Mark Sampson urges England Women to stay cool against Spain
Mark Sampson has warned his England players to beware the “dark arts” practised by a Spain side that he believes “people find it hard to fall in love with” when the Euro 2017 rivals meet in Breda on Sunday night. The game not only promises to determine which team finishes top of Group D but should also prove to be a useful litmus test of the Lionesses’ status as contenders.
“Spain are one of those teams that, on one hand, are the purist’s dream yet, on the other, are incredibly frustrating,” said Sampson whose players thrashed Scotland 6-0 in their opening Group D match last Wednesday. “No one would argue that Spain’s tippy-tappy football, their possession-based style, isn’t pleasing on the eye.
“If that was the sole element of their game, I think you’d be really happy to go and watch them, but one of the reasons people find it hard to fall in love with the Spanish team is because they’ve got the other bit as well – the indiscipline, the feigning injury, the getting around the referee.
“So we’re aware of those dark arts that aren’t the nicest part, and we have to manage them. It’s a shame because Spain’s possession football could make them the team that everyone wants to watch. But the reason people find it difficult to love them is because the other side of them can frustrate – not just the opponents, but supporters as well.”
Avoiding being drawn into petty battles will necessitate cold-headed logic in a southern Netherlands town close to the Belgian border. “It’s going to be about making rational decisions,” said the England coach. “You can’t choose not to react to Spain’s behaviour, but you want to choose the right reaction. We’ve got to make sure that we always have clarity of thought in pressurised moments.”
Sampson sees Jorge Vilda’s side – fast rising through the Uefa rankings and widely regarded as Euro 2017 dark horses – as chameleons. “If the Spanish team are getting it their way and they’re controlling the ball, the sun’s out and it’s pass and move,” he said. “But if they’re facing their own goal or chasing a bit more, and they’re having to compete for possession, then you start to see the other side of their game, the dark arts. It’s a shame, but it’s something you’ve got to deal with and manage, both the officials and the players. It’s going to be about executing the right decisions under pressure.”
Judging such situations correctly is easier said than done, but Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze, Jordan Nobbs, Jodie Taylor, the scorer of a hat-trick against Scotland, Toni Duggan – who may face up to 10 of her new Barcelona team-mates – and company have been well prepared.
“The players are focused on getting the emotional levels right,” said Sampson. “There’s a fine line between being too relaxed and being too emotional. You don’t want to be too relaxed where you don’t have the intensity, and you don’t want to get too emotional when you make irrational decisions.’”
Last October, England inflicted Spain’s first defeat in 13 games with a 2-1 friendly victory in Guadalajara. Since then, Vilda’s squad have been through a bruising dispute over bonuses, which arguably prompted the omission of a couple of key players, notably Verónica Boquete, the gifted Paris Saint-Germain forward.
“Before the tournament, there was a lot of talk about player unrest about bonuses with both Spain and Scotland,” said Sampson. “It was interesting to hear the coaches comment that they didn’t get involved. I don’t understand that. As a manager, my responsibility is to make sure my players are content and happy.”
Not that he is complaining about Spain’s travails. “I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Verónica Boquete a few times, and she’s a beautiful player and a beautiful person,” he said. “But we’re far better off without her being here.”
England’s coach has few compunctions about dropping high-profile players for specific games. Indeed, it will be a major surprise if an often left-field thinker – who is most definitely no slave to dogma – fails to refresh his starting XI. That said, Sampson does not feel the need to rotate quite as manically as he once did.
Since finishing third in the 2015 World Cup in Canada, England’s technical improvement has been pronounced. It dictates that Sampson is no longer having to consistently swap principles for pragmatism; a once pressing imperative to staff his teams with individuals able to nullify specific opponents has diminished appreciably.
“Sometimes in Canada, we had to sacrifice some of our principles because we felt we were playing a superior side and we maybe weren’t at a level we needed to be to execute our philosophy as well as we could,” said Sampson. “But now I feel much more confident that, no matter the opponent, we don’t need to do that any more.”