Having had almost no opportunity to play international fixtures for over a year, the pandemic is partly to blame for a string of recent poor performances by England. However, as Jessy Parker Humphreys writes, if their fortunes are to change, then Riise must be willing to take greater risks with her selection policy.
Ahead of England’s two fixtures against France and Canada, interim coach Hege Riise insisted that these games were less about figuring out who to pick for her Team GB squad, and more about getting England right.
After the two matches though, she is still left with large question marks over both.
England’s 3-1 loss to France and 2-0 loss to Canada were marred by sloppy passing, stodgy play, and defensive errors. There was little, if any, suggestion that these were players fighting for the opportunity to go to the Olympics. In fact, there has been little fight about any England performances since the 2019 World Cup semi-final against the USA.
Ostensibly, England lined up for these games in a 4-2-3-1 formation that Riise has favoured throughout her managerial career. In reality, this often looked more like a 4-4-2. This was particularly clear in the France game, where Fran Kirby and Ellen White played very close together.
Against France in particular, the gap between attack and defence was insurmountably large. With Rachel Daly having been caught out of position early a couple of times by Sandy Baltimore, she stayed quite reserved at fullback, offering little in the way of link up play.
Riise obviously wants her midfielders to play high up the pitch. Against both France and Canada, the midfielders – Jill Scott against France, Jordan Nobbs against Canada – formed neat passing triangles with the second striker and right winger. But there was no plan as to what to do next, with moves breaking down and opposition players able to stream into the large amounts of space left by the pushed-up midfielder.
With Nikita Parris currently playing as a striker for Lyon, she no longer offers the electric wing play she did in the past, whilst Beth Mead’s decision making against France was erratic.
There was a genesis of an idea in these attacking moves, but no final flourish.
Defensive mishaps and misses
Four of the five goals England conceded were direct results of defensive errors. They were unable to start either of these games with a full first-choice backline, with Steph Houghton ruled out of the camp through injury, and Lucy Bronze’s minutes severely limited.
Yet England have struggled for a while with finding the right balance in the back line mainly due to a preponderance of right-sided centre backs. Houghton, Millie Bright and Leah Williamson all play at RCB for their clubs, meaning any combination of them requires a shift.
Normally, Bright shifts when she pairs with Houghton, and you only have to watch Chelsea’s recent performances without Magda Eriksson to see how much weaker Bright is there. Here, it was Williamson who shifted, and it was her misjudgement of the ball which opened up the space for France’s first goal.
Playing right footed centre-backs on the left also limits a side’s passing lanes. Alex Greenwood may have been a more interesting choice having excelled as the left-sided centre back for Manchester City for large parts of this season.
Yet what was most disappointing about the mistakes made were how they mostly came from Riise’s conservative selections. Rachel Daly – who gave away the penalty against France – was preferred ahead of Niamh Charles. Demi Stokes – whose mistake led to the opening Canada goal – was selected ahead of Esme Morgan. Karen Bardsley – who allowed Nichelle Prince to nick the ball off her feet for the second Canada goal – was called up to camp ahead of Hannah Hampton despite having not played for almost two years.
All of this creates a feeling that not only are England bad – they are stale.
If we look at the make-up of England squad, we can see how the group is divided. There are a number of current starters aging out of their peak years and then there are younger players yet to pick up many caps. Only a few players – Fran Kirby, Alex Greenwood, Millie Bright and Nikita Parris – have picked up a lot of caps and are still in their peak years.
To a certain extent, this is a hangover from the pandemic. England have had almost no opportunity to play international fixtures for over a year. Younger players are coming through but have limited chances to prove themselves in the national team set up. It feels like a knee jerk reaction from Riise to already be relying on older players.
Most of the younger players given an opportunity at this camp took it. Lauren Hemp, Georgia Stanway and Ella Toone all looked particularly composed, yet others were left with dribs and drabs of minutes. It seemed Riise was more interested in looking at the older players but sadly, those were the players who came off as the least reliable.
Based off of Riise’s team selection, it was clear that she was not looking to take risks. Ultimately, that left her with little reward.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph