazilian side comprising Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho), and destabilised by the loss through injury of the player of the tournament in Wayne Rooney in 2004, the minds of the players in the Golden Generation became corrupted by defeat. This wasn't helped by the FA’s continually perplexing managerial appointments.
One problem with the repeated failure to fulfil expectation during the Golden Generation was that the England shirt itself became a contextual cue for pressure, and subsequently failure. Pressure, in the words of the very articulate Gianlucca Vialli, derives from three things: expectation, scrutiny, and consequences. These ingredients are magnified by the British and social media, and time and again this pressure leads to failure. Contextual or environmental cues are incredibly powerful and crucial in memory retrieval. The return of a single contextual cue, such as the England shirt, is enough to allow the brain (specifically the hippocampus) to complete a pattern of associations allowing all other features of the memory to be retrieved. The England shirt, therefore, triggers memories which are inextricably linked with powerful emotions.
This links in with the idea of the Chimp, discussed in the previous post. The Chimp is the primitive but extremely powerful inner core of the brain responsible for emotions and unconscious thought processes. For the Golden Generation, pulling on the England shirt meant activating memories (and Gremlins) linked with fear and failure, which subsequently unsettled the Chimp and made it difficult to control. This is one reason why some players can seem to play so well for their clubs but not for their national teams - different contextual cues. You can almost feel when the Chimp has control over a player. In the first two games of England’s World Cup, you sensed that the Italians’ and the Uruguayans’ play was more often than not being dictated by their rational Humans, while the England players, who pass the ball so well in the Premier League, sometimes seemed to be at the mercy of their Chimps, inexplicably hoofing the ball up-field or losing possession on almost every throw-in. (As I said in the previous post I don’t think Steve Peters has had quite enough time to work with the players in such a unique scenario, although many of the new players showed little fear.)
An anxious Chimp can also be much more destructive for an attacking player. Attacking play requires (among other things) a combination of creativity and confidence. Confidence derives from a settled and happy Chimp. Defending is slightly more of a trade - a complex set of motor memories and positioning abilities. The Golden Generation was rarely let down by its defence, but their attacking play never really lived up to its potential.
The manager can also act as a contextual cue to memory, and although this idea certainly doesn’t merit the sacking of a manager, it is something which should be taken into consideration, because the most important thing for this new generation of players is not to allow the England shirt to become what it did for so many of our great players in the past. Generally I don’t buy into the idea that players are to blame when a team fails to perform. Yes, our defence wasn’t good enough, but the manager chose the players, and it is up to the manager to get the best out of the team both tactically and mentally. Even in the difficult circumstances we were presented with, does anyone really think that a Jose Mourinho, or a Carlo Ancelotti, or a Guus Hiddink would have lost the opening two games of the World Cup with the English players we had to choose from? I have my doubts.
However, Roy Hodgson, or Steve McClaren, or Kevin Keegan, or Fabio Capello, did not appoint themselves to the England manager’s position, the FA did, and I find it staggering that they seem to, for the most part, escape accountability for England’s failures on almost every occasion. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman differentiates between two systems within the human thought process: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is our automatic, unconscious thought process which we use for almost every decision we make during the day - our movements, what we eat or drink, and often what we say. System 2 is our effortful, conscious, but lazy thought process, which we only engage when we absolutely have to, such as when presented with a tricky maths question like 57 x 94. This genetic inclination to avoid using the energy sapping System 2 means we often fall victim to a number of cognitive biases which allow us to use System 1 to make a complex decision more easily, and still believe the decision has been carefully thought out. There are many of these biases which appear to be at play when the FA are selecting a new England manager. Most are a bit too complicated and boring to discuss here, but there is one in particular which seems to be apparent for all to see.
The question (whenever it arises) of who should be the next England manager should be a hugely complex and difficult one to answer, and one which, based on previous appointments, I very much doubt members of the FA have the requisite level of knowledge and understanding to answer effectively. Consequently, a cognitive bias which seems so prevalent in the FA headquarters is what Kahneman refers to as answering the easier question. This is how we often generate intuitive opinions on complex matters. If a satisfactory answer to a difficult question does not arrive quickly, and puts too much strain on system 2, System 1 will find a related question that is easier, and will answer it. In the case of the FA, this easier question typically seems to be, what (probably based on media reports) was wrong with the previous England manager? Sven Goran Eriksson was thought to lack passion and commitment so the next manager had to be younger and preferably English, so they appointed Steve McClaren (laughable). They felt Steve McClaren wasn’t proven at the top level so they appointed Fabio Capello. They felt Capello struggled to communicate and empathise with the players so the next manger would have to be English. This time they also felt that some of the top European coaches carried that extra bit of class - spoke eloquently (often in five languages), wore a suit and would be unlikely to say anything too controversial. That ruled out the potentially better qualified Harry Redknapp, so it had to be Hodgson. In this way, it is as if the governing body which is controlling the fate of our national game is akin to a toddler learning step-by-step through trial and error, except they can only take one step every two years, so at this rate, unless they get extremely lucky with an appointment, it could be another fifty years before we win anything. Like my mum once said to my dad, when you’re buying a new house and your old house had a tiny impractical kitchen, the sole focus for the new house is a nice big kitchen, only once you’ve settled into your new home with a tiny bathroom, you wish you’d looked around a bit more carefully.
A final thought relates to another psychological bias people (myself included) inevitably fall victim to: the halo effect. This describes the psychological phenomena whereby it is difficult to change one’s first impressions of another person. Typically when a new manager arrives, they will often experience early success, particularly with a good team, as the contextual cues of the previous manager’s failures have gone and thus confidence is temporarily higher, and the first competitive games are likely to be qualifiers and therefore easier. The new manager will invariably make changes, and so the early success is attributed to the new manager’s skill. When failure then (almost always with England) arrives in the early stages of the competition itself, blame for the manager is only tentative and divided, so we must try to make independent judgements when the tournament proper arrives.
I have tried to make this post as short as possible, and some of the points I have made could be construed as being a little rash, controversial, and even presumptuous. However, I feel that the psychological limitations that every single one of us, as human beings, inevitably falls victim to has to be highlighted, particularly in respect to how the England manager is selected. It is time that the home of football took a serious look at itself, and the three lions can once more become a contextual cue for not only pride, but confidence and victory.