How Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa primed England for glory

Sport

The resurrection of Raheem Sterling began with a phone call. As England relaxed at their Euro 2016 base in Chantilly, Sterling was perhaps in the biggest slump of his career: out of form, spitefully singled out by the media and fans, an increasingly marginal presence at Manchester City.

Yet if many were content to write Sterling off, his new manager Pep Guardiola was not. And so Guardiola rang his despondent winger, assured him of his place, and began devising a plan.

In a way, Sterling’s first goal of Euro 2020 was the culmination of that plan. As Kalvin Phillips ran at the Croatia defence at Wembley, Sterling spotted the gap opening in the centre and sprinted into it. This was not the sort of run he habitually made earlier in his career. But under Guardiola, who encouraged him to focus his movement more directly towards goal, Sterling has become more alert to these gaps, more adept at timing his runs to exploit them.

Sterling’s run and Phillips’s pass intersected at roughly right angles. Here again, the Guardiola influence was manifest. Previously, Sterling used to control such passes on the outside of his foot, protecting it from the defender, but taking it wider and losing time in the process. Now, he allowed the ball to run across his body before shooting first time: a simple, scruffy finish, and yet one created by the sort of taught movement that has elevated Sterling to the top rank of English forwards.

No international team operates in a vacuum. No player improves on his own. This England is unquestionably the team of Gareth Southgate: a motivated, unified squad alchemised into more than the sum of its parts. But in relative terms, Southgate’s time with these players, even those who played for his England age-group sides, has been negligible. And so this is also, in many ways, the team of Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino and Marcelo Bielsa and Diego Simeone: the elite club coaches who over months and years on the training ground have sharpened the skills and awareness now on display.

Kyle Walker is another who has honed his game under Guardiola’s tutelage. Under the careful eye of Pochettino at Spurs, Walker became one of the finest attacking full-backs in Europe. Guardiola had a different vision. And so under the last few seasons Walker has morphed into a largely containing presence: using his speed and positional intelligence as a last line of defence.

Nine minutes into the semi-final against Denmark, we saw this in action. Thomas Delaney threaded the ball through to the left-wing-back Joakim Mæhle. Temporarily in the clear, Mæhle advanced with the ball only to find the turbo-powered Walker chasing him down, muscling him away and winning possession. Walker’s ability to extinguish opposition counterattacks – a skill forged at the Etihad Campus – has become indispensable to how Southgate’s England play.

You could go through the whole squad and tell a similar tale. Kieran Trippier rose to prominence at Tottenham but has gone to a new level under Simeone at Atlético Madrid: not just a fine full-back but a leader and one of the shrewdest tactical minds in the squad. Luke Shaw has blossomed at Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who has encouraged rather than stymied the attacking side of his game. Bukayo Saka has become Mikel Arteta’s pet project at Arsenal: initially tried in a variety of positions in order to round out his game, but more recently deployed as an agent of chaos in the final third. And how many other coaches would have been content to build their attack around an unheralded 21-year-old striker, as Pochettino did with Harry Kane in 2014-15?

The common gene running through many of these players, of course, is one of the most influential coaches of all. Pochettino, Guardiola, Simeone and many others speak openly about the debt they owe to Bielsa and his ideas. While it is a stretch to describe Southgate’s England as a Bielsa team, the Argentinian’s school of coaching – bravery on the ball, quick and fluid passing, a tolerance of individual error, an emphasis on transitions and a ruthless approach to fitness – is evident not just in England but throughout much of the elite game, and specifically of course in Kalvin Phillips, the Leeds midfielder who has become the ticking heartbeat of Southgate’s side.

Perhaps the real moral here, however, is not so much about individuals but internationalism. For all the motifs of English exceptionalism that will accompany their appearance in Sunday’s final, the success of Southgate’s side owes its origins to far subtler forces.

Distinct national identity, in footballing terms, is increasingly dissolving into myth. Everyone largely plays like everyone else these days. All but one or two of the Argentina and Brazil players in Sunday’s Copa América final will be based in Europe. We are all global capitalists now, orbiting ever more tightly around the big western European leagues and their inescapable gravity.

So, given the Premier League’s clout and the calibre of coach it has been able to attract, perhaps it was inevitable that English football would eventually have its day in the sun. Which is to take nothing away from Southgate or the quietly impressive infrastructure at St George’s Park or the players themselves.

It is simply to point out that in our infinitely connected world, what we like to think of as English success, English talent, English investment, comes – much like England itself – from everywhere.