Sarina Wiegman’s second camp in charge of the Lionesses has drawn to a close, but what have we learned so far?
England have now played four of their World Cup qualifying games for the 2023 tournament and find themselves top of the group with four clean sheets and a mammoth 32 goal difference.
In September, Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses took on North Macedonia at St. Mary’s Stadium in which they enjoyed the first of their large scorelines with an eight-nil victory. They then travelled to Luxembourg and earned a similar success with a thumping ten-nil win, which included two goals apiece from centre backs Alex Greenwood and Millie Bright.
October’s international break arrived and the Lionesses went on to host Northern Ireland in a historic night at Wembley Stadium. Beth Mead became the first women to score a hat-trick at the infamous ground, which was made even more impressive as she achieved this feat within a fourteen-minute period. Bethany England took the total to four and the Lionesses first competitive fixture at Wembley wrapped up favourably.
In their most recent game against Latvia, England once again reigned supreme, concluding their international break with another ten-nil triumph with goals from Ellen White, Rachel Daly, Beth Mead, Leah Williamson and Georgia Stanway. Ella Toone also secured her first international hat-trick, taking her tally to five goals in six appearances for her country.
Firstly, this is not to deny the Lionesses of their recent endeavours, outcomes have indeed been positive and there is plenty to suggest this can continue. Further to this, there is a definite sense of anticipation shared from the players on the field to the supporters in their seats that Wiegman’s tenure will bring something more liberal than her predecessors dared to try.
Already we have seen selections and starting elevens based on form as opposed to previous international experience. Examples of this include Bethany England’s and Beth Mead’s starts against Latvia after both made remarkable impact from the bench at Wembley, and the naming of five Manchester United players in October’s camp following the Red Devil’s respectable start to the season.
Wiegman has also switched things up on the pitch which has served as a refreshing change compared with the static approach of the management of years prior. After Northern Ireland’s compact defending proved difficult for England to break down, Wiegman opted for a tactical change by replacing left back Demi Stokes with midfielder Keira Walsh at half time. This converted the formation from a 4-3-3 to more of a 3-2-2-3, which at times appeared almost as a 2-1-7 as Rachel Daly played high as the right sided defender, and Keira Walsh and Leah Williamson interchangeably pushed forward to flood areas in and around the box whilst the other covered the two remaining centre backs.
A similar tactic was adopted for Latvia’s match. Much more so than with Northern Ireland, Wiegman expected to face a deep-set defensive side and formed her team accordingly, this time choosing a 3-5-2. This fluidity in formation is encouraging and is the mark of a manager unafraid to work to turns of the game in hand.
Yet, it is when we delve further into these fixtures that we find areas in which Wiegman’s side will need to tighten up. The first thing to be considered is the gulf that separates the Lionesses and their opponents thus far. England are currently ranked 8th in FIFA’s World Rankings. This is compared to North Macedonia ranked at 131st, Luxembourg at 122nd, Latvia at 102nd and Northern Ireland at 48th. The Lionesses were expected to win by a large margin, and they achieved that, so what is the problem?
Well, there isn’t one, there are many. The largest issue is the difficulty gauging a true impression of how well a team performs or how cohesively they are working when the opposition does not pose an adequate test. Playing lower ranked sides also runs the risk of complacency, lapse positioning and unconventional pot shots, the latter of which was seen prominently against Latvia.
When studying the numbers, it can be assumed that the reason for these shots was down to the amount of time England had on the ball. With 78% of possession against both sides, England were allowed to press the final third without much resistance. This sounds gift-like in theory, but the reality is that the game becomes overthought, attacking phases are overplayed and the dominant side runs themselves into trouble.
Against Northern Ireland the Lionesses registered 34 shots, 11 shots on target and scored four goals. With Latvia, they produced 58 shots, 21 shots on target and ten goals. A conversion rate that, by and large, needs some work. However, these numbers must be interpreted relatively. Typically, one would expect far fewer shots, yet a much finer margin between this and the number of shots on target and goals scored. This is where time on the ball, plus, the allowance of space on the peripheral of the final third comes into play.
Particularly in the game against Latvia, several times England were allowed to advance upon the box in large numbers at their leisure. Yet due to almost every player from the opposition also situated within this area and holding firm, the play was either overrun, blocked, intercepted and cleared. When the cleared ball was ultimately claimed by another England player outside of the area, rather than quickly switching the direction of play or passing out to the wing to force their opponents to reposition, the receiving player, with ample time, took a shot. The opportunity to score wasted on both occasions.
The final issue with the fixtures played so far is the lack of defensive work and goalkeeping. This, of course, is no fault of the Lionesses, yet it is unhelpful that defensive structure has not been competitively trialled, nor has a phase of transition, something that, in recent times, has been England’s niggling shortcoming.
The Lionesses have progressed positively and Wiegman’s management already feels as if it is taking England in the right direction, yet there are still these familiar lurking deficiencies to be addressed. These recent games have required patience and England have had to persevere when the door did not open as expected which will serve them well in their upcoming games. Confidence should be high, yet personnel should be mindful that far tougher challenges will soon be on their way.