Front Six Turn on the Style in Belfast

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Northern Ireland may not have tested Mary Earps as much as Austria did when they visited Sunderland in November, but defensively they proved as difficult to overcome as anyone in England’s qualifying group — at least for the first half.

Sarina Wiegman was hesitant to admit she could use last week’s 10–0 battering of North Macedonia and tonight’s win over Northern Ireland in Belfast to try out formations and personnel in preparation for the Euros. The England manager spoke to during a press conference last week, saying: “First, what we want to do now is play at our best and get two wins. You are already preparing for the Euros too. But the main thing is that we win the game tomorrow, win the game on Tuesday, and get as close to qualification as possible. Then we go to the next stage of preparing for the Euros.”

England ran out handsome winners in North Macedonia, Beth Mead scoring four in a fourth double-figures win in qualifying from seven games. Having been announced as permanent England captain for the Euros last week, Leah Williamson sat out the North Macedonia game due to a concussion protocol.

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Newly elected leader Williamson spoke to yesterday, admitting it’s always better to be involved. “I thought the girls were great”, she said. “Very professional. We had job to do, wanted to create loads of chances and proved to be a clinical team. It’s never nice to sit out of a football match, but when your team play like that, it’s fairly easy.”

The group has been easy. But the travel to Belfast was less likely to be. The Lionesses flew to Northern Ireland having scored 63 goals in those seven games — nearly ten per game. But in front of an expectant 16,000-strong crowd of a largely Northern Irish persuasion, Wiegman’s England had a new environment to deal with. With the away match against Austria to come in September, England’s previous away games have been against the group minnows North Macedonia, Luxembourg and Latvia. A hostile away crowd was a welcome challenge to overcome.

England face Northern Ireland and Austria again in their Euros group this summer, so this was a qualifier of greater importance than most in terms of tactical learnings. Those group matches will all be sell-outs, including one at Manchester United’s Old Trafford.

Wiegman couldn’t hide her excitement, admitting: “It’s really, really exciting. Although now, that doesn’t have any focus at all at the moment. But that is exciting. I was at Old Trafford the other day watching Manchester United–Everton [in the WSL]. It was really impressive and really nice, so I got a little bit excited already.”

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At a sold-out Windsor Park, England encountered tactical problems to solve in the first half, as Northern Ireland defended resolutely and restricted the Euro 2022 hosts to few clearcut chances. Yet England put an end to Northern Ireland’s run of six games without conceding a first-half goal when Ella Toone pulled the ball back for Lauren Hemp to convert with a wicked miss-hit which fooled goalkeeper Jackie Burns and looped in.

Towards the end of the half, England’s backline was stretched by some searching Northern Ireland passes into the channels. Kenny Shiels’s players couldn’t fashion any shots on goal, and it was 1–0 at the break.

If England were fortunate to lead at the interval, they pulled away from their hosts in the second half. From the very second play resumed, the Lionesses looked much more assured on the ball and their pass selection more sensible. England had such synergy and composure with Williamson at centre-back playing behind Keira Walsh as the pivot in midfield. The two have played with each other for well over a decade — and it shows.

Further forward, England also looked more decisive. From a Lucy Bronze cross that took a nick off Ellen White, Toone doubled the lead with her tenth England goal. Then when Williamson progressed forward and split the defence with an excellent through-ball, Hemp showed her undoubted class again by rounding Burns and slotting home her second of the night.

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Manchester City midfielder Georgia Stanway grabbed two goals at the Toše Proeski Arena on Friday, and with Northern Ireland tiring and England now firmly in control, she notched another brace here. Toone produced some excellent footwork for Stanway’s first and England’s fourth on 70 minutes as the Manchester United forward unselfishly slipped for Stanway to batter home.

And nine minutes later, Stanway made it a resounding five for Wiegman’s in-form Lionesses as she tucked into the corner smartly following a superb aerial knockdown by City teammate Hemp. 5–0 England.

Toone and Millie Bright missed chances to add further gloss to an already statement scoreline before proceedings were brought to a close. Walsh, Stanway, Toone, Hemp, White and Mead might just be England’s front six at the Euros come July. It worked a treat in Belfast.

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