The problem of coaching style without substance

Norway coach Martin Sjogren would later suggest that it was England’s first goal, a rather soft penalty, that unsettled his side. “We started to crack a bit and made some bad decisions,” he said. There is some truth in that. Thorisdottir, having conceded the penalty, seemed to freeze, uncertain of his slightest touch, his slightest gesture, as if haunted by his mistake.

Sjogren’s assertion is not the whole truth, however. To attribute Norway’s collapse exclusively to individual mistakes is, in essence, to confuse symptom with cause. The problem, the one that bent and broke Sjogren’s team so dramatically, was not an isolated series of unrelated incidents, but a systemic flaw. England showed their hand, and their opponent failed miserably to adapt.

Part of the blame for that lies with the players, of course. Mjelde and Thorisdottir, certainly, are experienced enough to have identified their team’s weak point and reacted accordingly: sit just a little lower, perhaps, or refuse to be coaxed out of their line by the White’s move, or closer to Blakstad for greater protection.

But a large majority falls on the shoulders of Sjogren himself. A streak of individual mistakes might be evidence of a great psychological failure, but it’s far more likely to be evidence of a flaw in a team’s strategy. High caliber players consistently make poor choices only when faced with limited options. And that, ultimately, depends on the coach.

The caliber of women’s football players, especially in Europe, has risen sharply in recent years. The slick, technical style that proliferated at this summer’s European Championship was ample proof of that. It’s hard to argue, however, that coaching quality has followed much the same trajectory.