“There’s lots of things to consider with squad selection. First it’s having that tactical flexibility and balance of being able to play different ways. We’ve got lots of players who can play different positions and different roles, so if we need to play a different way for a specific match we feel we’ve got a group who can do that.” – Mark Sampson

If you asked every manager of the 24 nations competing at the Women’s World Cup, chances are almost all of them will attribute some kind of underlying stability within their squad to their success thus far.

Whether it be consistency in team selection, tactical approach or familiar in-game management patterns, a settled, cut-and-dry modus operandi has always been hailed as a quintessential aspect of any tournament winning-side.

It’s a concept that has been fetishized in the modern era. Although admittedly not as severe at an international level, pressure on managers to succeed has been ramped up a hundred-fold which has lent a greater emphasis on the stable squad and subsequently fostered an era of managerial short-termism.

The traditional view holds that stability, both on and off the field, is garnered as the platform which all success is built. Mark Sampson is one who flies in the face of such conventional managerial wisdom.

A former coach under Roberto Martinez’ Swansea, the 32-year-old has barely got his foot through the door and his semi-bewildering approach at the Women’s World Cup has earned him reputation as a seasoned tinkerman.

The Welshman used his full complement of squad players before the final whistle of England’s last Group F date with Colombia, freely switching between their favoured 4-3-3, a more pragmatic 4-1-4-1, and variations of the 4-4-2 formation.

It’s a shadow of the side that held a regimented 4-2-3-1 formation under Hope Powell for the better part of a decade. The retirement of Kelly Smith, who for so long spearheaded the team up front under Powell, signalled the end of the “star player”. Sampson’s England were to now prioritize collective endeavour over fleeting individual stardust.

His leadership at the tournament has been brave, daring, and demonstrative of complete trust between player and manager but there was a stage where it looked as if Sampson had experimented too far. Perhaps his ultra-conservative approach against France had a lasting effect on his team, who up until Fran Kirby poked home England’s first tournament goal with twenty minutes remaining against Mexico, had looked disjointed and struggled for any kind of fluency or cohesion.

And this theme has continued for the most part. England have largely failed to assert themselves in games, perhaps evidence of a side still suffering from a mental block against the powerhouses of women’s football, something that Mark Sampson hinted at himself.

“Whatever we face in the latter stages, we know we have something to throw back,” said the Welshman prior to facing Norway in the Round of 16.

This epitomizes Sampson’s confident, pragmatic style, perhaps even a shade or two away from being too polite – something that certainly rubbed off in his team’s display against France.

Nevertheless, it’s a great story for the young manager and England whose philosophy remains one of the most intriguing subplots of the tournament.

Not everyone is buying into Sampson’s thinking however despite England’s history-making tournament. England have failed to aesthetically impress and have struggled to maintain a consistent standard of performance.

You had to wonder whether the constant changes in personnel and formation had exposed England. Perhaps his troops were far too submissive in their opening encounter against France. They were certainly guilty of losing concentration against Mexico and Colombia which may have been more costly against superior outfits. England were outplayed against Norway for the first half and conceded not long after half time but managed to grind a path to victory.

Legitimate concerns aside, England have got the results despite struggling with their best performance arriving against Canada in the quarter final. The constant chopping and changing of the squad has been carefully conceived and kept everyone as fresh and hungry as desired.

This is an achievement that shouldn’t be understated: it’s often that the harmony and cohesion of a squad is irreparably damaged due to overzealous rotation.

There has been nothing erratic about Sampson’s strategy. It speaks volumes about the decreasing importance of the stable squad and the often overlooked importance of emotional balance. England have shown that if there is a dedicated group of  players willing to commit themselves into a philosophy, momentum will slowly grow as the results are ground out.

You begin to wonder whether managers and directors at national level are so obsessed with the idea of cultivating the identity of a team that they have ignored the fundamental principles of a successful squad. As Sampson’s reign over the national team goes on, it will be interesting to see how and if the image of the team evolves and whether he can really continue to take his squad forward on a flexible game to game basis.

The English FA has invested heavily in women’s football over the past decade yet the pressure at the tournament for England has been relatively low-key. Perhaps a key factor here is the inadvertent absence of media scrutiny which has allowed Sampson full control over his camp. England’s emphasis on a combative, reactive style of football has lessened the pressure on the team as a whole and allowed the manager’s in-game leadership to come to the fore.

England have defied common conceptions about successful tournament sides and in doing so have offered a blueprint for other middle-to-top-tier nations to consider when the next major tournament comes around.

On Thursday morning (Australia time), they will play the reigning champions Japan in the semi-final. The odds are heavily stacked against Sampson’s side but would you really write them off again?

Regardless of the result, the Three Lionesses will have made a sizable impact on the world of women’s football in more ways than one.

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