Despite registering eighteen shots on goal, England were roundly beaten by France at the Stade Michel d’Ornano in Caen. Sandy Baltimore gave the hosts a 32nd minute lead and second half substitute Viviane Asseyi doubled their advantage with a 63rd minute penalty after Rachel Daly brought down Elisa de Almeida. Fran Kirby – who was, by some margin, England’s most influential attacker – reduced the arrears from the penalty spot with eleven minutes left. The Lionesses looked to build a head of steam for a classic, grandstand finish and Keira Walsh hit the post. France had other ideas and got their crucial third goal moments later when Kadidatou Diani set up Marie-Antoinette Katoto to convert from close range…
France 3-1 England
Interim boss Hege Riise made five changes to the England side that kicked off against Northern Ireland back in February. Steph Houghton and Lucy Bronze couldn’t play because of injuries. Georgia Stanway, Jordan Nobbs and Lauren Hemp were all benched. Into attack came Beth Mead, Fran Kirby and Nikita Parris. Millie Bright took on Houghton’s central defensive berth, while Keira Walsh replaced Stanway in midfield. The manager kept Rachel Daly in the first eleven but shifted her to right full back.
France, decked out in funky white shirts with blue polka dots, began the match without any of their Lyon stars. Arguably only captain for the night Marion Torrent, and forwards Valerie Gauvin and Kadidatou Diani could be described as regular international starters for Corrine Diacre’s side. This was a night for their fringe players to stake a claim.
The hosts started brightly with Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Sandy Baltimore having early sighters of goal without troubling Ellie Roebuck.
In the 13th minute Beth Mead eventually registered England’s first shot on target from 20-yards after some nice build up between Walsh and Kirby. Pauline Peyraud-Magnin saw it all the way into her arms.
In the 20th minute France got their first good sight of goal. Roebuck flapped at Ella Palis’s corner from the right, Jill Scott only half-cleared and Diani put her effort over the bar.
England responded. Palis gave the ball away cheaply on the edge of her own penalty box and Parris was on to it, making a good contact that Peyraud-Magnin turned around her left-hand post at full stretch. From Mead’s corner Parris arrived in the right place but her shot deflected over the crossbar.
Around the half hour mark, Baltimore roamed over to the right flank to try her luck, cut inside a defender and hit a rasping, left-footed drive that Roebuck got her fingertips to.
With the game opening up and moving from end to end quickly England then thought they had taken the lead. Walsh put Mead in behind the French back line and squared for Ellen White. The striker’s finish was unerring but the Assistant Referee’s flag was raised for offside.
Before the Lionesses could collect their thoughts France took the lead. England didn’t deal with a functional ball over the top and Diani raced past Greenwood into England’s penalty and squared for Baltimore, wide open, twelve yards out. The winger took a touch and thumped the ball into Roebuck’s top left hand corner.
Stunned into action, Riise’s side almost equalised immediately. Parris was released down the right and crossed for Kirby, who hit the target but Peyraud-Magnin saved low to her left.
Parris went close again with the ball taking two deflections before heading over the cross bar after Kirby’s initial shot was blocked.
The hosts engineered the last good openings of the first period. Gauvin demonstrating precision control before finding Diani on the right. The winger’s cross found Katoto but she headed straight at Roebuck. Then Baltimore robbed Bright and headed down the left flank, fizzing in an inviting cross that Gauvin volleyed up and over (rather than taking on as a diving header which may have achieved a better end result).
Riise made some adjustments at the break straight-swapping Chloe Kelly in for Parris, and bringing Chelsea’s Niamh Charles on at right back for her England debut. Greenwood was the player withdrawn and Daly switched to left back. Whether this was a tactical adjustment to deal with France’s wide attackers or simply an enforced injury cover never became clear. Esme Morgan was the only other recognised full back on the bench and, like Charles, is not blessed with a wealth of international experience.
It didn’t diminish Daly’s wont to roam forward, though, and she nearly equalised two minutes into the second half, firing marginally over after Kirby teed her up.
