FIFA Women’s World Cup Day 30:

3RD/4TH PLACE PLAY OFF: ENGLAND 1-2 SWEDEN

Sweden beat England to finish third at the 2019 World Cup.

SWEDEN took the bronze medal match in Nice, despatching England with a ruthless opening half hour in which they struck twice; then doggedly defending out the remainder of the game. Kosovare Asllani got the scoring under way on 11 minutes driving past Carly Telford following a poor defensive clearance. Sofia Jakobsson then added a second, cutting in from the left and curling past the England keeper. Fran Kirby halved the deficit on 31 minutes, and Ellen White had a goal ruled out by VAR for handball shortly after.

Having built a head of steam towards the back end of that first period, England couldn’t squeeze any more out of their second half performance. Nilla Fischer headed Lucy Bronze’s volley off the goal line in the 90th minute but it was the only shot on target the Lionesses could muster.  Karen Carney would make her 144th and final England appearance and England Head Coach, Phil Neville, then ill-advisedly called the 3rd/4th playoff “a nonsense match”.

England made four changes to the side that started against the USA and reverted to their tried and tested 4-2-3-1 shape. Fran Kirby returned in an attacking central midfield role, Abby McManus replaced suspended Millie Bright in central defence. Left back Alex Greenwood came in for Demi Stokes and Jade Moore took Keira Walsh’s defensive midfield berth.

There was some debate before the game how much the Swedes would have left in the tank after their semi-final went to extra time and with one day less to rest. But Head Coach Peter Gerhardsson made just two changes to his line up bringing back Fridolina Rolfö for Lina Hurtig and Nathalie Björn for Elin Rubensson. Continuity of personnel and tactics were key to an eventful first period, with the ladies in yellow and blue tearing out of the blocks, looking physically stronger and quicker. They pressed high when England tried to play out from the back, but also looked to go over the top from their own back line, specifically targeting Greenwood and McManus through the pace of Jakobsson and Stina Blackstenius.

The Scanadinavians took the lead in the 11th minute. Rolfö crossed from the left, Greenwood scuffed her clearance to Asllani on the edge of the box and she lashed the ball past Telford via the inside of the left-hand post. Five minutes later they nearly doubled their lead. Nilla Fischer’s ball over the top was seized on by Jakobsson and her shot clipped Telford, then the post and finally ricocheted off the England keeper for a corner.

Sweden continued to close down the England back four, extending their lead on 22 minutes. Jakobsson drifted over to the left flank, exchanged passes with Stina Blackstenius and drifted unchecked into the penalty area where she bent her shot around Telford into the far corner.

Stunned, England tried to respond immediately. Within sixty seconds of the Swedish goal, Lucy Bronze’s half volley was turned around the post by Hedwig Lindahl.  Björn then cleared Beth Mead’s effort off the Swedish line after good build up involving Nikita Parris and Fran Kirby.

With England finally discovering their groove, Kirby got them back in the match on 31 minutes. Bronze drove through midfield, found Jill Scott, who intelligently played Kirby into the penalty area off the outside of her right boot. The diminutive Chelsea forward cut inside her marker and hit a left-footed strike in off the right-hand post before Lindahl was set.

Less than ninety seconds later the Lionesses thought they were level. Beth Mead crossed to Ellen White, she spun her marker and squeezed the ball past the former Chelsea stopper. But, as England fans celebrated, VAR chalked off the goal for handball.

Into five minutes of stoppage time and both sides could have added to their tallies. Miscommunication between Steph Houghton and Telford allowed Blackstenius to nip in and lob the keeper, but the ball sailed just over the bar. Parris then threaded White in on goal at the other end but the Swede got her angles right and made the block.

Striker Jodie Taylor joined the fray early in the second half, but curiously it was Beth Mead who was replaced, having looked England’s most likely supplier of opportunities from the wing.  Ellen White moved out to Mead’s vacated wide left position, and in one foul swoop the Head Coach had seemingly weakened two key areas of his attack.

