Goals Galore for England, but Did This Week Help Anyone?

Getty Images/Catherine Ivill

First England looked blunt up front despite scoring eight because they had 48 shots and so should have scored more. Now England looked blunt up front despite scoring eight because in their very next game they struck ten. Sarina Wiegman is up and running as England manager. But she could probably count what she’s learned about her players this week on one hand. Facing teams like North Macedonia and Luxembourg is a formality.

England netted twice early on in their four minutes of added time in Luxembourg. It meant they’d scored nine. They went hunting tirelessly for double figures. Almost inevitably, the tenth did arrive. Beth England added her name to the scoresheet with just 18 seconds of the match remaining. But the build-up to the goal was evidence — if there wasn’t already enough — that a game between Luxembourg and England offers very little for either team.

A defender hurled herself into Nikita Parris, whose crossed was planted in by England. Had Parris not dived out of the way before squaring, she could quite easily have been contending with a very serious injury indeed. It was desperation from Luxembourg, hoping to preserve any remaining dignity on the night. It was such easy football from England and such bad football from the hosts that it was a bad advert for football as a competitive sport overall.

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On an individual level, the night allowed Wiegman to get her first glimpse of Chelsea star Fran Kirby under her watch. It meant Millie Bright was able to end the curse and finally score her first goal for her country. Her second arrived shortly after. And stoppage time was just about long enough for Rachel Daly to make herself the most popular goalscorer of all — volleying in and dedicating the strike to her father, who was an avid supporter of women’s football and of the Lionesses but who sadly passed away last week.

These were all wonderful things that helped England’s players enjoy another perfect night in this international break. They return to their clubs having earned two clean-sheets — not that Mary Earps had to work particularly hard for either — and scored 18 unanswered goals in just two matches. Yet this was instant gratification for England. And for North Macedonia and Luxembourg, there was next-to-no gratification at all from these meetings.

The UEFA Nations League was brought into the men’s international match calendar to replace most of the meaningless friendlies. It also provides a chance for nations to compete with opponents of a similar level. San Marino, during a Nations League campaign, do not have to worry about whether Belgium or France might reach double figures against them. Instead they can focus on what football is all about: trying to win games.

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England’s women know just what it feels like to play ‘meaningless friendlies’. Between their World Cup semi-final defeat to the United States and their 8-0 win over North Macedonia on Friday, they went 809 days without an official competitive match. Once they did return to ‘meaningful’ games this week, they didn’t feel like particularly meaningful contests at all. In fact, they were barely contests. Perhaps England will come to value their next friendly a little more. At least then they can pick their opponents.

The growth of the game is stalled when a team as good as England come up against a team as limited as Luxembourg. What do either team truly learn about themselves that they didn’t already know?

Latvia are also in England’s group, and will pose a similarly feeble threat to Wiegman’s Lionesses. England must learn to cherish their meetings with the group’s strongest opponents: Austria and neighbours Northern Ireland. They also have a brand new tournament to look forward to, replacing the SheBelieves Cup. A similar tournament will now pit top European sides against each other in February each year. That too will help to tell England what they must get better at ahead of major FIFA and UEFA tournaments.

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These qualifiers are a formality for England. Anyone who thinks that sounds premature should re-watch the Lionesses’ matches in this week. They had 84 shots in two matches, and averaged 81.3% of possession.

Sarina Wiegman was asked by EnglandFootball.org whether she expected something similar for the Luxembourg game, or whether it would likely be a different sort of affair to the 8-0 win over North Macedonia. “No,” she said. “I expect kind of the same.” And it really kind of was.

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