“One of the reasons some of our guys have travelled is to see how the NFL operate because we don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done, we can try different things that work,”
These were the words of England Football Manager Gareth Southgate when he was interviewed on his trip to the Super Bowl this year, and boy has he kept true to his words.
For those living under a rock the FIFA World Cup is currently ongoing, and you would be forgiven for thinking the NFL had no link to this, however Southgate and England would beg to differ.
In preparation for the World Cup, Gareth Southgate began studying the German and Spanish footballing sides, quickly coming to the conclusion that set-pieces were a greater contribution to their success than people previously believe. England on the other hand had failed to pose a threat from dead-ball situations in their previous tournament outings. You would have to go back as far as 2010 to find their last goal to come from a corner.
Southgate, a former England international, received quite a lot of criticism and doubt when taking over the England role. Truth be told his character was the main reasons for a lot of it, a young, humble and nice guy. People unfairly doubted that he would have the backbone required. The fact that he is a methodical thinker, who is very organised and intelligent was pushed to the back.
He has gone on to prove his backbone in some of the decisions he has made and how he has dealt with the media, but not only that, he has also flourished when it has come to the preparation. English players have all mentioned a recurring theme in their interviews, how clear their roles and responsibilities are, particularly in set-pieces.
So how is the NFL involved?
In Southgate’s quest studying other sports he became drawn to NFL, and the way players must get around their blockers without drawing a flag. He would spend time with the Seattle Seahawks studying this preparation and tactics, while also attending two Super Bowls. Fascinated by the routes and plays which allowed players to get space from their blockers he would also go on to speak to NFL Analysts about this. To help implement this research he enlisted the help of Alan Russell.
Russell was a former striker himself, who spent time in the US as a set-piece specialist coach. Southgate has credited him for the success of implementing the plans. Similar to the NFL this England team has been studying their opposition in set-plays, and have built route like plays into their attack, including legal blocking to allow runners space. English player Ruben Loftus-Cheek mentioned this
“We’d been spending a lot of time on set pieces, Right down to the details, all the runs and the blocks. To see it coming out on the pitch is great.”
Just watching the movement of the English team you can see the influence. They also, like a playbook, have attempted to drive the knowledge home through repetition, making it come naturally.
A lot of pundits in England laughed or seemed to brush off this research by Southgate, thinking it silly. Well if you include penalties won from set-pieces, 5 of England’s 9 goals so far in this World Cup has come from them. An outrageous return.
Something else Southgate studied in the NFL was the mental preparation. Comparing the tournaments to the Super Bowl he stated
“I think sometimes around major tournaments the relationships between our guys and the media has been a bit confrontational and I don’t think it has to be that way. So this [Super Bowl] seems very open, a lot more relaxed, there seems to be a lot more respect between people.”
England are currently preparing for the Semi Finals after scoring another set-piece goal against Sweden in the Quarter Finals. It’s been an unpredictable tournament, but if they are to go far they will be relying heavily on the success of their NFL inspired set-pieces.
Personally I think incorporating aspects of other sports including the NFL and NBA was a brilliant move, and as a fan of both NFL and football it has been thoroughly entertaining to keep an eye on. People may have shrugged off Southgate’s intentions when he began his research but he put it best himself.
“If you keep always doing what you’ve always done, you get the same results.”