SheBelieves: ‘Why’s after the event…

AS PROMISED here’s the second part of D2B’s review of the Lionesses’ underwhelming SheBelieves Cup performances across the ‘pond’. Phil Neville’s charges took on the World Cup Winners, Japan and Spain – winning one and losing two, and more worryingly scoring just the single, solitary goal – courtesy of Ellen White.

The manager was reportedly considering his position, having tasted defeat 7 times in the last eleven outings, but the former Manchester United and Everton man has the FA and his squad behind him. For your sanity, dear reader, (and mine) I chopped this veritable essay into two parts. The other is here. In this part we summarise some of the tactics deployed, cast a glance at each opponent and assess which Lionesses made a case for future opportunities, or not.

Tactics

Versus USA –

Carli Lloyd celebrates the USA’s second goal.

At the World Cup, England set up 4-2-3-1 enabling players like Fran Kirby to play a free attacking role at ‘10’ behind a lone striker. Neville has largely moved away from the number ‘10’ recently – even with players like Georgia Stanway available – and adjusted to an orthodox 4-3-3 with the wide attacking players dropping in alongside the midfield when defending. 

Against the US (also 4-3-3), Keira Walsh sat a little deeper than Jill Scott and Stanway but often looked utterly isolated in there when receiving the ball from England’s back line. This made her a prime target for Horan and Lavelle to force errors.

Stanway, meanwhile, was being completely shut down by Julie Ertz. It looked a poor tactical match-up by Neville and this duel was screaming out for a more tenacious and energetic player to go head-to-head with arguably the world’s bet player over the last twelve months. Jordan Nobbs springs to mind.

Lauren Hemp and Nikita Parris offered width but never got close enough to Ellen White in the way Christen Press and Tobin Heath were able to with Carli Lloyd at the other end. The England wingers were largely engaged in tracking back to combat their opposing fullbacks, but on the rare occasion that the Lionesses were able to win the ball and transition quickly, with a diagonal ball for instance Parris and Hemp both showed glimpses of pace and skill to get the Americans scrambling.  

The US seemed wilfully able to overload areas of England’s defensive third and Neville’s insistence on never playing a longer ball out from the back meant the hosts could park six players very high and chase down slips, errors or loose passes – of which there were many.

It was frustrating, too, to watch the players simply carry on regardless. Both Houghton and Bright can play an accurate longer ball, so why not do that now and again, keep the Americans honest and have a row about it in the dressing room at half time, after which adjustments can be made?

While we’re on the subject, it should be noted, playing out from the back is a tactic, not a playing style. It’s a means to an end. Not the end itself. There seems to be some confusion about this not only from the manager, but his bosses at the FA.

Japan, for instance, always play out because their style is possession based; a quick, short passing game moving through the thirds. They don’t want to get into heading contests or physical, midfield battles, so they look to move their opponent around or draw them upfield, waiting patiently for openings to move the ball into the next third. It’s what they’ve always done. Their players have been developed from a young age to be good at it – even facing a high, aggressive press.

England’s players, let’s be honest, are not good at it. In fact, under pressure it’s fair to say they are pretty bad at it. They are, conversely, highly adept in the kind of heading contests and physical, midfield battles that might occur in the FAWSL.

Versus the US, though, England rigidly stuck to playing out, not even attempting any variation. Quite often, moves were spiralling out control within two passes as Lloyd, Heath and (no irony intended) Press hared into England’s penalty box to close the back line. 

Spain would demonstrate a couple of nights later vs USA that they could solve these kinds of problems in possession and find a way to get their front five further upfield to do some pressing of their own on Sauerbrunn and co. England couldn’t, but remained a slave to Neville’s wish for ‘style’.

Style is fine; the intention to play nice football is commendable, but it takes a VERY LONG TIME to develop, particularly from a standing start. World Cups are not won on artistic merit. Scoring more goals than the other team does.

We can but hope that Neville will simplify matters and use the many strengths that are already there within the group rather than ignoring them and trying to imprint some FA-led ‘DNA’ nonsense on players that can’t do it.

The US don’t always play pretty but they sure do win a lot.

