Canada’s Win Built on Robust Organisation and England Errors

England gift-wrapped victory for Canada with sloppy defensive mistakes at either end of this match at the Bet365 Stadium, Stoke. Évelyne Viens picked Demi Stokes’ pocket in the third minute to fire the Canadians in front. Four minutes from full time, substitute Nichelle Prince pounced on a poor first touch from keeper Karen Bardsley and stabbed the ball home virtually on the goal line. In between, a much-changed England line-up laboured to make clear cut scoring opportunities. Keeper Stephanie Labbé tipped a Jordan Nobbs free-kick on to the cross bar and Lauren Hemp was denied by a terrific last-ditch block from Vanessa Gilles.

England 0-2 Canada

Substitute Nichelle Prince celebrates Canada’s second goal…

“We tried and held together as a team but I feel like it was more about mistakes today. I felt the team effort was good. We did well but we didn’t create enough chances. I am happy having had these games, I got to see all the players and moving forward I’m confident we will perform better.”

Hege Riise, Interim Manager, England, via BBC Sport Website

Lionesses’ Manager Hege Riise made six changes to the side that started against France last Friday. In came keeper Carly Telford, left back Demi Stokes, midfielders Jordan Nobbs and Georgia Stanway, Beth England in the lone striker role and Lauren Hemp on the left of England’s attack. 

Bev Priestman’s side were without record scorer Christine Sinclair and Lyon centre back Kadeisha Buchanan in the squad, while Nichelle Prince and Sophie Schmidt were benched. Nonetheless the Canadians were able to name a strong starting eleven including WSL stars Janine Beckie (Man City), Jessie Fleming (Chelsea) and Shelina Zadorsky (Spurs).

And the visitors got off the best possible start. With less than three minutes played Gilles and Fleming worked the ball to Beckie in midfield and she and drove at the heart of the England backline. Her through ball for Viens was anticipated by Stokes but the defender’s control deserted her and the Canadian striker gambled, stretching to ease the ball past Telford.

Replays would show that Viens had been in an offside position when the original pass was played. However, Stokes’ intervention had effectively rendered the striker ‘inactive’ – that’s the way the offside law now operates, folks.

England set about finding a way back into the match, keeping the ball well but finding Canada a stubborn opponent to break down. Stanway tried her luck from distance on two occasions but couldn’t hit the target.

With an early goal in the bag, the visitors were happy to absorb pressure and hit on the counter. They doubled up on Lauren Hemp, while the midfield pairing of Rebecca Quinn and Desiree Scott prevented Fran Kirby from influencing England’s attack.

Just shy of the half-hour Nobbs forced Labbé into her first significant save of the match, tipping the Arsenal player’s 20-yard free kick on to the cross bar.

Moments later, Stanway drove another long range effort just over the goal frame.

Demi Stokes had been granted limited international minutes, given her lack of playing time at City recently. She was replaced by Alex Greenwood in the 32nd minute but – even putting the unfortunate blunder aside – this change did rather raise the question of whether Stokes should have been called up to camp at all.

Canada weren’t creating very much themselves, but Quinn fashioned a dipping half-volley that Telford took no chances with, pushing the ball up and over for a corner.

A minute before the break Bethany England engineered a yard of room on Zadorsky in the penalty box but sliced her left-footed effort wide.

More changes were made at half time. Riise swapped one experienced goalkeeper out for another with Karen Bardsley taking Telford’s spot. Kirby – who’d been well marshalled in fairness – was withdrawn for Manchester United’s talented attacker Ella Toone.

The pattern of the match, however, remained unchanged. The Lionesses had the ball, but no penetration and, subsequently, no goal threat.

A subtle tactical adjustment had enabled Jordan Nobbs to get further forward. She clipped in a cross for Beth England from the right but the header lacked any power to trouble Labbé.

More changes followed. England brought on Lucy Bronze for Rachel Daly and Chloe Kelly for Beth England. Nikita Parris – who’d got absolutely no loose change out of combative full back Allysha Chapman – moved up into the central striking role.

Canada meanwhile took off pacey forward Deanne Rose and brought on, erm, pacey forward Nichelle Prince. Excellent midfield ball winner Desiree Scott was given a rest.  Right back Jayde Riviere came on to pick up her 19th cap and Ashley Lawrence shifted into a midfield role.

