Jessy Parker Humphreys takes an in-depth look at interim manager Hege Riise’s first game in charge of England as they beat Northern Ireland 6-0.
“Energised, fun and focused” is how Hege Riise described England’s 6-0 win against Northern Ireland. They were words that had not sprung to mind in recent England performances. The match was the interim coach’s first in charge and came 354 days since the Lionesses’ last competitive game. While there are a number of caveats on the result and performance, it gave a first glimpse of the kind of style that Team GB might play at the Olympics this summer.
Riise’s previous side, LSK Kvinner, were described as “possession-heavy…with inside wingers and high full-backs”. It is a description that maps neatly onto England’s performance on Tuesday, with the team lining up in a 4-2-3-1 and making light work of Northern Ireland, a side that are 44 places below them in the global rankings. The match was characterised by England’s high-energy press coupled with direct, fast play and a dynamic attacking midfield.
Fast and furious
Recent England teams have dominated possession against lower-ranked sides while struggling to break those teams down. From the outset, England looked to play the ball quickly and directly with any temptation to dawdle in possession negated by the energy from Jill Scott and Lucy Bronze.
Scott has looked invigorated since her loan move to Everton and while she was receiving her 150th cap, this was far from a testimonial performance. Positioned further forward in the midfield two, Scott was constantly pressing Northern Ireland players and looking to play line-breaking passes.
Bronze often looks most inspired when she is in an England shirt and this match was no exception. As England’s pace dropped towards the end of the first half as they found themselves 2-0 up, it was Bronze who continued to demand a high intensity. Her cross-cum-shot had hit the crossbar just minutes before her goal came, and when Steph Houghton had the ball nicked off by Rachel Furness, it was Bronze sprinting back to ensure that nothing came of it.
A Confederacy of Strikers
In past competitive matches, England’s attackers have struggled to link up with their central striker. They had no such issue here as Riise encouraged her attackers to play close together in what was at times a flat front four. Jordan Nobbs was ostensibly in the number 10 position with Lauren Hemp and Rachel Daly either side of her but out of possession, Nobbs was practically partnering Ellen White.
This positioning gave White more freedom, with the opposition defenders struggling to mark the Manchester City striker who is currently in irresistible form; her hat-trick meant she has scored seven goals in her last six games for club and country.
Daly also drifted more centrally, giving space for Bronze out on the wing, as the Lionesses looked to outnumber Northern Ireland’s packed penalty area. The fact that half of England’s six goals were tap ins from three different players showed how they overwhelmed the six yard box.
Dynamic midfield duo
An injury to Keira Walsh meant that Georgia Stanway came in to play the more reserved role in the midfield two alongside Scott. Stanway has looked impressive at Manchester City since Gareth Taylor moved a player who has traditionally been seen as a number 10 into midfield following Sam Mewis’ injury. She took to the ‘number 4’ role with equal aplomb.
Her quick feet and attacking mindset saw her playing quickly and neatly through Northern Ireland’s midfield, offering an easy central connection between defence and attack. It was a similar story when Ella Toone took up the role later on in the game. Both looked to make positive decisions with the ball given their more traditional positions in attacking roles. The choice to play them there was a tactical one; Leah Williamson did offer Riise a more ‘like-for-like’ swap if she chose.
It was difficult to judge whether Stanway or Toone would have been able to perform the defensive duties required against a more attacking side, but both showed they could be a threatening option from a deep-lying role against teams looking to sit back.
The win was exactly the kind of result England would have hoped for under Riise, although there are certainly sterner tests to come. Yet the intensity her management provoked showed numerous players performing at their very best; under Phil Neville, it often seemed like world-class players were under-performing. It was a match that would only have improved her odds on getting the lead job for Team GB.
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