Versus Japan –

Just the one trademark celebration from ‘Els Bells’ at the SheBelieves Cup

There was no change to the shape, but again England’s 4-3-3 often looked like a flatter 4-5-1 with Chloe Kelly and Hemp dropping in alongside the midfield and Beth England ploughing a lone furrow up front.

Even with two central players up front (4-4-2), Japan’s press was less ambitious that the Americans two nights earlier. This made the game less fraught for Neville’s side, but Japan were still able to seize on several errors England made in dangerous areas.

Whether by design or not, England went more direct from back to front at times which turned their opponents round, but Ellie Roebuck in the England goal was at pains not to go long if she could avoid it.

Neville had already been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism by this point in the competition but the set-up and selection for Japan looked about right for the challenge in front of them. While the performance lacked tempo at times in the first half, England had still created good chances to score.

After the break the levels stalled further but the manager made two sets of substitutions that eventually provided a spark of quality to get the game won late. Toni Duggan seized on a lapse in concentration and Ellen White cleverly slotted her cross. Credit for Neville and his changes, however, was in short supply.

Versus Spain –

Germany at Wembley in November of 2019 was the last time Neville had played the 4-2-3-1. But no sooner had I put together a draft of this blog post following the Japan game suggesting it was gone, it was back!

The manager returned to his previously preferred system to take on Spain, playing Jordan Nobbs in the ‘number ten’ role to help Ellen White press higher up the pitch and offer a better link between the midfield, the wide players and the striker.

The subject of whether Nobbs is necessarily best suited to this approach is up for debate, but she does have a good understanding with Leah Williamson, who was parked in central midfield on the day, and it certainly seemed to work well enough in the first half.

England – not yet well equipped to cope without their best player.

The absence of the injured Lucy Bronze at right back had been talked about on social media and in the television coverage of the SheBelieves Cup, but only became glaringly apparent in the final 45 minutes of England’s tournament. 

Alexei Putellas and Marta Cordana suddenly had Rachel Daly on toast and Jill Scott tracking back towards her own goal relentlessly. Newly arrived substitute Steph Houghton would then be pulled out of her central defensive berth as she looked to provide cover.

The biggest concern, though, was the way in which Phil Neville and his coaching team were simply unable to make the alterations to thwart Spain’s rejuvenated second half performance.

And the substitutions didn’t offer any palpable evidence that they were really trying to. Nobbs was substituted for Stanway on 62 minutes, removing a workhorse while giving the youngster her only opportunity at ‘10’ at a time when England couldn’t get out of their own half.

Opposition

USA –

Jill Scott (8) and Nikita Parris try to get to grips with marauding USA full back Crystal Dunn.

Julie Foudy, ebullient captain of the famous World Cup winning ‘99ers was interviewed pitch side prior to the Lionesses facing Japan. She said that the England game was the best the USWNT had played since the World Cup. This struck me as rather foreboding for future US opponents because, honestly, I thought the Americans were only about a 6.5/10 by their standards.

Julie Ertz, Lindsay Horan and Carli Lloyd ran the show through the spine, but Rose Lavelle and Christen Press faded in and out of the game. Press still scored; Lloyd missed several decent chances before registering.

Tobin Heath had a good first half but disappeared somewhat. Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara were able to play high and help to stop England getting out, but I’ve seen both make a bigger attacking impact.

I did find myself wondering what the score would look like with Alex Morgan playing at centre forward. Still 6.5? Good enough to beat England convincingly. They made heavier weather of Spain, though, and even Japan found their groove against them for 30 second-half minutes.

Japan –

This is a Nadeshiko side in transition.

Only five of the starting eleven had made more than 30 appearances for their country and the team looked disjointed and nervy. Even their trademark short passing game looked off-point. (It should be noted that this element was significantly better in their final match versus the Americans).  

They rarely troubled the England goal, taking most of their shots from outside the 18-yard box.

Usually watertight in possession from defence to attack, it was a lapse in this respect that substitute Toni Duggan was able to exploit feeding White with a clever clipped cross for the winning strike.

Spain –

One of the world’s most improved international sides, the real Spain had already been evident against Japan and the USA in their first two SheBelieves games. Neville and hos coaching team would have been under no illusion of the challenge facing them.

