How Hege Riise’s Team GB squad for Tokyo Olympics puts reliability ahead of wizardry
The head coach is putting her faith in experienced old heads but it comes at the expense of the creative magic of Jordan Nobbs, Ella Toone and Alex Greenwood, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.
Olympic squads are always going to be controversial. Selecting 18 players for a tournament is hard enough and that is before you add in the politics that comes with attempting to fit four countries into one squad. So, it was no surprise really to see a number of big names left out. Some can be explained – Beth England and Erin Cuthbert both probably suffered from a relative lack of minutes at Chelsea – but others have been more perplexing.
Looking at the age profile of the squad, it is immediately clear that Riise has prioritised experience when it comes to building her side.
Half of the squad are 29 or over. In a tournament that is notorious for its intensity, this is a hefty risk to have taken, particularly because a number of those selected have struggled with injuries recently. Demi Stokes only played eight WSL games this season due to injury issues, while Steph Houghton missed the majority of the end of the season having picked up an achilles problem. Karen Bardsley, meanwhile, has just recently returned from an injury that saw her out for well over a year and has only played a handful of games for OL Reign.
Given this, it is reasonable to assume that Riise is intending to rotate a large portion of her squad, but the composition of it suggests she might struggle there. It is a very centrally weighted group with only one regular winger in Lauren Hemp.
While players like Parris and Kirby have played on the wing in the past, it is not where they have played the majority of their minutes over the past couple of years. Parris has deputised as a central striker at Lyon for the past two seasons due to Ada Hegerberg’s injury whilst Kirby has shown herself to be at her most effective in a front two.
Full-back cover is even worse with Rachel Daly nominally included despite being a striker – Riise has used her at both left and right-back – while Georgia Stanway has also played at right-back in the past for Manchester City.
If there are to be rotations in the wider positions, it will very much be a case of fitting square pegs into round holes.
In terms of attackers, however, it is undeniable that Riise has picked the most effective. Using Wyscout data we can see that Nikita Parris and Ellen White have been the best British performers in terms of xG per 90. Rachel Daly’s numbers are a bit misleading due to the fact that the NWSL season has only just begun but her performances for the Houston Dash over the past years should be more than enough reason for Riise to consider her as a striker first and foremost. Her listing as a defender, however, suggests we are unlikely to see her get minutes up front.
The most surprising exclusion is Alex Greenwood. Greenwood has arguably been one of Manchester City’s standout players this season since her return from Lyon. Her ability from dead-ball situations would have been reason enough to take her to Tokyo but the fact she has proven herself to be as adept at playing at centre-back as she is at full-back showed herself to have the requisite versatility too. Her inclusion would have gone a long way to solving some of this squad’s defensive gaps.
No one in the WSL made more switches of play this year while she also made the most passes over the top of defenders into open space. That kind of passing variety combined with being left-footed (all three of the centre-backs Riise selected are right-footed) could have been a huge asset to this side.
The problem Riise is likely to have faced with this squad selection is that her first XI is probably pretty obvious to her right now with perhaps the sole question mark being who joins Keira Walsh in the midfield double pivot. Ultimately, this squad tells us that she has looked for back-ups who she knows she can rely on; it is notable that two of the three non-English players are Kim Little and Sophie Ingle, both vastly experienced. The price paid is the opportunity for those moments of magic that players like Jordan Nobbs, Ella Toone or Greenwood might bring. If England’s recent stodgy performances are anything to go by, however, there was greater need for magic here.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph
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