Opinion: England are okay, but let's not get carried away
Credit: Kunjan Malde Photography

Opinion: England are okay, but let's not get carried away

Limited from day one, England will never be able to rank themselves amongst the world's footballing elite 

soppysophs
Sophie Lawson

A loss to Sweden doesn't always mean the England team are nearing armageddon but it would be negligent to say that everything is hunky-dory.

When the Swedes were a turnip for the books

England lost to Sweden and now they’re not going to win the World Cup. It was a bolt from the blue, unexpected against Pia Sundhage’s team and… wait, who’s Peter Gerhardsson? Oh, well if Sweden are good now, it doesn’t matter, England lost to a good team, that’s fine... we also beat Austria. Good times.  

The English mindset is a glorious and deluded thing, just look at Brex… NEVERMIND, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

Rotherham was cold, that we can at least all agree on, as for the upshot of the match? Well, that’s caused divisions, there are those who think it was a cold bucket of water poured over the good time feeling of qualifying for the World Cup and there are those who refuse to believe 90 minutes could ever be indicative of everything happening with a team. And of course, both sets are wrong… and right.

Quite worryingly, it’s not just a disagreement but a fast, firm defensiveness from both sides, those who are unwilling to see more than an outlying loss were quick to throw themselves in front of the team. One loss doesn’t mean anything, how dare you speak ill of this team, of this manager? How fickle you all are, how treasonous.

The side on the other-side of the battle-lines frustrated, “It wasn’t a one-off, can’t you open your mind to the possibility there are big problems underneath the surface…” It really is just like Brex.. sorry, sorry.

Shock to the system

But the loss? It was a cold bucket of something and it shocked the system, England aren’t supposed to lose at home, or to teams ranked below them, or… well, you get the picture. But, of course, one match doesn’t define a team. But for England, it wasn’t one match against Sweden, it was a persistent pattern of not having a scooby what to do against a team competent enough to defend for 90 minutes. Which isn’t to say, Sweden camped out in their own half for the entire match, oh no, Sweden had a plan. Which is basically cheating, against England at least, how dare they show us up at home? And after we picked a town with a near-by IKEA; ohövlig!

Sweden are everything England want to be…  With a football culture that’s actually based on the old English standard 4-4-2 and long balls Sundhage’s successor, the aforementioned Gerhardsson is leading a mini-revolution. The fruits of his labour for all to see in Rotherham, although only with the team since last September, the side has taken to his style, marrying their solid defensive foundations to a free and expressive attack.

Unironically, this isn’t something England would be able to replicate as the players haven’t grown up with the same technical teachings, Scandinavians far more adept with the ball, with a greater understanding for build-up play and understanding when to strike. For England? There will always be route one.

The loss all the more jarring for some fans because Sweden were simply better, there was no excuse to hide behind, no scapegoats available to blame; England were beaten by a better, smarter team.

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Old problems

In the past, I’ve spoken about English football’s long-standing history with arrogance and self-entitlement. Whilst that was focused on the men’s team – and is pleasantly becoming a thing of the past – there is a beam of superiority that shines brightly into the women’s game. There is an idea that lingers in the subconscious that because of England’s prevalent role in beginnings of association football that they should have stayed at the top of the tree, the one great nation teaching the world but never to be beaten.

When we talk about major tournaments and favourites, we talk about the best teams or the best players, or the best attacks or defences. If England were really the favourites the would surely posses some of the best but, they don’t. The best attack is not the England attack that still doesn’t know how to play together, nor is the best defence the England one than can be cut open with obvious ease.

The team as a whole isn’t the best and as for the players, beyond declaring Lucy Bronze the best right back in the world (something countless other right backs would take objection with) who is there? It remains my opinion that Jordan Nobbs is the best English player playing today, a Pirlo or Iniesta with a vision that far surpasses any other English player. Yet if Nobbs, can’t even get a starting spot in her favoured position but is the one relegated to holding midfield due to the number of other good midfielders, what does that say about the team, about the manager?

So of course, England aren’t favourites to win the World Cup, nor were they favourites before they kicked off against Sweden.

One of my persistent criticisms of Mark Sampson’s squads were how fragmented they appeared on the pitch. No matter if the team had Karen Bardsley, Steph Houghton, Demi Stokes, Bronze, Izzy Christiansen, Jill Scott, Toni Duggan and Nikita Parris in the starting XI, they had the terrible habit of looking like strangers.

In a year when Manchester City won the WSL title it made even less sense that a coach could take these players – who played together week in, week out, training with each other every day, socialising in their free time – pop them in England shirts and has so much disharmony. Club teammates left to look like strangers, the understanding drained from their game, any style and substance associated with City routinely absent for England.

Although the man in charge has changed, the lack of familiarly is still prevalent on the pitch. Yes, Duggan now plays for Barcelona in a central role as opposed to out wide for City as Christiansen and Bronze have moved on to Lyon but there should still be cohesion between the like of Scott and Parris. Having played side-by-side for England for well over a year, Houghton should have stuck up far more understanding with Millie Bright than she has, even allowing for their different clubs. It’s of course, not just the City players who are guilty of looking lost on the pitch, but rather everyone, regardless of parent club.

