Are England Destined to Fail at the World Cup?

England world cup

Most of the pre-tournament hype around the England squad concerns player selection and tactics, but there is something far more fundamental that England have yet to crack – being a team. Creating a great team isn’t simply about putting the best players together and leaving it to chance. More often than not, it involves a concerted effort that, as a psychologist specialising in high performing teams, I’d argue is even more important than tactics on the pitch. With club rivalries and player spats coming to the fore in the Premier League, Gareth has a lot of work to do in order to create a unified team and prevent the World Cup in Russia being yet another failure on the biggest stage.

Are club loyalties leaving England fragmented?

Unlike any other country, all the players in the England national squad compete in the same league and have done for most tournaments over the last couple of decades. That’s a problem because as human beings, the way we categorise ourselves in terms of social groups has a profound effect on our thoughts and behaviours. If you play for Spurs and are then asked to be part of a team that involves rival team players from Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester and Liverpool – that’s not easy.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Frank Lampard had to say on his England experience:

“There was something missing when I look back at my England career, maybe we play against each other every week and there were little groups, Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea. And probably when you’re, I don’t know, Argentine, and they’re all playing all over the world, they come home and there’s a big family, a different spirit, and I’m not sure we always managed to get that together.”

Ferdinand has also hinted that club rivalries were the real reason behind such underwhelming England performances, saying club loyalties often outweighed camaraderie and team spirit while playing for their country.

The Manchester United legend told the Times magazine:

“It overshadowed things. It killed that England team, that generation,”

“I wouldn’t open up because of the fear they would take something back to their club and use it against us, to make them better than us. I didn’t really want to engage with them. I didn’t realise that what I was doing was hurting England at the time. I was so engrossed, so obsessed with winning with Man United – nothing else mattered.”

This ‘them’ vs ‘us’ mentality shown in Frank and Rio’s comments highlights that they identified first and foremost with their club. Some might consider these revelations as a damning indictment of players from that era who really should have achieved much more on the biggest stage. As professional players, should they be able to put their club differences to one side?

Well, it’s not as easy as flicking a switch. The power of group psychology is far greater than we realise and often operates in subconscious and subtle ways.

Imagine you’re Spurs and England’s rising star Deli Alli, who are you likely to eat lunch with? Who are you likely to spend your time with socially? It’s far more likely to be club mates Harry Kane, Erik Dier or Kieran Trippier, rather than players from arch-rivals Arsenal, such as Danny Welbeck.

Interpersonal feuds between rival club members are also not uncommon. Alli, known to have a fiery side, told fellow England team-mate, and Manchester United player, Ashley Young to ‘retire with a zimmer frame’ during their Premier League clash. Young, who has won the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League with United, is believed to have responded by telling Alli: “Let me know when you win the Prem.”

Why is this such a problem? Our recent research in collaboration with Sussex University suggests that a divided team full of cliques is likely to have a weak team identity. Why is an ‘England identity’ so important? Well, further research showed that the performance difference between teams with a strong identity and those with a weak or fragmented identity can be up to a massive 53%. That’s not a marginal gain, but the type of difference that can explain how minnows Iceland overcame England at the Euros.

Is England forever destined to underachieve?

It’s not all doom and gloom. We are actually incredibly adept at identifying with different social groups, but only if a new identity is psychologically meaningful to us. It’s only when their identity as England players comes before club loyalties that England will ever have a chance going into a World Cup. Building a psychologically meaningful ‘England identity’ is possible, but it’s something that takes time, effort and knowledge of exactly why players choose to identify with a team.

Understanding why people identify with a team is such a fundamentally important question that we spent three years collaborating with Sussex University to try and find out the answer. Our recently published study highlights that there are several key ingredients to identifying with a group. Targeting these motives can build a strong identity and turn a group of individuals or cliques into a high performing team. What are these beliefs?

The first is Traditions – this belief connects the team’s past to its present and into the future. In Brazil, the legacy handed down from legendary players like Pele or Roberto Carlos is understood by the players. For England, the success in 1966 has become a burden. If we are to repeat the heroics of 1966, we need to reframe the past so that it is no longer tainted with the fear of recent failures or the expectation of past glories. Instead, it should be used to strengthen our future and enable the players to write the next chapter in the story.

The second is Relevance – In winning teams, players have a clearly defined purpose that contributes to the success of the team. We need to define a purpose that goes beyond a vague aspiration to win, which connects it with the fans, and makes it meaningful again. When we worked with the GB women’s hockey team in the run-up to the Rio Olympics, they had a clearly defined and meaningful identity of being the difference and inspiring the future. What England’s relevance beyond trying to win?

The third is having a distinctive Identity – Brazil play with style, Spain tiki-taka football, Germany are fast-paced and fluid. What is our identity? What gives us a distinctive edge? The FA have set out a new philosophy, or ‘England DNA’, launched in 2014 and which Southgate was a key part of. Its aim is to have a clear vision of how England teams should operate – a brand of forward-thinking possession-based football, with pace at its heart. Having a clear ‘DNA’ is certainly a step in the right direction as it gives players guidance on how to behave on the pitch, but is it truly distinctive from other teams and will the players live this identity in Russia?

Fourth is Belonging – are players part of a cohesive unit or are they sticking with their club loyalties like Lampard and co were in the ‘golden generation’? Have Alli and Young really buried the hatchet?

The final belief is Effectiveness – this relates to team members’ belief that they can make an important contribution to the success of the team. Instead of being scared of failure, players should be focusing on how and why they can make a significant contribution to the team’s success. Sir Clive Woodward’s 2003 Rugby World Cup winning team knew that anything, no matter how small, would be done to help them to glory. Every experiment, from peripheral vision training to ice baths to aid recovery, strengthened their identity and made them feel capable of achieving success. Do the current crop of young players believe that they have the capability to achieve success? Or does the fear of failure still linger in England set-up?

Together these beliefs form the TRIBE model. Its been used by elite military forces, global businesses brands and Olympic champions. It’s used by those at the pinnacle because it works. It’s a shame Gareth didn’t call, but as an England fan, I hope that he’s worked on these beliefs with the team. Otherwise, it could be another summer of England underachievement on the big stage.

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