It’s all getting just a little bit silly. Emma Hayes rightly points out that cricket scores do no good for the growth of the women’s game. Well, she has a point — and England are racking up quite a few of them at present. Another month, another pair of highly dominant victories that teach England so very little about how good or bad they really are.
In the circumstances, England are showing they have more than the tools required to beat the often-lacklustre opposition in front of them — and to keep clean-sheets when it’s expected of them. Northern Ireland might have been abject opposition when they were beaten 6-0 by Hege Riise’s England earlier in the year, but they at least have some pedigree and are one of the World Cup qualifying group’s stickier opponents.
And so it proved. In what was their first-ever competitive match at Wembley Stadium, the Lionesses did everything but score in the first two thirds of a one-sided game. Northern Ireland rode their luck at times, but they also showed defensive resilience at others. Eventually, though, the pressure was always going to tell.Embed from Getty Images
England slotted home four unanswered goals in the final 20 or so minutes. Subs have proved a familiar route to goal during the Sarina Wiegman era already. Beth Mead grabbed the headlines with a hat-trick of the bench, becoming the first England women’s player to ever score a treble at Wembley. It was a momentous achievement from a player whose quality has been there for all to see this season in both Arsenal and England colours.
Phil Neville always spoke so highly of her when he was manager, but rarely has she been a starting player for her country. Three in the 4-0 Northern Ireland win and another in tonight’s 10-0 thrashing of Latvia takes the 26-year-old up to 13 goals in 30 internationals. Not bad for a sub.
Mead has long been undervalued in terms of match minutes within this England team, but goals bring you into favour with any manager. Another Beth — Beth England — is learning that. She finds herself in the difficult position of playing second fiddle to two fantastic strikers for both club and country. Few would opt to start her ahead of Sam Kerr for Chelsea, and the same is true for England’s No 9 Ellen White.Embed from Getty Images
Instead, England has enjoyed an international career similar to Mead’s. England says she doesn’t want to be nicknamed a ‘super sub’ because no-one would choose to start on the bench. She spoke to EnglandFootball.org about her international ambitions before finding the net against the Northern Irish.
“Obviously, as a forward, we always want to score,” she said. “It’s known that we could have a great game and not score but think it’s a bad game because we haven’t scored. For us, goals are important, and [it’s about] making sure that when we have that chance, we make them count. I was very happy with myself that last camp I was able to do that and put my statement on the game that I came into and get [those] goals.” She is referring to goals off the bench against North Macedonia and then in Luxembourg.
“Ellen’s a fantastic striker and she’s been a phenomenal role model for many, including myself. All I can do is, if I’m given the chance, just keep showing up and doing my job. Obviously Ellen’s not going to make that easy for me, and I respect her for that. At the end of the day, we are fighting for one spot. But we are still teammates. I’m always happy to see her do well, and I know for a fact that she’d be the same for me.”Embed from Getty Images
As it turned out, this was an uncharacteristically quiet international break for White. She found the net just once, slotting a one-on-one past the Latvian goalkeeper in the first half of the 10-0 rout. It was a goal that seemed to symbolise almost perfectly just how one-sided these sorts of encounters are. No team will gift you a goal from their own desperately poor goal-kick in a major tournament. England and Wiegman will know this. But take them while you can.
Whatever the level of opposition, the Dutch manager is starting to reveal what she intends to mould this England team into. Leah Williamson will be pleased to have registered a rare goal against Latvia, but it’s her passing and her assuredness on the ball that has seen her emerge as a genuine option in that midfield anchor role. And despite injuries having kept both Steph Houghton and Lucy Bronze out for the past two months, Williamson also appears to be a genuine contender to replace Houghton as full-time England captain. It’s quite the compliment for a player aged only 24.Embed from Getty Images
Another player quickly becoming integral to Wiegman’s plans is Manchester United’s withdrawn forward Ella Toone. The lively attacker has become a prominent goalscorer for country in recent times — taking her rampant club form into international football. With a hat-trick in Riga, she now has five goals in six internationals. Irrepressible form.
Toone’s Manchester United teammate Katie Zelem never made it onto the pitch for her debut this month nor last, but a maiden cap doesn’t look far off. She has been capped at every youth level for England, showing the sort of progression investment in St George’s Park and the national team setup was designed to produce.
However, she doesn’t feel those capped at youth level gain an unfair advantage when picked for the seniors, compared to players who have never donned the shirt before. “Maybe five years ago you could say that was the case, that a lot of people come through the setup,” Zelem told EnglandFootball.org.
“But I think it’s a lot less structured now. There’s girls in the senior team now that didn’t play a minute in the youth setup. I know Fran [Kirby] didn’t play a lot of games coming through the setup in comparison to myself, who hasn’t necessarily been selected much for the seniors who did go through all the age groups. So now it’s all about who is performing well and who deserves to be in the squad.Embed from Getty Images
“It’s a new manager and it’s a new opportunity for everyone. Sarina picks who she sees is playing well in league competitions and league games, so for her I’m sure that’s a lot more important than whether you’ve been through the setup. It’s great that I’ve been able to have the experience of playing for England. I certainly don’t think that’s the be-all and end-all of becoming a senior international.” Zelem will get her chance. These qualifiers are perfect for trying new players — especially ones as established in the club game as she is.
Wiegman was pleased enough with a double-figures win on her birthday. She told EnglandFootball.org she felt it had been: “A professional victory, I think, against an opponent that wasn’t very strong. We knew we would be the much stronger team, and I think we showed that in a totally different environment [from] Saturday — no fans, the field wasn’t as good, the weather was totally different.”
However, she agreed with Hayes’s reckoning that the players had sometimes enjoyed too much time on the ball for their own good. “Sometimes we were a little sloppy,” Wiegman admitted. “We need to be sometimes a little tighter on the ball. That’s what we tried to do. We got so many chances [which] we didn’t score.”Embed from Getty Images
“What I learned is that we’re very motivated. The situation was totally different [from] last Saturday. We just want to improve ourselves and get ourselves to a higher level, [whichever] opponent we play against. We know we will be the better team, so we pay attention on moving the ball, switching the fields, having good crosses, having positioning in the penalty box, and trying to score as [many] goals as possible. So we get some things out of it, but I think the most important thing is that we just want to improve ourselves in every game.”
Whether or not Wiegman and England can learn much from the inevitable drubbings they keep handing out, they must hand them out nonetheless. The day a team scores ten seems a ludicrous time to say it, but perhaps what England are learning is that they must be more ruthless in front of goal. They had 58 shots against Latvia — one every 90-something seconds. Titles are won on efficiency.