There’s nothing like a winless run to get the old knees jerking across the footballing community. I thought to myself: ‘do I jump in on all the noise or leave it a few days to reflect?’ Work commitments dictated the latter, by which time England had only gone and scraped a tepid 1-0 win against a team ranked 26 FIFA places below them in a bit of a dirge-fest to be honest.
Phil Neville’s Lionesses hadn’t tasted victory since the quarter final match of the World Cup, until Portuguese keeper, Patricia Morais, allowed a perfectly catchable cross to slip through her grasp, giving Beth Mead licence to convert from a quarter of a yard.
Plenty of supporters are now discussing whether the Head Coach should go, and a few senior players are coming in for some criticism as well. In some ways, I suppose it’s refreshing. It’s all getting so much BIGGER. England’s Women are drawing larger crowds; television audiences are also on the up; increasingly the fans and the media are assessing this team through the critical lenses that are applied to the men’s squad (who incidentally lost 2-1 to the Czech Republic on Friday night).
So, what did D2B take from the international break?
England can’t put a 90-minute performance together
The Lionesses played well against Brazil in the first half but weren’t clinical in front of goal. They went horribly flat in the second period, though, and like other matches throughout this year got punished for defensive lapses. Against Portugal they couldn’t get going for an hour and then the subs perked things up.
Versus Brazil, keeper Mary Earps made an uncharacteristically bad mistake which cost a goal; Portugal’s keeper did far worse on Tuesday night and England scored a winner they had barely merited up to that point.
Fine margins decide games – even friendlies. Just look at the moment against the Portuguese when Pires Neto’s late free kick comes back off the cross bar and the ball somehow ends up in Ellie Roebuck’s hands and not bouncing off her backside into the net. Phil Neville has been at pains to point this out recently – “that’s football”, he said. I can see where he’s coming from, but he drives this observation off the ‘cliffs of rationality’ when he then uses words like “outstanding” to describe his players and the performances. The only things that stood out for me:
- England’s performances were patchy;
- Both results were arrived at through keeper errors.
I have to watch us play out from the back through my fingers
Here’s something I wrote on the 6th July – just after the defeat to Sweden in the 3rd / 4th playoff match at the FIFA Women’s World Cup…
“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.Me(!), 6th July 2019
I’m still not wholly convinced by Neville’s rote insistence on always playing out from the back. There are no points for artistic impression. In fact, it’s a neon sign to opposing attackers to stay around the box when the keeper gathers. Want to keep an opponent honest? Hammer the ball down the pitch now and again, contest a header and get on the second ball. Not always, but occasionally. However, if the Coach is going to continue with this policy then Leah Williamson’s inclusion makes far more sense than Abbie McManus’s or Millie Bright’s. Leah has started the season well for her club and is composed and intelligent on the ball.
I’m more concerned about the lack of midfield options to play into. Look back at the World Cup, both Japan and Sweden targeted our holding midfielder specifically as the focus of their press. Neither Keira Walsh nor Jade Moore look comfortable receiving the ball under pressure. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to like about these players. Walsh is very tidy, a good midfield anchor who has a nice range of passing when there’s a bit more space. I just don’t see it when she’s facing her own goal and two opponents are racing in to nick the ball away. Playing Jordan Nobbs deeper could make more sense. She rarely gives the ball away and offers better options off the ball for a defence continually going left-to-right, right-to-left (repeat) searching for some forward thrust.
Lucy Bronze is a right back
Message to Phil: Lucy is a right back. She’s a fantastic right back – one of the best in that position in the whole, wide world. She’s better than Rachel Daly at right back. She’s better than any other English player at right back. And has been for as long as I’ve been watching women’s football. Right back.
Right full back.
Where Lyon, the best club side in Europe for like a hundred years, where they play her.
The full-back on the right of defence. Try that. You’ll like it. Huh? What? Oh, you have tried it… Well then, why is she playing every other game in midfield?
Now, maybe, and I’m just putting this out there, maybe Phil’s heralding memories of his own playing career where he was a middling full back in a very good team and eventually became (I felt) a very good defensive midfielder in a middling team. But this is not the same situation.