Against England, however, the seismic rotation of players disrupted their flow and England looked comfortable against them in the first period. Even the tenacious Lucia Garcia seemed off-colour spearheading the attack.

But the cliché “a game of two halves” was apposite for this match.

Spain’s transformation in the second half was marked once Jorge Vilda had brought Corredera, Putellas and Cardona into the action from the get-go.

Later Torrecilla and Hermoso would be added, by which time there only looked like there would be one winner.

La Roja turned around the possession stats and registered the match’s only three attempts on target – including Putellas’s winner. Along with Italy, Spain are an emerging force in the women’s game.

Who came away from SheBelieves with some Credit?

Good performances from Chloe Kelly, Jordan Nobbs and Lauren Hemp

Carly Telford – had two very strong games in goal for England and was not in any way culpable for the goals England conceded.

Her first half against the Americans was excellent and she kept England in the match against Spain but could do nothing about an uncontested bullet header just a few yards from goal.

Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp – both brought pace and fearlessness to the side. Much had been made of ‘younger players coming in’ even though generally the squad was full of the same players we’d been watching for several years. Both Kelly and Hemp did well.

Hemp should have scored in the early stages of the Japan game after a blistering breakaway down the left. But she was more memorable for her physical treatment of US full back Kelley O’Hara in the first game demonstrating that she wasn’t overawed.

Kelly had a tidy performance on the right flank against Japan, working hard and looking to run at the defence whenever there was an opportunity and link up with Bethany England. Kelly was also the only Lioness that looked like she could make something happen in the dying embers of the Spain defeat finding space between the defensive and midfield lines and ghosting into the penalty area untracked on several occasions.

Jordan Nobbs – had an excellent match versus Japan delivering everything one would expect of her in terms of energy, movement and ball retention. Despite playing a slightly different role at ‘10’ and being subbed after an hour against Spain, Nobbs proved again that she should always be one of the first names on Phil Neville’s team sheet, rather than being condemned to the carousel of rotation.

Lucy Bronze – Okay, a bit flippant but nothing like absence to make the heart grow fonder, especially when things aren’t going well. The Lyon full back wasn’t at the SheBelieves, and goodness, didn’t England miss her at both ends of the pitch?

Who was unable to make the impact we hoped for?

If this tournament highlighted one home truth more than any other, in terms of personnel, it was that England are not well equipped to be anything like as competitive without their best player.

It wasn’t a great tournament for Georgia Stanway.  She appeared in all three matches but, despite the odd flash, couldn’t make the sustained impact that she does at WSL level.  She gave the ball away for the Americans first goal, disappeared against Japan and was parachuted into an impossible situation versus Spain.

Maybe when Bronze returns to the England squad, Lyon teammate Nikita Parris will rekindle her groove. There’s never a lack of effort from Parris, but she cut a frustrated figure at the SheBelieves Cup and seemed to be trying to force everything herself particularly when things weren’t going well. She usually plays on instinct at speed in the way Eni Aluko used to. Sometimes that doesn’t come off but it’s preferable to second guessing herself and overthinking.

And what’s happened to Steph Houghton at international level? For many years the rock of England’s defence, switched on, brilliant anticipation, composed under pressure, great decision making and a range of passing not typically associated with a centre back. At the moment she looks nervy, off-balance, goes to ground too often, can’t get the ball out of her feet quickly. Since the penalty miss at the World Cup, Steph has not looked the same player.

Which player could we do with seeing a bit more of?

Succession Planning : Should Lucy Staniforth be getting more minutes for England?

Lucy Staniforth – The Birmingham midfielder got on briefly against Japan but needs more England minutes.

For yours’ truly, there isn’t a better analogue to replace the box-to-box stamina and physicality of Jill Scott, assuming the City midfielder ever decides to hang up her international boots! Plus, Staniforth offers more threat on dead ball delivery.

Saving the best for last: Carly Telford showed her class despite a lack of club matches this season.

Recently, we reached number 29 on the Feedspot Top 40 list of Women’s football blogs. No one was more surprised than us here at D2B Towers; there’s so much other good stuff out there. Anyhoo, check out the link, there’s a heap of great blogs and websites written by people who really know their stuff and have an infectious passion for the women’s game…

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