Mark Sampson has defended the squad changes he has made for England’s Euro 2017 qualifiers against Serbia this week after regular players such as Katie Chapman, Eni Aluko and Toni Duggan were dropped for new faces.
Attackers Rachel Daly and Nikita Parris could earn their first caps when the Lionesses face Serbia at Wycombe on Saturday evening with Sampson suggesting he has picked “the best group of players to win football matches.”
England as a team have struggled to score goals recently since the manager started experimenting with a solid 4-4-1-1 formation post-World Cup in the hope his team would be well drilled in the system come the Euro’s in the Netherlands next summer.
But just three goals in five games during 2016 appear to have jolted Sampson into making changes for the Serbia double-header and he says the new players are there on merit.
“It wouldn’t be fair on the players who aren’t here if that wasn’t the case,” says Sampson.
“These two players [Parris and Daly] definitely deserve their call-up and as it currently stands this is the best group of players we can pick to win football matches and be competitive, they absolutely deserve it for their form and the hard work they’ve put in and I’m delighted to have them here.
“We’re always aware of the opponent but we’ve always got to make sure we’re picking the right group to keep us moving towards our bigger goal of being competitive next summer. Fundamentally we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the right people on the bus and make sure the team is in the right place to win.”
Since the success of the Women’s World Cup, Sampson has had the luxury of being able to call on plenty of new players as the competition for places becomes ever greater, partly in thanks to the ever-improving training facilities and the overall growth of the women’s game in England.
Few of Sampson’s attackers from the tournament last summer are now guaranteed a place with the likes of Daly and Parris earning call-ups along with Arsenal’s Danielle Carter, Sunderland’s Beth Mead and the rapid rise of Manchester City’s Izzy Christiansen.
It’s a tough problem for Sampson to solve with little over a year left until Euro 2017 but he admits big players dropping out is something that will become more common as his options continue to increase.
“It’s hard but that’s the business we’re in,” he says. “It’s the world of international football where the margins of detail are so, so small. I always go back to the SheBelieves Cup and look at the fact we could have won all three games but didn’t win a single one. There’s not a massive gap between us and these teams but we have to at least find that extra something that gets us over through gap between us and these teams ahead of us.
“So we have to make some tough decisions sometimes and that does mean some really good players will be left out and I think that will be the case now right the way through to the Euro’s because we’ve got such a good player pool in certain areas. The important thing for the players is they know they’ve got to perform, make sure their fitness is sharp and when they come away with England we’re looking for them to be the right type of people we want. But absolutely I know I’m going to have more tough decisions to make moving forward.”
Despite now appearing to favour a ‘defence first’ philosophy that has seen England take part in several low-scoring matches recently, Sampson admits he is keen for his attackers to be that extra bit clinical and take the chances that come their way.
With Toni Duggan increasingly isolated in England’s last home qualifier against Belgium, Sampson reacted by unleashing the pace and creativity of Chelsea trio Gemma Davison, Karen Carney and Eni Aluko against Bosnia and witnessed a much better attacking performance.
And Sampson says he hopes his strikers use their growing frustration at a lack of goals and channel it into their energy on the pitch against Serbia.
“Goalkeeper and the forwards are the most difficult positions to play and that’s why I was never anywhere near any of them as a player!
“The way we look at it with our forwards is the intent because sometimes you can’t control the outcome. The important part is doing the right things to give yourselves a chance to score goals and at the moment the evidence is telling me our players are doing the right things to score more goals.
“The one bit that’s missing is that clinical touch and we have got to improve in that area. The challenge to every player is to create opportunities that give us a chance of putting the ball in the back of the net. I’m really pleased with the chances we’re creating but we’ve just got to relax, we’ve got to take that pressure off ourselves and enjoy those moments – trust ourselves to put the ball in the back of the net. But with the quality of players we’ve got that can’t not come so we’re relaxed about it, yes we’re going to work on it to help the players but we’re absolutely confident that when we’re in those positions against Serbia we’ll take them.”
Serbia will also prove England’s opposition on Tuesday evening just four days after the Lionesses have played host to their group rivals, a situation that proves to be quite unique but Sampson sees the positives from such an encounter given information about lower-ranked women’s sides can be sparse at best.
And whilst he admits the situation isn’t always ideal and not necessarily planned, he decided if England were to have a double-header they would play at home first.
“It’s such a farcical process when we were deciding the fixtures,” he says.
“We all sit around a table and we just hope to agree that we’ll play each other on certain dates and in certain places and obviously everyone’s got an agenda to push.
“So when we agreed the fixtures the important part for us was if we were going to have a double-header we’d make sure we played at home first because we know we have to travel the same amount of time as them but they’ve got to travel to us and then compete, travel back to Serbia and then compete again.”
Whilst six points will prove invaluable in helping England secure their place in next year’s European Championships, Sampson now wants to see his team continue to improve on the pitch and go into the tournament as real challengers for the trophy.
“We’re confident we’ve got a group of players that can go and win these games but just as important for us now is that we see progression, we’ve got to start seeing a team that is showing hunger and desire to be competitive next summer and we’ve challenged the players with that this week. We want to see a team that’s starting to get an identity and is starting to move into the direction we need to to be competitive next summer.”