When Lucy Bronze plays in midfield, we are weaker at full back and weaker in midfield. Why would you do that? It also seems to have a negative knock-on effect with Nikita Parris and removes either Jill Scott, Jordan Nobbs or Lucy Staniforth from the starting eleven and replaces them with Daly – who with the best will in the world is a perfectly good player but isn’t at the level of any of the aforementioned in midfield or defence. For what’s it’s worth I like Daly on the right wing. She’s quick, gets up and down well and will bust a gut to help her full back out when the team is under pressure defensively.
The devil is in the detail
Which brings me nicely to Brazil’s first goal last Saturday.
Yes, the Lionesses went flatter than a steamrollered pancake topped with maple syrup and a ten-ton weight in the second half, but come on, did someone forget their defending 101? Tamires and Debinha were arguably Brazil’s best players at the World Cup, each game working in tandem down the left – both demonstrating a high level of skill moving with the ball; both possessing a bag of tricks and that burst of pace that leaves a defender floundering. These weren’t secret weapons. Pia Sundhage placed them front and centre.
So, quite why Nikita Parris finds herself isolated with Tamires down England’s right for the first goal is mind boggling. Lucy Bronze wasn’t within ten yards, so as well as not doubling up on the Brazilian full back, she wasn’t even well placed to cover. We know this because Tamires beat Parris twice before she crossed the ball, and that included putting the winger on her backside.
Jill Scott gets drawn in by the one Brazilian runner, so there are now five English defenders across the six-yard line. Meanwhile, Keira Walsh is looking for the invisible woman on the edge of the box, oblivious to Debinha stood in all sorts of space having dropped off two yards. The Brazilian then picks her spot. No, it wasn’t a great header and yes, Mary Earps will be disappointed she didn’t do better, but no one was set to attack the ball as it came in.
Here’s the thing: England are fragile dealing crosses from wide areas and look equally uncertain defending set-pieces. Cue a list of players who have scored from crosses into England’s penalty area in the last six internationals:
- Christen Press – USA, judges the flight of the cross better than Bronze at the back post;
- Alex Morgan – USA, gets in front of Demi Stokes to head home;
- Kosovare Asllani – SWE, Alex Greenwood scuffs clearance to Asllani who lashes it into the net;
- Carly Telford – ENG O.G. v BEL, corner from the right not dealt with;
- Ella Van Kerkhoven – BEL, simple cross from the left and striker gets between the centre backs;
- Ella Van Kerkhoven – BEL – Stokes and Houghton fail to deal with cross from left, Houghton tees up the Belgian;
- Debinha – BRA, six England defenders and one unmarked Debinha, you know the drill; and
- Debinha – BRA, gets across Bronze to finish off a cross from the right.
Only Portugal couldn’t figure out how to benefit from this glaring weakness.
I would have put this in a table, by the way, but I can’t figure out how to do that in WordPress yet…! Pffft!!
Some players pushed themselves into contention
Birmingham City’s Lucy Staniforth seems the most natural long-term replacement for Jill Scott. I like her. She has a great engine, is clever in possession and, bonus feature, looks to make runs beyond her forwards to get on to through balls or add numbers in the box to attack crosses. Staniforth looks capable of playing in one of the deeper midfield roles in the current shape but could also offer some tactical flexibility if England went for a 4-3-3 as one of the box-to-boxers. I saw her at the Amex against New Zealand in the spring and remember thinking that day that she’s not too shoddy on the dead ball either.
Arsenal fans… no, hang on,lots of fans of the Women’s Super League in general have been left mystified by the Phil Neville continually overlooking Leah Williamson, given that he wants to play back to front possession football. Even Phil has beaten himself up over this in the media this week (you’re always your own harshest critic, it’s true).
Is Leah the best option for this role? Er… yep. Her performances in a deep lying midfield role for Joe Montemurro this season have demonstrated she is adept at solving problems under pressure in tight spots, and she moves the ball quickly and accurately – no surprise really, she started out as a midfielder.