It matters not if every player in the England squad is full-time and better conditioned than their opposition, they remain English with the limitations of their football upbringing. English players are not great technicians of the game, nor are they particularly tactically astute – pass and run not to be confused with pass and move. And, as the Lionesses found out when they came up against a spatially-aware Dutch team at the Euros, conditioning and athleticism will only get you so far.

2-1

Fans need only go back three years to the 2015 World Cup in Canada to review the pedestrian football played by England and the value of luck and margins. England far from being the only team that played sub-standard football that found themselves in the last four. Whether it was the US getting some very profitable and completely erroneous calls en route to the final, Japan’s consistent unwillingness to actually attack their opposition or England playing off-colour teams, the tournament was far from perfect.

Not wanting to endure the ire of American or Japanese fans today – that can wait for another time – I’ll go back to focusing on England’s run in Canada.  

2-1 wins were the name of the game for the Lionesses, a 1-0 loss to France in their opening match the outlier that did however follow the theme of losing by a one goal margin. After France followed Mexico, the team suffering their own internal struggles, England’s first World Cup goal in Canada scored by Fran Kirby. The second by fellow substitute Karen Carney, a late goal from Fabiola Ibarra two minutes after coming on a consolation for El Tri.

Not having to wait until the second half to break the deadlock against their final group opposition, Colombia, England took the lead on the quarter hour through Carney before Fara Williams converted her first penalty of the tournament. Again, England failed to keep a clean sheet and conceded in stoppage time; the group stage navigated but hardly exceptionally.

Forced to come from behind for the first time in the tournament, against a star-studded Norway team that admitted they simply didn’t have a plan of what to do. Solveig Gulbrandsen’s goal was soon cancelled out by a Houghton header and a memorable strike from Bronze, the quarter-final awaited. With Norway destined for an exit no matter what round, shaky hosts Canada were up next for England.

The BC Place rocked and unexpectedly, the Lionesses fast silenced the rambunctious crowd as Jodie Taylor rounded Lauren Sesselmann in the 11th minute, firing beyond Erin McLeod. A quick-fire second from Bronze had Canada on their haunches, Christine Sinclair’s strike late in the first half denying Bardsley her first clean sheet but it was for naught. Up against a good if not lackadaisical team in Japan in the semi-finals, the two teams traded penalties before Laura Bassett’s last-second own goal.

Seconds away from extra time – something neither team particularly wanted having gone into the second semi-final – England surged up the pitch, blindly leaving themselves exposed at the back. The ball moved back down the turf at lighting pace for the hapless Bassett to divert perfectly into Bardsley’s top corner. There was, of course, nothing wrong with what Bassett did, in fact, she was the only player on the pitch behaving accordingly, the defender had to get something, anything on the ball to try and stop Japan from scoring. With her teammates having abandoned sense trying to snatch a late winner against a miserly team, Bassett bore the brunt of the knock-out.

England had the last laugh against a Germany team they had never beaten in the bronze medal match, the Germans having had a mixed bag of a tournament. Given a helping hand against France by the referee, they found themselves on the wrong side of yet another incorrect penalty call against the US that left them undone and karmically stripped bare. There was no fond farewell for Nadine Angerer or Célia Šašić but rare silver(bronze)ware for England, Williams with another converted penalty.

France, Mexico, Colombia, Norway, Canada, Japan and Germany. Seven matches, six goals conceded, one clean sheet and performances that were a long way from setting the world alight. But, of course, for so many, success isn’t measured in performances but in results and that was what made England a success in Canada.

Each match carries its own story, you can play the world champions, but if they don’t play well, or if your only shot at goal takes a freak deflection, it’s all forgotten with the score all that matters. Far too often context is something we remove from football, a win against Germany is a win against Germany regardless of if they’ve lost their five previous matches or if the team have a bout of gastroenteritis. France field 11 teenagers whilst England put out a team of experienced and full-time seniors? Who cares, we won, stop trying to take this from us.

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New boy, successful(ish) year

There was nothing about England’s performances in Canada that suggested they could be World Champions. There was nothing about England’s performances in the Netherlands that suggested they could be European Champions and there has been nothing in World Cup qualifying that suggest England should be favourites.

Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kazakhstan and Wales were England’s opponents in qualification. Russia the second top seed but for those paying attention, a team that constantly struggled with confidence, often collapsing mid-match. Bosnia a frustrating opponent with an above-average goalkeeper, Kazakhstan, well… Kazakhstan, and Wales. Transitional, growing Wales. Defensive Wales who were denied a goal in Southampton that still divides opinion, again, those not watching claimed that Laura O’Sullivan had the game of her life… unfamiliars brushed off, the only way to beat England? To overperform. The arrogance.

For England fans, the loss to Sweden is only the second of Phil Neville’s tenure and hey, they’re a good team… why do you have to be so negative? For the simple reason that matches should be analysed on performance not result.