And so, it proved, England would only get one more effort on target. There were half chances at best:  England’s Jade Moore and Sweden’s Julia Zigiotti Olme swapped distance strikes; Moore’s well wide and Zigotti’s easily gathered. England huffed and puffed, dominating the ball but failing to trouble Lindahl. Moore would try her luck again on 83 minutes with the same result.

Karen Carney replaced Parris in the 74th minute for her final England cap, following her announcement of her retirement.

England midfielder, Karen Carney, bows out after 144 caps for her country.

The Lionesses best chance to equalise in the second half and, indeed their one effort on target, came in the 90th minute. A corner was only cleared as far as Bronze on the penalty spot and she timed her volley perfectly, beating the sprawling Lindahl but finding Nilla Fischer perfectly placed on the goal line to head away.   

Carney’s low drive in stoppage time was easily gathered by the Swedish keeper and then Carly Telford prevented the score line looking worse for England, denying Zigiotti Olme after Houghton had slipped in the box.

“We’ve given it our best shot. We fell short and we’ve just got to make sure next time we’re better. It’s really difficult to get yourself up for the third or fourth place games. Well done Sweden, but it’s a nonsense game. We came to this tournament to win it not to finish fourth. They’ve delivered everything that I wanted – the style of football that we’re playing. We’ve got another 15-20% to go.”

Phil Neville, England Head Coach

There will be lots of time after the tournament and, no doubt, plenty of experts seeking to reflect on WWC2019 and pick apart England’s performances in minute detail, but what’s been apparent to this author throughout the World Cup is a tactical inflexibility when opponents press high in numbers. The Lionesses have not, in any of the games, demonstrated an ability to play through heavy traffic in their own defensive third, thereby handing over possession in high risk areas of the pitch. Teams at all levels earn the right to play their football; so an alternative approach that reduces pressure particularly at the beginning of matches (when players are nervy) perhaps should be considered. 

There have also been prolonged patches of sloppiness in possession generally, poor passing and switching off defensively. Again these periods have been manifest in every game and better opponents have punished England.

The jury’s out on the continual rotation of players. While there’s certainly an argument for using rotation to prevent tiredness in a tournament it must surely also affect cohesion and consistency. And why are players like Lucy Bronze and Steph Houghton seemingly exempt from it?  Do they not get tired?

The Coaching Team have also been guilty of tinkering with elements that were working and subsequently nullifying them or eliminating them all together. Changing the shape against the USA which split up Bronze and Parris, for example, was an odd move when that pairing down the right were surely a real concern for Jill Ellis prior to the game.

Against Sweden, replacing Beth Mead with Jodie Taylor almost straight after the restart when Mead and Kirby were starting to get creative also seemed unnecessary – put a striker on then take her best supply line away, it just didn’t make sense.

But on England’s final match of the tournament, putting disappointment aside, it feels churlish to end with criticism. Phil Neville’s [wo]man management has come over very well. They players seem to have a lot of time for him. He has never wavered from absolute belief in every member of his squad and made every success and every failure about the entire group, putting himself out there to be fired at when required. The former Manchester United and Everton man has led a talented and likeable squad that radiates belief, hard work and humility.

The fact is the Lionesses achieved the semi-final finish that their world ranking suggested they should. Bottom line: Germany didn’t. France didn’t. The fact England have finished just short of 2015’s third place is not, for me, a sufficient stick to beat them with, though some will cite ‘lack of progress’. Plenty of successful international teams over the years have had their share of semi-final disappointments and then gone on to win a major championship.

The standard of international women’s football has significantly improved, even in the four years since Canada. England is well set to strengthen its league system and cement its place in the top echelon of the sport for years to come. Growing terrace spectatorship and TV audiences for the domestic game is the next challenge, but the 2021 European Championships will be on home turf so there is an opportunity to build momentum. The Lionesses remain key to that and we should all be very proud of them…

Player of the match: Nilla Fischer, Sweden (The central defender put her body on the line for that Bronze medal.)

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