The Lionesses’ 3-0 win over Belgium came as a result of their second-half shift into a more fixed system, which means the manager will be weighing up a risk-reward strategy of positional freedom versus playing it safe, writes Jessy Parker Humphrey.Embed from Getty Images
You should never read too much into a match ahead of an international tournament. Players are wary of risking injury, teams are still figuring out their rhythm, and Ellen White is not quite ready to hit beast mode. But England under Sarina Wiegman have always felt like a team on borrowed time. Her decision to stay with the Netherlands for the Olympics meant that she was only ever going to have 10 months with her squad. Now she only had three weeks.
On paper, yesterday’s game against Belgium represented a fairly routine win for England against a team who are at a similar level to Northern Ireland and Austria — two sides England will face in the group stages. The hosts spurned plenty of chances in the first half but their dominance told in the second. As their opponents tired, mistakes crept in, and England finished 3-0 winners. Meanwhile, Wiegman got the opportunity to see 17 members of her squad against tournament-level opposition.
Against a side like Belgium — who were willing to let England have the ball — it was clear that Wiegman wanted to see fluidity from her side. Out of possession, the midfield resembled a double pivot made up of Leah Williamson and Keira Walsh with Georgia Stanway ahead of them both. In possession, however, the captain had freedom to roam, occupying a much more advanced role at points, with Stanway dropping back.Embed from Getty Images
Similarly, out on the wings, Lauren Hemp and Beth Mead swapped sides frequently. This might have been to enable the Manchester City star to get on the ball more. She is clearly England’s most talented footballer; playing with a freedom and confidence that few other players at the Euros — let alone in the England squad — will be able to match. But with Demi Stokes unwilling to take on the player in front of her, Hemp was often forced to drop deeper to pick up the ball. Millie Bright’s crossfield passes to get the 21-year-old in behind the defence seemed to be the most effective way for England to reach her.
Yet for all this fluidity, England did not look particularly fluid. Williamson tended to try and do everything all at once in midfield. She ended up being caught out a couple of times in possession, expecting to have the same amount of time on the ball as she might in her more familiar role at centre-back, so perhaps suggesting she push even further up the pitch would be a poor idea. But England’s best moment of the game came when Williamson played a one-two with Mead, who returned the ball into her path with a back heel. The skipper’s floated chip over the goalkeeper was cleared off the line by an onrushing Belgian defender, but it showed that she is not short of the creativity or intelligence to make runs into the box.Embed from Getty Images
Despite this, all of England’s goals came in the second half as they shifted into a more fixed system. The introduction of Chloe Kelly for Mead saw Hemp and Kelly revive a nightmare for defenders — Manchester City’s double act of fast movement, clever ball control, and a desire to take players on. Rachel Daly came on for Stokes which also forced Belgium to think about a player who is nominally a striker sitting behind Hemp. Houston Dash ace Daly still held a fairly reserved role as Lucy Bronze continued to maraud forward but her spectacular finish for England was a reminder to everyone of what she can do.
With Fran Kirby coming on after an hour, England also got more of a midfield structure. With the Chelsea star in position, Beth England had more of a focal point to interact with, whereas earlier in the game, White — who she replaced — was barely involved in the game as Stanway and Williamson rotated behind her.
None of this is to say that England’s fluidity was the wrong approach. The chances created in the first half were just as good — if not better — than those in the second half. They were just not converted earlier in the match. But England felt more relaxed in the stricter formation, even if they did not necessarily look better. This means Wiegman will be forced to take a gamble: roll the dice, give her players positional freedom and win big, or keep it structured and safe, and see how far it can take them?
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