Is Leah an international standard defender? Time will tell, but it’s sure looking that way so far. Positionally sound, very composed and, like captain Steph Houghton, not afraid run the ball up the field now and again to commit opponents. No, she’s not the archetypical ‘physical’ English defender (e.g. Millie Bright), winning headers and clumping a centre forward, but doesn’t that just give Neville more options? I was surprised to read recently that Leah’s only 22 years old (alright, I’m playing catch up on some of these details, ok?). Yet, she’s already got bucket loads of experience.
I don’t think Beth England did her international aspirations any harm. She made a strong impact against Brazil with a physical style that the central defenders didn’t enjoy, aerial dominance that included a goal and, generally, displaying a hard-working ethos that hinged on movement and pressing to ensure her opponents could never settle. She took this into the Portugal game but wasn’t presented with the same qualities of opportunity to score. Like may young players going into an England set-up, she’s come across as relaxed and fearless. I saw her at Stamford Bridge versus Spurs, and she looked a ‘proper’ nightmare to defend against.
Absence made our hearts grow fonder
With England struggling in both penalty areas against higher quality opposition, crocked striker Ellen White and injured keeper Karen Bardsley have come out of these matches looking even more like world beaters. Both are very experienced international players and have demonstrated over the last 12-months that they can be the difference between England getting results and not. So, it will be interesting to see whether things come together for Phil Neville once these players are back in contention.
Jodie needs a break…
Okay, disclaimer, I don’t write a Women’s Football blog to be all controversial and throw players under the bus; it’s not my style and hardly anyone’s reading this stuff anyway – so it wouldn’t even generate more hits. But Jodie Taylor really could have done with a goal in these internationals, couldn’t she?
Her performances weren’t awful. I thought her movement off the ball was okay in both games and she generated several good situations in front of goal. Taylor arrived at the England camp on the back of some improved form and a couple of recent strikes with Reign FC, but it just didn’t happen for her in front of goal.
So, three things: firstly, a question that no one can categorically answer, but a lot of people are asking anyway. I’ll whisper it:
Does Ellen White put at least one of those chances away?
Secondly, what was happening with the strikers at the other end of the pitch that we can compare her to? Well, at the Riverside Debinha was happening which is, you know, unfortunate. Towards the end of the Brazil match BBC co-commentator, Sue Smith, said of Debinha, “she’s been absolutely brilliant”, which I found a bit revisionist based on the score line. But when Sue then went on to say that “she was the difference between the two teams,” I was 100% on board with that.
For me, the diminutive North Carolina Courage star had a pretty quiet game overall but scored twice. NWSL rival, Taylor, also had a quiet game but missed her one gilt-edged opportunity, taking an extra touch on the edge of the box that pushed her wide and then electing to chip the onrushing Barbara rather than drive low towards the far post. She looked like a player lacking confidence which is a million miles away from where she was two year ago at the Euros.
Thirdly, ‘sod’s law’. Taylor did score but was ruled offside. It was a really close call. Her 74th minute replacement Beth England then comes on and scores within six minutes. Then, against Portugal, Beth Mead gets a once-in-a-lifetime gift on the goal line and becomes the match winner. Perhaps Jodie just needs a slice of that luck.
I watched both games through twice and my view is that Phil Neville started the wrong striker in each match. Easy in hindsight isn’t it. Brazil had no answer to [Beth] England’s physicality, while Portugal seemed to struggle with Taylor’s movement in tandem with Jordan Nobbs pulling the midfield strings. Lessons learned can be applied for matches against opponents with similar frailties.
Rookie international keepers get very different slices of luck
In a match where Mary Earps didn’t have a whole lot to do it’s a shame that she made one of those errors that only occurs a couple of times each season, ostensibly diving over Debinha’s tame header. Four nights later and Ellie Roebuck, herself enjoying a quiet night behind the England back line, gets a huge slice of luck when the ball canons off the underside of the bar, seemingly rolls up her body and into her hands.
England has missed Jordan Nobbs
Isn’t it great see Jordan Nobbs back in the England side? My mum and my kids will tell you I’ve got a lot of time for this player. She’s mint. I’ve always been a big fan of Jordan’s versatility as a midfield player, she’s generally able to provide exactly what a team needs when they need it – whether that be a bit of creativity, good ball retention, high work rate, defensive shape, great dead ball delivery.