Drawing against a falling apart Germany team that was about to kick their manager to the curb shouldn’t be held up as a fantastic performance nor a win against a French team that had no idea if it was coming or going. A win against a sub-par Brazil team that only knows how to play one way and a draw against a young and experimental Australia team not worthy of A grades. Austria far from being Europe’s best, their defence their Achilles with a full complement let alone missing starters.

As for Sweden, yes, they’ve grown hugely under their new coach but they’re far from the finished article. Not every Swedish player is full-time, the team on the pitch wasn’t the strongest starting XI but they are technically and tactically superior, this is where teams are separated.

A team shouldn’t be wholly evaluated on an isolated 90 minutes but it wasn’t just about one match, it was about England. It was about players aimlessly trying to break down their opposition, about passing without thinking, about having no ideas or energy to find a lock to pick after rattling the handle and realising the door wasn’t going to budge.

The issues in the loss are the same that follow England around the world, the lack of understanding and the consistent inability to put the ball in the back of the net. 

Deriving five from 2+2

Two teams who went far at the Euros last year set the standard for what can be achieved as a collective. Austria and the team who knocked them out at the semi-final stage, Denmark did exactly what national teams are supposed to do and became more than the sum of their parts.

Sure, Denmark have Pernille Harder but they lost almost every centre back of the course of the tournament, the players in the final largely not full-time, not ones who’d spring to mind when compiling a list of the best in the world. Yet, there they were, giving it their all against the Netherlands, Brøndby striker Stine Larsen spent the tournament at centre back after the rash of injuries, having struggled with the fall-out from a serious concussion, clubless Sofie Junge started her second match in 20 months after Line Sigvardsen Jensen did her ACL in the semi-final.

As for Austria? Mostly Frauen-Bundesliga players, but largely part-time, the rest of the squad still playing at home in the ÖFB-Frauenliga. Nina Burger and Nicole Billa not bad players but still just those from SC Sand and TSG Hoffenheim. Yet, there they were, in sync, in perfect flow, surprising teams left and right.

And then there’s England. A squad full of full-time players, whose conditioning is some of the best in women’s football. Those individuals who’ve shown what they’re made of time and again for their clubs. Those individuals who only get worse when they put on an England shirt. Those individuals who fail time and again to come together as a team, the understanding not there, the rhythm lacking, 11 players take to the pitch, under-perform both individually and collectively and yet everyone praises the result.

It is true that younger players have been given a chance under Neville but given the age of Sampson’s squads, it was an inevitability. However, just like under Sampson, the team is poor, individually and collectively.

Based on performances, the team over-performs but based on the ability of the players in the team? Well, of course, ironically, they under-perform.

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That’s not on us

England are ranked third in the world. Yes, third. But (and I mean this earnestly) who gives a fart? In qualification or in friendlies, England can beat significantly weaker teams and improve their ranking, woop-dedo. But at tournaments? England will inevitably come up against a team with a far better footballing nous than them and get knocked out. We can wax poetic about the brave and inspiring team who fought against the odds and came a cropper but it will be the same record that’s put on the turnstile, needle scratching at the surface time and again.

Sweden in Moss, the USA in Tianjin, Germany in Helsinki, France in Leverkusen, Japan in Edmonton and the Netherlands in Enschede. Poor England, unlucky England, valiant England… well it’s penalties, it’s a complete lottery; England losing out to a better team. The location and opposition may change but the outcome never does, England go home without a trophy.

England, the creators of the game, the fathers and mothers of football, a nation that has lagged behind for so long. England with a fully professional league, England throwing money in the wrong direction about to lose to a team that has a diverse set of players who can play harmoniously.

Maybe the question this summer shouldn’t be, “How far will England get?” but simply, “What will the excuse be when England get knocked out by a smaller team?” Bad luck, the referee, the weather? Maybe the stadium will be haunted or Ellen White will put her boots on the wrong feet. Something trivial, something not England’s fault, but something to divert blame.

The fans who book their ticket to the final as soon as England reach a major tournament frankly, get what they deserve. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Italy or Azerbaijan, Colombia or Colchester, each and every team must be beaten. England have no God-given right to progress in tournaments, and the sooner people accept that the team is okay – not amazing – but, okay, they will finally be able to celebrate the good performances and accept the bad.

Without the rose-tint

England is my home, I was born on this silly little island, but I have no deep-rooted connection to the England team. I have watched the Lionesses play around Europe, I have interviewed the players but certainly don’t consider any of them to be any degree of friend.

I’m English, but I’m not an England fan, I have no personal connection to the team nor do I feel any malice towards the group. I’m neutral, impartial, with no agenda but see the England team through English eyes and I can honestly say, the team is okay.

It’s not traitorous to say that Neville isn’t excelling in his role, nor is it unfair to say that England aren’t favourites to win the World Cup. The team is average, like so many other teams, there are good players, great players and not so great players. The difference for England simply the money put in by the FA, both to the national team and the league ensuring all who wear the badge are full-time.

England will always play like England, her best players will find success at club level but be left wanting on the international stage for no matter how good the individuals are, there will never be 11 with the understanding, the guile, the vision to overcome those who don’t play like England.

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