LONDON — For once, the ever-dependable parts of England‘s relentless machine malfunctioned. The binding aspects of their invincibility over 30 matches disintegrated on a drenched night in Brentford as they were met with a wall of green and gold, and failed to repel what was thrown in their direction by Australia in a 2-0 friendly defeat ahead of this summer’s Women’s World Cup.
The Lionesses dominated possession and territory; they had more shots on goal, and probably felt like they were in the ascendancy for much of the game, but lacked a cutting edge.
England were always going to lose at some stage, but after going 30 games unbeaten — including success at Euro 2022 — it’s a jarring sight to witness them overrun, out-thought and frustrated. The impact substitutions which served them so well during the Euros failed to give them the impetus they needed, leaving them short of ideas and inspiration. And as the players head back to their various clubs, it’s on Sarina Wiegman and her coaching staff to find the solutions.
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The immediate verdict from Wiegman on where England went wrong against Australia revolved around their inability to turn time on the ball into decent, clear-cut chances, and goals. “We play against some opponents who drop deeper so we have to play, we have to find solutions to create more to score goals,” she said.
England found it tough to break down Australia’s low block, something that also happened against the Czech Republic back in October in their 0-0 draw and, more recently, in the second half of the Finalissima against Brazil last Tuesday. To counter that, England tried to stretch the game to the flanks and away from the midfield muddle, but their crosses were picked out by the outstanding Mackenzie Arnold and any half chances were rushed. They had more cutting edge when Lauren Hemp was on the field — getting the better of Australia’s left-back Charlotte Grant — but once she went off injured after 28 minutes (having suffered a blow to the face against Brazil), they didn’t have the same bite.
“Rarely do we see them looking so sluggish as a team,” Chelsea manager Emma Hayes said on ITV. “We’re used to them creating so many chances.”
There were also individual errors, which we didn’t see during the Euros. Against Brazil, England were often caught in possession in their own half and that saw them concede a deserved, late equaliser before eventually winning on penalties. On Tuesday, it was captain Leah Williamson’s misjudged header which allowed the outstanding Sam Kerr to score the opener. Then the defence failed to mark Grant in the second half as she cannoned a header off the England skipper and past goalkeeper Mary Earps for the second.
These slight lapses can be rectified, but they sting. “We don’t like losing,” Alessia Russo said afterwards. “I wouldn’t say I would ever want to lose a football game to learn from it, but I think it is important to have these lessons. I think there is loads we can take from Brazil as well, even though we won. First- and second-half standards can be higher and we will reflect on that as players and staff.”
Yet there are other headaches for England. Both Australia and England were missing key personnel, but the absentees felt heavier for the hosts. They badly missed the solid, calming presence of Millie Bright at the back after she suffered a knee injury playing for Chelsea in March. The unfamiliarity of centre-backs Esme Morgan and Williamson was evident, while the injured Alex Greenwood was also big absence, both for her presence at the back and at England’s set pieces which didn’t cause Australia much trouble.
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Further up the field, forward Fran Kirby was needed to help unpick the Matildas’ backline but has been out since February. Euro 2022 Player of the Tournament Beth Mead was also absent with an ACL injury and two other staples of that Euro 2022 side in Ellen White and Jill Scott — who brought calm, order and authority — have since retired.
With a thin squad, Wiegman needed others to step up. Rachel Daly, one of the most clinical finishers in the Women’s Super League, was brought on as a makeshift No. 10, which didn’t play to her strengths, while Lauren James was also used earlier than planned when replacing Hemp and couldn’t break through. Jordan Nobbs remained on the bench despite being an option to help swing the midfield balance back in England’s favour.
“Of course we want to create that [momentum],” Wiegman said afterwards. “We still have depth in the team but now we have more players not available if you compare [to the Euros]. But we don’t want to compare as we’re moving on to the World Cup. We have to make those choices [on who starts] and, if we have to change, who can impact the game? We’re working on that so we’re looking at what it can bring us.”
While the players looked deflated and spoke of needing to learn from the defeat, there’s no need to be “worried,” as Wiegman put it, about a loss of momentum. The result should be regarded as a momentary dip, rather than the start of a decline.
“To be honest, sometimes you have to take blessings in disguise, and I think maybe that is not the worst thing that could happen to us,” Williamson said. “We want to learn, we have wanted to learn this whole time, we have wanted to be pushed to our limit and we need to take it up a new level. In the past we have won those games, we’ve turned them around, but actually tonight to lose it gives you a bit of fire.”
Wiegman will hope the team won’t need defeats to get them back on track. England are expected to play at least two matches before their World Cup opener against Haiti on July 22 and, regardless of the opponent, they’ll expect to return to winning ways quickly.
Under Wiegman, England have won four trophies in 14 months and have kept 20 clean sheets in 31 matches. Tuesday’s match was just the third time they’d been behind, and the first time they had been so at the break. But that’s not something they’ll talk about, or find comfort in. It’s not the Wiegman way.
“I don’t worry very quickly,” Wiegman said. “We don’t talk about [the unbeaten record]. We talk about the next game. We want to improve every game and adapt who’s in front of us. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I hope we win a lot.”
England have a target on their backs and it won’t get easier from here. Teams seem to have figured out how to play them and stop their waves of attack, so England need to find a new way to dominate. There’s a chance they could meet Australia again in the World Cup round of 16, while they are on the same side of the draw with heavyweights France, Germany and Brazil. There won’t be second chances come the knockouts so they need to learn quickly from this game and steer the ship back on course.