Hege Riise and England have made no secret of how much they’ve been looking forward to facing Tier 1 opposition this month. If thrashing neighbours Northern Ireland in February didn’t offer much opportunity for the Lionesses to learn about their weaknesses, April more than made up for that. Friendlies with France and Canada offered a valuable insight into what England must improve if they’re to challenge for major honours in the next few years.
Manchester United forward Ella Toone scored on her first senior cap in that Northern Ireland game. Just how much that meant to her became abundantly clear when she spoke with EnglandFootball.org last week. “I don’t mind talking about my debut,” she admitted with a grin. “An amazing day. To be honest, I didn’t think that I’d be taking the penalty, so I just stepped back and let the girls sort it out. And then I heard Alex Greenwood say: ‘Let Tooney take it, let Tooney take it!’. So I thought, ‘I’m having it!’. I was just confident. I was confident in putting the ball away.”Embed from Getty Images
The level of opposition was now stronger and the England team-sheet weaker, but in Caen on Friday night, it seemed to be that very thing — confidence — which stopped England from kicking on and getting something from the game. They’d taken 16 shots by the time the clock read 39 minutes. That, in any game, would be impressive. Against France, it showed a real desire and ability to create chances against one of the world’s best outfits. Each and every time they reached the penalty area though, the composed finish was missing.
Ellen White, England’s talismanic striker for 11 years, was in no doubt that the current crop are the most talented Lionesses group she’s been a part of. She said to EnglandFootball.org: “I look around and I am surrounded in the squad at the moment by immensely talented players that have experienced youth level England, tournaments within their clubs, playing in Champions Leagues, winning trophies. The experience that this squad has is phenomenal. It’s exciting times for English football.”
One of the most promising of those youthful talents is Lauren Hemp. A mainstay in the WSL for Bristol City and more recently Manchester City since she was a teenager, the wide-forward born in 2000 had her best game in an England shirt against France — and all while featuring as a sub who got less than half-an-hour of game-time. But with less time to make an impact should come all the more desire to do so once introduced. Hemp epitomised that sentiment with the ability to beat her opponent, deliver a cross into the box, and then reset ready to do it all again. She even drew the foul from experienced French international Marion Torrent that led to England’s only goal on the night from the penalty spot.Embed from Getty Images
Hemp amassed over 40 caps at various different England age-groups before Phil Neville handed her a first senior one in 2019. She spoke to EnglandFootball.org ahead of the France fixture about the importance of the England youth setup. “It does prepare you a lot,” she revealed. “From a young age, [you’re] learning the England DNA and how we want to play, going to different tournaments like the U20s World Cup, the Euros at U17s [and] U19s. It’s all those little experiences that help make that step up that little bit easier.”
The rich quality of young players breaking into the senior team is a compliment to St George’s Park, to academies up and down the country, and to the quality of the Women’s Super League which is ten years old today.
But for all the promise and untamed ability that junior members of the squad bring, the older battle-hardened figures are just as pivotal for any team. After all, you can’t win many things with kids. England, predictably, played like a capable band missing their lead singer in these two fixtures. Steph Houghton has shown flashes of flair for England. But she’s earned her name showing fight; she’s been dogged, she’s dug in, she’s ensured discipline and shape when that’s what was called for. England’s hungry young Lionesses are yet to be tested in such a way in international football. The difference in Caen was not that one team showed pace and guile and a greed for goals and the other did not. It was that France were positionally adept enough to stop England hurtling towards them. England, up against a full-throttle France, were not.Embed from Getty Images
“It’s funny because as the game goes on, you notice certain things.” Arsenal centre-back Leah Williamson is breaking down the defeat to France to EnglandFootball.org. “But until you look at it afterwards, you’re not really aware of the severity. It’s difficult. You think that you can defend; we’re defenders, we should be able to defend and [we] want to encourage the team to go forward. I suppose team shape left us slightly vulnerable. But I don’t think it was a sole case of them leaving us exposed [which was] the reason we conceded, just like I don’t think it was just a back-four issue. It’s definitely a collective thing we need to just look at.” The question was whether they’d put it right in time for meeting Canada in Stoke-on-Trent four days later.
Almost immediately, the answer was a resounding no. A defensive mix-up saw all the England defenders leave it for each other. Eventually, Demi Stokes was dispossessed in her own box. Evelyne Veins slammed the ball past Carly Telford. Not even three minutes had been played. Had England hit rock bottom? The Lionesses will have hoped so. They do say that sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.
Regrettably, they got worse yet again. After a year-and-a-half out of action nursing an injury, 26-year-old Karen Bardsley replaced Telford at the break to earn her 82nd cap. She received a back-pass late in the game, paused, and allowed the ever-approaching Nichelle Prince to slide in and tackle the ball into the net. This, this, was what rock bottom looked like.Embed from Getty Images
And ‘better’ will have to wait, because there was no magical improvement in this fixture. England and Canada largely cancelled themselves out. The game was won by Canada for exactly the same reasons that the French condemned England to defeat on Friday. The Lionesses were both more error-prone in defence and more wasteful up-front than their opponents. It was still as simple as that.
After two defeats in four days, England can consider themselves back in bad form — the sort of form they ended the Phil Neville reign in. If they take only three things from this international break, they should be the following. Regular defensive mistakes must be eradicated. England must work on taking their chances once they’ve done the hard work to create them. And after dazzling again in Staffordshire, Lauren Hemp simply must be in Hege Riise’s Team GB Olympic squad come the summer.
There was certainly some impressive build-up play, but defensive blunders cost games. Especially at this level.