Post Match Reflections: Brilliant Belgium stun European Champions

Photo: Chris Foxwell

The red flames handed England a Halloween nightmare at the King Power at Den Dreef Stadium on Tuesday night putting Team GB’s Olympic qualification in huge doubt.

A frustrating couple of days for the Lionesses as players were forced to miss the Ballon d’Or ceremony in Paris on Monday Night due to preparing for their crucial UEFA Women’s Nations League match.

In a game that was overshadowed by a head injury to Alex Greenwood which saw her leave the pitch on a stretcher, head bandaged and  receiving oxygen from the medical team following a clash of heads with Belgium forward Jassina Blom England’s weaknesses and predictability were exposed by the opposition. 

Earps to the rescue once again

Similar to Friday Mary Earps was England’s saviour on more than one occasion in a lacklustre defensive performance. Millie Bright made her debut in Belgium 6 years ago to the day but this wasn’t a cause for celebration. Lucy Bronze had a willingness to get forward but seemed to forget her defensive responsibilities going missing far too often in the attacking half of the pitch leaving teammates Jess Carter and Bright vulnerable at the back with the pace of Tessa Wullaert. The back four of the Lionesses failed to get tight to Wullaert allowing her to play on the back shoulder consistently getting the better of the England defence.

Earps proved why she won the Golden Glove award at this summer’s World Cup producing a string of saves from Wullaert. First a long ball caught the defence out but fortunately for the European Champions Earps was equal to the shot by Wullaert getting two strong hands to the shot palming it away to safety. Gradually it was becoming the Wullaert vs Earps show as the Belgium forward yet again forced a fine save from the Manchester United keeper almost identical to her first goal which clearly England didn’t learn from.

Photo: Chris Foxwell

Taught a lesson on executing a game plan

On transition, The Red Flames are a good team with forwards who have pace and England weren’t switched on with that. Belgium were brave and identified where our weaknesses were. Wullaert was a constant threat catching out Chelsea defenders Bright and Carter. Manager Ives Serneels can be proud of his players executing their game plan to perfection using their strength on the counter-attack and their ‘never give up’ attitude earning them then the late penalty that turned out to be the winner. They also taught England a lesson in finishing scoring with three out of their five attempts on target. Despite not having the ball for large parts of the game they dominated possession when they needed to and used their key moments to score goals at important times. Belgium like Friday didn’t create that much but they did enough to secure the win.  

Wonderful Wullaert

The only thing that this player would have been disappointed with was the fact she didn’t take away the match ball. The former Manchester City striker showed the WSL side what they were missing out on as she put in a star performance for her country. A brace for the Fortuna Sittard forward her first being a perfectly placed shot into the bottom corner of Earps’ goal after Cayman threaded a ball straight in between Carter and Bright before coolly converting a penalty giving the keeper no chance placing it into the top corner with power and pace following the referee penalising Georgia Stanway for handball. Another chance came before eventually scoring the winner this time her effort was far too close to the keeper and England escaped. We were sloppy on the ball and Belgium pounced on any mistakes or loose passes we made. They stuck to their game plan of playing the long ball to utilize the pace of top goal scorer Wullaert but the bottom line is we just weren’t good enough.

Photo: Chris Foxwell

Russo’s dismal season continues

Although the Arsenal striker was praised for her positive hold-up play and work there are a lot of questions being asked about Alessia Russo’s WSL performances as well as the inability to put the ball in the back of the net over the international window. Struggling to re-create the form she produced at the World Cup her summer move from rivals Manchester United has appeared to leave her a little short on confidence as she smashed a shot into the side netting from a tight angle. The 24-year-old squandered arguably England’s two best chances somehow missing from just six yards out. The decision to keep faith in Russo over last season’s WSL top goal scorer Rachel Daly will be open for debate after yet another performance where she failed to convert some golden chances.

Her teammates found it hard to play the ball into her as she was constantly straying offside finding it tough to create space in the congested Belgium box. The Lionesses are yet to have someone prove they are capable of leading the line since the retirement of all-time record goal scorer Ellen White.