Jill Scott was the next England player to miss the target after Kelly engineered her a yard of space in the penalty area.
Then Millie Bright hit a trademark diagonal out to Kirby on the left. The Chelsea attacker cut inside and crossed but Kelly mistimed her jump and, once again, the ball sailed over the bar.
France had a handball shout against Beth Mead in the 57th minute that a VAR review may well have given. But the match officials missed it in real time and the Lionesses got away with one.
On the hour with France once again finding some attacking rhythm, Baltimore’s run and pass put Katoto in behind the Lionesses back line but Roebuck parried the striker’s fierce shot away for a corner.
A minute later it was 2-0. Diani found some room on the edge of England’s penalty box and hit a dipping shot that Roebuck pushed on to the cross bar. Daly and Elisa de Almeida were suddenly in a foot race for the rebound and the French centre back got there first, failing to make a good contact but feeling the full weight of the England defender’s fractionally late challenge. Penalty said referee Sara Persson and there was little argument from the women in red.
Substitute Viviane Asseyi stepped forward and coolly sent Roebuck the wrong way from the spot.
More England changes followed straight after the goal. Hemp replaced Mead and Lotte Wubben-Moy came on at centre back for Arsenal team mate Leah Williamson.
With Onema Grace Geyoro running the show in the French midfield, Jordan Nobbs was brought on to assist Walsh, while Beth England got some minutes in place of Ellen White.
Hemp’s impact was the most notable, running at pace with the ball and drawing some fouls in good attacking positions. Torrent was booked for one challenge and, in the 78th minute, she gave England a lifeline by hauling Hemp down as she spun into the penalty area.
Fran Kirby took responsibility for the penalty kick and drove unerringly into the keeper’s bottom right hand corner. According to the BBC commentator it was the first goal France had conceded in 13 and a half hours of football.
Game on with ten minutes left and Nobbs tried her luck from distance after Bright, Kirby and Kelly had combined well. Peyraud-Magnin gathered comfortably.
And then, during the 82nd minute, two moments that pretty much defined the entire match. At one end Hemp weaved her way to the French by-line and cut the ball back to Walsh, who struck it well but was frustrated to see her effort crash back off the post.
France broke away and Wubben-Moy found herself isolated with Diani on the right. The attacker spun inside and powered past the young defender, holding her cross until Katoto was in just the right place between three English players to tap in from a yard out.
It was the second time that England had gone close only for France to immediately strike a full body blow. And with that any fire that the Lionesses might have mustered for a rousing finish at 1-2 was abruptly extinguished.
On the face of it defeat to France in France doesn’t seem like a particularly big deal. They are ranked number three in the world on FIFA’s list. But it’s all about the full context and, in this respect, a strong England line-up was beaten by Diacre’s ‘second string’ – the players that would have warmed the bench had Wendie Renard and Amandine Henry and Delphine Cascarino, etc. been in the reckoning.
The Lionesses have defeated just one top-class international opponent since Norway at the 2019 World Cup. That victory was against an inexperienced Japan side at last year’s SheBelieves Cup. They have fallen short against Brazil, Germany, Norway, the USA and Spain in that time.
The squad is going through an odd transition period with Riise at the helm. While the players seem to like what she’s about, Riise is only a temporary fix for England ahead of Sarina Wiegman’s arrival post-Olympics.
She also has a second, slightly conflicting agenda which involves selecting and leading the Great Britain women’s team at the Tokyo games later this year. For that, she needs to pick a squad of eighteen, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that at least half of those players will be English. Is this influencing her selections?
Rachel Daly is a good player but she’s seems a bit too ‘crash, bang, wallop’ for an international full back. Going forward, loads of energy, terrific stamina, wants to make things happen. Defending? Not seeing it at this level. She’s a forward for the Houston Dash. But there’s been a preoccupation with Daly’s ‘versatility’ since Phil Neville took the helm that sees her get in ahead of position specialists when Bronze is unavailable.
