England have spent two years preparing a blueprint to beat France at the World Cup and are confident they will be physically and tactically ready when they face the world champions on Saturday evening.
There was little time for rest after they swept into the quarter-finals by beating Senegal 3-0 on Sunday. Gareth Southgate and his staff returned to the team hotel in the early hours on Monday morning and then absorbed a detailed analysis of France from Tim Dittmer, the Football Association’s head of coaching.
“We got back at 3am, we went to bed, we were up at 9,” Steve Holland, Southgate’s No 2, said. “We had a presentation to us from a member of the FA, one of the national coaches who’s been tracking France all the way throughout this tournament and for the last two years.
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“So an expert not just on what’s happened at this tournament but the thinking of the manager with choices, selections, different types of opponent for the last two years. We started this morning really getting up to speed specifically on the opponent.”
Holland said it was a boost to have five days to prepare. “It’s not usual,” he said. “To be able to recover the players properly and prepare the players tactically and physically, we have the perfect opportunity. No excuses. We have time. We’re building on what we’ve done. We’re not just going back to the start.
“You hope that in the work you deliver on the training pitch and the messages you’re delivering in the meetings that the players are gaining belief from the plan. That they’re looking at it and thinking, ‘I can do that’ and ‘Yes, we can do that’. When they’re walking out on match day, where basically they’re out of our hands, that they have a genuine belief in what they’re doing. Not because of mystical words of wisdom necessarily but because of a process they’ve been through. If we do that then we’re handing over to them and requiring their individual moments to make the difference.”
Holland believes it will be tight against France. The 52-year-old, who has worked as an assistant at Chelsea, feels England are wiser after runs to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup and the final of Euro 2020.
“We’ve had a lot of young players who have been gaining experience,” he said. “The experience in the group is as strong as I can remember. You rely on that in these moments. From a management perspective we’ve lived these moments now. Are we excited about being in a quarter-final? Of course. But when you’ve just been to a final and a semi-final it feels a little bit different to the first quarter-final. I’m not being arrogant. We want more.
“It’s a 50-50 game. If you’re playing inferior opposition and you play well you get the result. That’s the challenge. We could play well and still not get the result. It’s 50-50 with special players who can produce something out of nothing. But the team are really well equipped for the journey this quarter-final could be. It could be a long night. I feel we’re as ready as we’ve ever been to navigate that.”
Holland, who described Southgate as “a good human being” and “a really good ambassador for the country”, also shed a light on the togetherness in the England camp. “When you are together a long period of time, it’s different to club football,” he said. “We don’t have 23 [players] any more, we have 26. You pick 11 and 15 are disappointed. It takes huge energy to manage that group.
“It’s a huge part of man-management. Gareth does that systematically. The players respect that and appreciate it. But there probably is a shelf life to how long a player can be a backup. Going back to my experience at Chelsea, to win you can’t have 11 players that are comfortable and know they’re going to play every week. In the end you get a drop-off. The players have to feel the faith of the manager, but also competition from the group.
“It’s a huge part of the job and Gareth does that as well as it can be done. We’ve seen in the tournament in other camps that if you do get dissent in the group, and players not feeling good about each other, that can soon in this environment spread like a cancer. It is a really important part. We’re very lucky. We have a really top group of senior professionals.”