She played ok overall this last week, really upping the tempo against Portugal, but I can see some challenges getting her to fit into Phil Neville’s preferred 4-2-3-1. For me, this shape needs an out-and-out ball winner like Keira Walsh or Jade Moore for sure. Jill Scott is still the best option for getting up and down the pitch (although I felt her attacking qualities were negated against Brazil sat deeper) but she’s no number 10.
Nikita Parris has made the wide right attacking berth her own, so this isn’t really an option for Nobbs. Like many wingers, Parris blows hot and cold, but is unplayable on her day and works beautifully in tandem with Lyon teammate Lucy Bronze, going forward, particularly when Phil Neville plays Bronze at right back. Right back, Phil. You got this.
So that leaves the central attacking role behind the lone striker – the mystical, aforementioned number 10. I felt the Brazil match passed Nobbs by somewhat and wondered if maybe the role next to Walsh would put her in the game more. She will get forward from there if given the freedom. Let’s not forget Fran Kirby will return to fitness soon and there is one certain (very special) Georgia Stanway waiting in the wings, who is good enough to play in midfield or as that link to the striker(s).
A shift to the mobile, interchanging 4-3-3 that Arsenal play, would better accommodate Nobbs, removing the no.10 role completely, and sitting two box-to-boxers either side of the holding player, but also asking a bit more of the central striker, who would need to work between the lines to move the defence around. I’m thinking of you Ellen White.
Subs can change games that are slipping away – so don’t faff, get them on
Phil Neville made just three subs throughout the Brazil match; normal in a competitive international. It makes sense to give starting players a longer run out, BUT if results are really so important in these ‘friendlies’, why wait so long to bring on Beth England (from a tactical perspective)?
She clearly offered something significantly different to anyone else in the squad and shifted the prevailing wind of the match by suddenly offering the kind of physical and aerial threat that Brazil didn’t look set to manage. Within six minutes of her arrival Houghton drove in a cross from deep said “go get it, Beth” and she beat Barbara at the first attempt. England then nearly got an equaliser from Mead’s chipped cross after the Chelsea forward had won a header earlier in the move.
In fairness, the management team did ring the changes against Portugal and, while the win came with a big slice of fortune, there was a clear shift in the pattern and tempo of the match – which is all you can ask for when plan ‘A’ is looking a bit ropey.
Chill D2B, they’re only friendlies…
Hmmm, want to see first-hand why the Americans are so competitive at every championship and every Olympics? Watch their ‘friendly’ matches online. The players and the fans want to win – a LOT. They start high tempo and they are ruthless against every opponent if given the opportunity.
Their media then pulls every performance to pieces to the point where they are criticised for 3-0 wins or the manager is under fire when they draw, (sorry, I mean tie!)
The USWNT is a winning brand (I know, not a fan of what I just said, there). They have been since the early nineties. But this is the reason they command big crowds and lots of column inches across the globe. Competition for places is intense – for one thing, getting into the international set-up means central contracts with US Soccer and a lot more money going into the players’ bank accounts; for two it keeps the performance levels extremely high.
Over the summer, Ali Krieger suggest the USA could win the World Cup not only with their first choice eleven, but their second team as well (of which she was one). Arrogant? Well, yeah, a bit. But it would be tough to argue that the vast majority of their 23-woman squad couldn’t have walked into the England set-up and many others.
They were also able to find a way past Spain, France and England in matches where they didn’t control the ball foro the entire game. There was a plan, and terrific players to execute it.
More intensity in every match regardless of the opponent, better preparation on what to do when things aren’t going to plan and, frankly, more competition for spots – these are some of the things the Lionesses will need to progress to the next level. Getting players like White, Bardsley and Stanway back will help shorter term and it’s good to see some new faces coming in to supplement the longer haul.
But, ultimately, performance levels need to be better and standards need to endure for ninety minutes – whether that’s probing in attack when dominating possession or maintaining shape and organisation when the heat is on. This is what the Americans are able to do. It works. It wins. It’s the standard…