And moving her to the left in the second half to bring on a young player that considers herself a winger at right back in Niamh Charles was even more perplexing. Emma Hayes has Charles deputizing for Maren Mjelde at Chelsea right now but she’s surrounded by unbelievable players that train together every day, she’s only made five starts and still rotates with others like Hannah Blundell and Jess Carter.
Bronze wasn’t able to travel, of course, but the England set-up has a significant talent shortage if the next best options are both really attackers. What about Esme Morgan? She was on the bench. She’s actually a full back.
It wasn’t a good night for Jill Scott either. Yes, she’s a fantastic ambassador for the English game. She’s a top quality character. She’s achieved so much in the sport. She’s ace. No irony intended. But if the manager wants fast, creative, passing football through midfield, in what universe does Riise justify putting Jill Scott in the current England team ahead of, say, Jordan Nobbs? Scott spent the first half hour of last night’s match slowing everything down by going sideways or backwards. Keira Walsh meanwhile showed how playing forward quickly and accurately could upset the French.
Defensively the Lionesses look frail. Without captain and talisman Steph Houghton in the side naturally social media started to mull over the impact of her absence from the heart of defence. But England have been nervy defending crosses and set pieces for two years now and Houghton was in all those teams. They’ve also not been good at recovering from a breached back line and heading towards their own goal at speed. Houghton’s been part of that issue, too.
Yes, Steph’s a leader and an organiser but the Lionesses weren’t particularly bent out of shape overall. It was when the French creative players were bold, broke the lines and got in behind England that chaos reigned. Again, that’s been the case for two years.
All of this could have been consigned to the moot point drawer, of course, if England had been able to take just a couple of the eighteen chances they created. And the rub is England lost because France were better in and around both penalty boxes. Hege Riise, for all her experience and knowledge is unlikely to be able to patch all of these shortcomings together in a few months.
In terms of what France can take away from this. Well, we’ve likely seen the mid-to-long term future of their international squad, and it looks pretty good.
The last time I wrote about Sandy Baltimore in a blog article she was scoring one of France’s two goals in the 2019 final of the UEFA U-19 Championships. Just 21-years old, the Paris St Germain forward is established in Ligue 1 and played with a lot of skill, flair and composure versus England. De Almeida, Perle Morroni and Geyoro are all just 23. Katoto is 22. As for Gauvin, who has nearly a goal-every-other-game average for her country and is entirely more established: she’s only 24.
In Diani they have a player of unplayable pace and power when she’s in the mood and, while Baltimore will get a lot of plaudits because she looks like a great player, Diani was involved in all of France’s goals and no one in a red shirt could keep her quiet.
Les Bleues take on the USA next Tuesday. The current World Champions have not played consistently at their high standards during the last eighteen months but still managed to beat England, Brazil and the Netherlands convincingly in that time. They will be hard to break down and are unlikely to be as profilagte when presented with goal-scoring opportunities, so it will be a stern test for Diacre’s side – whatever starting eleven they put out.
On the same night, in Stoke, England will square up to world ranked number 8 Canada – who beat Wales 3-0 on Friday evening. The Canadians had a bit of an underwhelming SheBelieves Cup earlier this year even though they ran the Americans close in game one. However, former England Assistant Manager Bev Priestman is in charge of the squad and will be aware of all the Lionesses’ strengths and weaknesses. She has some good players on her roster so England will need to find an extra gear and some ruthlessness in front of goal to ensure they don’t come out of this international break empty handed…
France: (4-4-2) Peyraud-Magnin, Torrent [Perisset], Tounkara, de Almeida, Morroni, Palis [Jaurena], Geyoro, Diani [Dali], Baltimore, Gauvin [Asseyi], Katoto
England: (4-2-3-1) Roebuck, Daly, Bright, Williamson [Wubben-Moy], Greenwood [Charles], Scott [Nobbs], Walsh, Parris [Kelly], Kirby, Mead [Hemp], White [England]