Dan Micciche: How England changed perceptions
Written by Simon Austin — June 28, 2018
WHEN Dan Micciche worked for the Football Association, he used to ask foreign coaches about their perceptions of English football.
“They’d say, ‘get it wide, cross it, physical, long ball,” the former England Under-16 boss told TGG’s Cohesive Coaching conference last week.
“For me, it was about changing those views. I’d say ‘within an hour, I’m going to show you that’s wrong.’”
No-one watching England at this World Cup could accuse them of being a long-ball team.
“We’ve got a different type of player coming through now than we’ve had in the past,” added Micciche, who worked with the U16s from 2013 to 2017.
“I’m really proud of Gareth and the England staff and the set-up. He’s been brave in his team selection, with a lot of attacking players.
“We’re seeing John Stones and Kyle Walker rotate positions, the back three split very wide and expansive and we’re seeing them create a lot of chances, which doesn’t happen by accident.”
As is so often the case, the changes didn’t happen overnight and – in the case of the senior team at least – there have been several false starts along the way.
In December 2014, the FA launched its DNA for the England representative teams at St George’s Park. There was little fanfare and plenty of ridicule for what some saw as a pointless gimmick.
The DNA laid out how England teams should “play, think and be coached,” while describing the ideal characteristics of England players.
The two architects were Southgate, who had joined the FA in 2011 as Head of Elite Development before becoming U21 boss in 2013, and Ashworth, who succeeded him as Director of Elite Development in 2012 before becoming Technical Director in 2015.
Southgate explained: “To be a successful team, we need to control possession. If we look at the successful teams over the last 10, 12 years, that’s definitely been the case. And if you look to the future, you will only see that increasing.
“In England teams I played in, we used to just lump things in the box and play very direct, because under pressure we were trying to get a goal and it became quite a random process.
“We are trying to encourage our younger teams to keep playing the right ball. If you keep possession for long enough, teams tire, gaps appear and then you have to be ruthless in the penalty areas.”
Ashworth said that when in possession, England teams needed to do four key things: counter attack, keep possession, penetrate and be inventive. When out of possession, they only needed to do one thing: win the ball back as quickly as possible.
As Micciche explained at Cohesive Coaching last week, the clubs also deserve huge credit for the technical ability of the modern England player.
Speaking directly to some of the Premier League Academy coaches in the room, the former MK Dons manager said: “They’re your players, not the FA’s, because you do the work.
"We then just put them together as a team and put the cherry on the cake. It’s a collective achievement.”
Setting out a DNA was one thing. Enacting it was another. The first thing to do was to change the culture and mindset of the coaches and players.
“Spain, Germany, Holland - we were used to being told you can never out-possess these teams,” Micciche said, “but we believed you could if you put the right environment in place.”
In 2014, he laid out a vision for the U16s: “To be unplayable with and without the ball and show there are no limits to what’s possible.”
With technically gifted players at his disposal courtesy of the clubs - such as Jadon Sancho, Angel Gomes, Ryan Sessegnon and Danny Loader - the team began to confound convention. They won the Nike Tournament in Florida in December 2014, beating Brazil and USA before coming back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 with the Netherlands.
In that final game, England had 72% of the possession.
Micciche remembered: “Our highest passer, Angel Gomes, had 67 passes. Holland’s top passer had 21 - and that was the goalie.
“Everyone had always said to me, ‘Holland are total football.’ We played them three times that season and dominated possession every time."
Last summer, several of the players from Micciche’s U16s, including Foden and Sessegnon, won the World Cup with the U17s.
It was part of a remarkable summer of success for England, with the U18s winning the Toulon tournament, the U19s winning the Euros and the U20s winning the World Cup.
Now all eyes are on the senior team at the World Cup in Russia. Micciche is eager to highlight the part played not only by Southgate, but by his entire backroom staff.
As TGG has outlined before, building world-class support teams has been key to England's success at all age groups.
“Gareth has got Steve Holland with him, who’s an excellent coach," Micciche said, "and you can see a lot of work’s been done on the training field.
“If you think that they only went to a back three in November, they haven’t had a lot of time. They would have only had two or three camps in that time.”
Micciche also gave particular mention to England's analysts: Steve O’Brien, the lead performance analyst, and Mike Baker, the senior analyst.
"The biggest area of change in football has been the evolution of tech and how you use that to support your coaching.
“Video analysis is massive – you can really paint pictures for players before training and games and reviewing as well, which can save your voice as a coach and get you into the topic of a session a lot quicker.
“Knowing the back-room staff as well as I do, Gareth would have had a lot of excellent support from Steve O’Brien and Mike Baker, the analysts, who paint really clear pictures for the players.
“Steve’s practice design are outstanding. Then you’ve got Gareth’s leadership and trust in the players. They’ve got a really good combination there to support the players.”