17 Jun Uneasy Victory: On England’s Win vs Belgium & How Relentless Positivity Isn’t Always A Good Thing
The headlines today have fizzed across the back pages after the start of England’s warmup towards the Euros and the positivity almost screams off the page at the reader.
“Dominant England SWEEP ASIDE Belgium” shouted ITV.
“Lionesses cruise to victory! England women sail through their first test” yelled Sky Sports.
Even the traditionally more restrained BBC couldn’t quite hold back, with “Chloe Kelly impresses in Lionesses victory!”
The BBC were justified in picking out Kelly as a standout, too – after playing just 300 minutes in the WSL this season and coming off an ACL injury she showed very little rust from her year out with an impressive, dynamic performance (along with a large slice of fortune for her goal), Lauren Hemp was her usual direct self on the other wing, Leah Williamson was a luminous figure played as a deep playmaker in midfield as she led the Lionesses like an imperious conductor at the Royal Albert Hall, dominating the stage with her presence and spraying passes all over the field like she was dispensing gifts from the football gods.
And, most importantly perhaps, the Lionesses proved that, no doubt to the surprise of seemingly every English football commentator in the preceding few days, the Lionesses’ sky did not, in fact, fall in without Steph Houghton to hold it up.
You wonder if the 23 who are going to the Euros were sending a subtle message that even if none of them are named Steph Houghton, it was about time they were the key topic of conversation in Lionesses’ discussion again.
The 3-0 win against Belgium on Thursday now means that Sarina Wiegman’s England have scored 75 goals in her time in charge, and conceded two.
On the face of it, all is well in England and the hyperbolic language is justified. End of piece.
Hold on, though.
If you dig down beyond the rah-rah speeches and encouraging soundbites both pre and post-game, then there are questions. This England team swept past Belgium, it is true.
But the trouble with the giddy comments afterwards is that they’re missing the fact that the team this England team “swept by” was still Belgium. A squad currently barely inside the world’s top 20, 12 places below England in the rankings. A team whose players mostly play in a domestic league that has a mere ten teams and as recently as 2018 only had 6. One that still has far less money and resources than the vast majority of English clubs (the Belgian Super League has no title sponsor and has a TV income worth 60 times LESS than the WSL per season). As recently as 2019 England drew 3-3 with Belgium and if we saw one thing last night it’s just how quickly England’s national team have benefited from the increased investment. That was obvious.
And even with that gap, this England team, while dominating possession, still huffed and puffed. The 3-0 victory saw 2 of the three goals effectively have the Belgians score them for England (Kelly’s shot took a MASSIVE deflection and Leah Williamson’s shot hit Nicky Evrard so hard on the back of the head before going in Williamson herself looked more embarrassed than the hapless Belgian goalie. Finishing was wayward (three goals from 25 shots) – a conversion rate of 12% isn’t going to hurt against a team like Belgium, but scoring at a rate of only once every ten shots against a team like Belgium really does not bode well for facing, say, Norway, who are a level above the Red Flames both defensively and attacking.
Ellen White, for example (she of the much-touted 11 goals in 11 games for England) found that facing Belgium was a level above playing cannon-fodder like North Macedonia and Latvia when it came both to getting scoring chances and finishing them, and the vast majority of the rest of England’s Euros opponents will be a level above that.
Lauren Hemp was direct, but if any player for England epitomised the phrase “all sizzle, no steak” than it is her…the pundits going into raptures post-game about her talent all seemed to neglect the rather glaring truth that for every mazy run she might make that leads to a legitimate scoring chance, there are still three or four that end in the most disappointing of cul-de-sacs.
Then we come to England’s full-backs. When Emma Hayes’ first response is “if I were an opposition manager, I’d exploit them as a weak spot all day long” and those weaknesses are so clearly obvious against Sarah Wullaerts and Tine De Cagny (with all due respect to them, not exactly names you see pushed forward as elite wingers) then one shudders to think how clearly they’ll be shown up against some other teams England will face and tasks that Demi Stokes and Lucy Bronze will be assigned. Having full-backs who are great at attacking is always a plus – but perhaps not when that skill constitutes the majority of their skillset.
As it happens, the next assignment for Stokes and Bronze will likely be an acid test of any fullback’s defensive ability – the Dutch pairing of Lineth Beerensteyn and Lieke Martens, two players with over 200 caps and nearly 100 international goals between them (for context that is over a hundred more caps and over double the international goals of their last opponents). It is not hyperbole to say that Martens, in particular, is right now among the top five at her position in the world – something that was definitely true of at least one England fullback in the past but may not be now – especially as the Netherlands’ attacking power is probably to best way to nullify her biggest talent.
Many at this point will accuse me of being overly negative, perhaps. After all, England under Sarina Wiegman have been incisive, expressive, and often a joy to watch as they've dominated games. Positivity around the camp is sky-high and that is exemplified by the current media coverage.
But the trouble with all this positivity is that often, it has been relentless. In many cases it has effectively been used to shut down debate about England’s starting lineup. Questions, for example, like those raised by Ellen White’s lack of cutting edge against Belgium – a lack of cutting edge that has been clear to see in the WSL this season compared to players like Alessia Russo but whenever that lack of cutting edge has been pointed out the refrain has been “well, she’s scoring for England”.
In many other nations the fact that a centre-back was top scorer at an international tournament of any kind would have raised questions about the production of those in front of her – but not in England. Many other nations would not see the pre-squad-announcement talk dominated by a 34-year-old barely back from a year out injured.
But in England, as the lights get brighter and the Euros get closer, relentlessly talking up a team will only do more harm than good. The entire media apparatus around the Lionesses right now is geared towards talking about this team as the potential winner of the Euros or looking for the “feelgood” stories around the older players within the squad – in Sarina’s post-squad announcement presser every question seemed to carry the undertone of media annoyed at being denied their easy hook for Lionesses coverage.
This needs to change fast, both for the good of the squad themselves and for the good of the wider game – this Euros will see more eyes than ever before on the Lionesses and they have little enough margin for error without falling into the trap so often experienced by the men’s teams of the media overpromising and the team being forced into a position where it under-delivers.
This is a very good Lionesses team, but it is a flawed one and seemingly mentioning that is taboo to the point any casual fan of women’s football this summer probably thinks England are the favourites. That is only setting the team up to fail, and last night against Belgium sent warning signs that should be acknowledged more.
In short, the Lionesses and more particularly the media coverage around it needs a reality check. I wouldn’t go so far as saying England need to lose vs the Netherlands…but they need to be visibly tested. They need to be made uncomfortable. The worst possible prep they could have had to this point for the Euros is the way they’ve effectively coasted unchallenged through WC qualifying and Wiegman hasn’t been forced, really, to consider other options than maintaining the status quo and that is going to hurt England come July.
Crucially, even more so than that, there needs to be far more of a discussion of England’s flaws in the media. Not in an openly critical way, but in a balanced and fair way.
I talked on Tuesday about the “Lionesses Mafia” when it comes to media coverage and perhaps, this Euros will mark a sea-change in the way England women are talked about or how they are covered – a needed one. Right now, though, the most glaring takeaway from last night vs Belgium is that a victory can mask a multitude of problems and we are fast getting to the point where those problems need to be the main focus of media discussion to serve the Lionesses best ahead of the Euros, otherwise, they will make themselves the main focus as soon as the tournament starts and the games actually mean something.