Learning Experience: England’s Lauren Hemp was doubled for most of the match but got some joy late before a head injury…

Lawrence had successfully muted England winger Hemp, with a little help from her teammates, but Riviere didn’t have quite the same acceleration. The City winger had made a couple of successful forays to the by-line before robbing Gilles in centre circle and bee-lining for goal. Unfortunately, she wanted one touch too many before shooting, edging her just wide enough for the central defender to recover and make a fine block.

It would be Hemp’s last impactful moment with the ball at her feet. She accidently clashed foreheads with Gilles opening up a nasty looking wound that needed a bandage Mr. Bump would have been proud of.

From the drop-ball restart Gilles punted the ball up-field, Millie Bright fielded it back to Bardsley, but the keeper took a heavy touch and couldn’t get her feet right before Prince arrived at breakneck speed, stretching her left leg out and prodding into an empty net.

Nobbs and Bright both had last minute goal efforts but, as with many of the Lionesses’ attempts over the international weekend, they lacked either power or direction.

“I’m quite happy how we defended and how the two central midfielders reacted when we lost the ball. I felt like we were connected as a team and I was pleased to see that. That’s what we need to think of when we go against tier-one opposition. But we need to be more relentless in our passing and think how we can create the chances that we need and want. I’m very confident that next time we will learn from this.”

Hege Riise, Interim Manager, England, via BBC Sport Website

As hosts for Euro 2021 2022, the lack of competitive football for England over the last two years seems to have the squad drifting into the flotsam and jetsam of what one could term ‘average’ international teams.  The Lionesses have lost nine of their last 14 games, including match ups with several opponents (France, Spain, Germany and Norway) that will be all heading across the water for UEFA’s 2022 showpiece.

Basic defensive errors and lapses in concentration have become commonplace since WWC 2019. No player has been immune, not even those absent from, or on the fringes of, this latest squad.

On the day that the FA Women’s Super League celebrated its ten-year anniversary an apparent – but nonetheless rather surprising – shortcoming with England was an evident lack of depth in several positions. Players that can’t get regular game time with their clubs are being called up for their country. That’s not to say they’re suddenly poor players. Simply: they’re just not playing much.

There’s always a trade-off when a league attracts more and more global stars. As we’ve witnessed with the English Premier League over many years, foreign talent can be great for exciting the fan base, increasing media coverage or inflating TV revenues. Historically, though, it hasn’t dovetailed well with the English FA’s needs and the country’s tournament aspirations.

On top of that, the continual rotation of those players that are available (under previous boss Phil Neville and now Riise) is making it difficult for anyone to determine what could constitute the Lionesses’ best starting eleven at next year’s Championships.

This is compounded by Riise’s ‘double brief’ which we considered in the France Match Report where she is effectively employed on a temporary basis to win football matches with England, but also using this time as an open audition for her Team GB Olympics Squad.

Little wonder, then, that the Lionesses look brittle defensively and disjointed game-to-game as an attacking force. On an international break, no one in the front six gets more than about an hour in three hours of match-play to put the (temporary) manager’s philosophy into practice. This problem has been endemic in the men’s squad as well over the years. 2021 then has become a bit of a write-off for England women. That’s on the FA and how they’ve let this play out.

The squad still has some very good players and has achieved semi-final finishes in the last three major championships. Popularity and expectations, of course, have risen with that success. But there’s a growing danger that our likeable Lionesses are becoming more of a ‘brand’ generated by the FA’s Marketing Department to inspire young women – rather than what they are: a team built to compete, instil some fear in opponents and ultimately win on the international stage.

These are just friendlies some will say. And that’s fine. They don’t mean very much in the scheme of things. Yet countries like Germany and Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands sure win a lot of them. World Champions, the USWNT, seem to put great stock in friendlies – particularly those against their main rivals. They do rotate players, but their squads are derived from a much deeper talent pool, and crucially the team is set up the same way every game.

Winning is a habit, goes the cliché. So is losing, and England Women have been doing that a lot lately against countries that they will see regularly in the knock out stages of competition.

Defensively, Canada dealt comfortably with Riise’s side, and then seized on a couple of horrendous mistakes that went their way. “A game of small margins” were the words that pundits (and former England players) Karen Carney and Casey Stoney kept coming back to. Well, those margins need to start shifting back England’s way soon, or the squad is going to fall spectacularly short of expectation levels in their own back yard next year.

And that won’t be good for women’s football in this country…

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