Lack of cutting edge proving problematic

Once again England had chance after chance and this time they were punished for not taking them. 72 per cent possession, 17 shots, only 5 on target and rarely forcing a save from the Belgium keeper Evrard sums up the story of the Lionesses UEFA  Women’s Nations League so far with two games remaining. Manager Weigman was out shouting orders in the technical area trying to change the mentality of the game as the high tempo of Friday night’s performance was nonexistent. The Chelsea keeper saved from fellow teammate Kirby after positive play from Bronze.

Players failed to step up in Greenwood’s absence which was a huge blow to lose one of the leaders and key players in the squad so early in the game. In the two games England have lost; it’s been a similar story, gave the ball away sloppily and too easily. Definitely something they need to work on collectively and individually otherwise teams will continue to dominate us. We made it hard for ourselves losing the ball far too easily and being punished on the counter attack. The bottom line is England will not win games until they improve their finishing. 

Photo: Chris Foxwell

Kirby on her reception from the fans

Following her substitute appearance in Friday’s game Frank Kirby spoke about the reception she received from the fans describing it as one she ‘won’t forget’ on her return to international duty for the first time since facing Czech Republic in a friendly last October. Her knee injury required surgery in March meaning she was forced to miss the World Cup and sidelining her for 13 months. “It’s frustrating when I’m injured and can’t be out there. To hear that reception when I came on is really special,” said Kirby. “The support that I have had over the past year has been incredible from fans, the national team and at Chelsea. I can’t fault anyone for their support and that has been really pivotal for me coming back. I’ve been working really hard to get back out on the pitch as much as possible and I want to stay there.”

She stood out immensely over the two games but we have to remember that it’s important to manage her minutes and not overload her too soon. Kirby has proved herself at club level, growing with every game which is a credit to her. She adds calmness to the team and her patience on the ball looking to pick the right pass out is something that has definitely been missing from the Lionesses Nations League Campaign.

Wiegman comments on the Nations League

In her interview on Friday Sarina Weigman said that she would’ve liked to see her side score more goals with the chances they created. “I think the expectations are high. Of course, we want to score more goals. We want to do that but don’t forget the opponents are really good too. It’s now the Nations League and it’s more competitive. Defensively the opponents are better too. It’s harder to score goals if we can win 5-0 we are really happy but these high scores will be much harder to come by as the footballing world all try to reach the levels of these Lionesses.

Sarina Wiegman ahead of the UEFA Women’s Nations League match between England Women and Belgium Women at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England on 27 October 2023.

Damaging hopes for the Olympics

Tuesday’s defeat is hugely damaging for Team GB’s hopes of qualifying for the Olympics in Paris next year. England face the uphill task of beating the Netherlands by more than one goal at Wembley on December 1st followed by Scotland at Hampden Park four days later on December 5th although the fate has been taken out of their own hands. They have now dropped to third in the group after being beaten twice in three games.

If Belgium win their two remaining games then that assures that the Lionesses will not be finishing top of the group. They have definitely put themselves in a very hard position however third place will be enough if host nation France reaches the final of the UEFA Women’s Nations League.

World Cup hangover? Are England becoming predictable?

Once Belgium marked our playmaker in Kirby out of the game England looked lost and unsure who to turn to for inspiration. Experienced players like Chloe Kelly and Kiera Walsh tried to pick the spirits up but their balls into the box were easily anticipated and dealt with comfortably by current Brighton shot-stopper Nicky Evrard.

The flare that was evident in the European Qualification has disappeared and the simplest of tasks seem hard work. Are we guilty of trying to impress the fans and our audience too much after us creating such high expectations of ourselves, perhaps so but that is no excuse.  The main focus was to improve on Friday’s performance but instead they only went backwards. England conceded three goals in a match for the first time under the reign of Wiegman. They have kept only one clean sheet in seven matches when prior to the World Cup we were basically unstoppable. Do questions have to be asked to as why it has all gone wrong? 

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