A released Ellen White with play channelled through central areas worked well for Sarina Wiegman, but there is still room to experiment with personnel, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.
There will be much greater obstacles to come for Sarina Wiegman’s England team. To beat North Macedonia and Luxembourg comfortably would be expected of any manager of this squad. After all, England are unbeaten in 38 World Cup qualifiers. But this is still a team who have not won back-to-back games since the 2019 World Cup. There is a lot of quality, but there has been limited confidence.
Wiegman is clearly keen to bed her team in quickly. Despite the fact that realistically any combination of players in this England squad could have eased through these games, Wiegman only made two changes between North Macedonia and Luxembourg. Fran Kirby was brought in for Georgia Stanway and Nikita Parris replaced Beth Mead. Given that Kirby was unavailable for the first qualifier, you suspect Wiegman might have only looked to make one change to her starting XI. It is a far cry from the management of Hege Riise, who was left so uncertain by her squad that she used three different centre-back combinations in just fourgames at the Olympics.
However, whether this starting XI is the one that Wiegman really wants is another question. A number of players are missing through injury and some of their futures seem more straightforward than others. Mary Earps will have been disappointed that England could have put a cardboard cutout in goal for all the attacking intent North Macedonia or Luxembourg showed; Ellie Roebuck seems likely to hold onto her number one spot. Meanwhile Lucy Bronze will undoubtedly replace Rachel Daly at right-back. Keira Walsh and Steph Houghton, though, might be a little concerned that their previously untouchable England starting positions were very ably filled during the past week.
When it comes to watching Wiegman’s England play, the focus on using central areas of the pitch is clear. The selection of Leah Williamson in midfield, in place of the injured Walsh, offered England a lot of fluidity in their build-up play. At club level, Williamson makes almost double the number of progressive carries per 90 than Walsh does, and it showed for England as Williamson’s flexibility moving with the ball allowed those in front of her to rotate round into space.
This central focus suited Ella Toone and Fran Kirby particularly well. Against North Macedonia, Toone played in her favoured number 10 role, racking up six shot assists and 1.08 expected goals, where she was joint third in the side on both metrics. For all the space she was able to find, it was obvious that she was making only her first start. Her decision making and finishing were often left wanting; although she was by far the only player in the team with that issue. Of all of England’s players, only Beth England and Beth Mead actually overperformed their xG.
In Luxembourg meanwhile, Kirby and Toone both played more as free 8s. Whilst it was clear that there was a connection there, Kirby actually had more success in the game from taking corners, something her club manager Emma Hayes remarked on commentary that she did not know she could do.
Key to much of England’s attacking play was the release of Ellen White from her penalty box prison. Under Phil Neville, White was instructed to stay within the confines of the area, but here she was dropping deep from the start. The use of White allowed Toone to burst through on goal in the area several times against North Macedonia, but they were less successful against Luxembourg in breaking through. Yet White’s positioning felt familiar, a reminder that Wiegman has a great deal of experience managing exceptional strikers, with Vivianne Miedema’s ability to drift in and out of a defender’s eyeline one of her most terrifying assets.
These matches bear almost no resemblance to the tests England will actually want to win. Given England’s defensive frailties, the February tournament with Germany and Spain will be much more indicative of what trajectory England are on. But in the past, England have struggled to break down sides playing with a low block, and bedding in those patterns of attacking play will have had value. The World Cup qualifier against Austria in November will likely offer the best middle ground test of what difference Wiegman has made on England.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph