Football Features

England need a spark to avoid self-fulfilling prophecy at Women’s World Cup

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:17, 14 June 2019

In a one-sided affair, England beat Argentina 1-0 at the Women’s World Cup.

It was a dominant performance but in the end proved to be a bit of an average win, England’s second such victory of the tournament. The Lionesses have qualified for the knockout stages following two wins from two, and now know that a draw against Japan on the final matchday will be enough to see them qualify as group winners.

This is all positive, but there is a lurking sensation in the England side. A Sword of Damocles hanging over the whole team that leads one to think those “we’ve been here before” thoughts, fearing elimination so much that it ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yes, England beat Argentina. Yes, they dominated the game and created the vast majority of chances. Vanina Correa in the Argentina goal had to transform into Gandalf in Moria in order to stop England from taking the lead earlier than they did. Many fans and pundits were gushing over the improved performance after they underwhelmed against Scotland.

But this was not an even contest. The disparity in the quality of both sides contributed heavily to the way the match went, and even the way the last 30 minutes played out was more to do with Argentina’s cascading fitness levels than England necessarily stepping up the pressure. Argentina’s midfield pushed up into attack and didn’t have the energy to get back and defend when the Lionesses broke forward. Beth Mead played a delightful cross in and Jodie Taylor tapped home. 1-0 and after that, Argentina were broken.

Just about beating a rigidly organised defence of a vastly inferior side is not something that should inspire praise. Yes, England won, but this should have been an absolute hammering and it really wasn’t. England repeatedly flailed against an organised defence, looking far from impressive in the final third.

It was telling that their two moments of genuine attacking class resulted in a penalty being won (and missed) and then a goal being scored. When they couldn’t produce high-level play, wave after wave of England attacks broke upon the rocks of the Argentina defence.

England will reach the knockout stages but much sterner tests than Argentina (and Scotland) will await. And if England are to progress further in the World Cup, they will need to play better football in the final third. Playing this indecisively against any of the top nations in the tournament will see the Lionesses dispatched pretty quickly. In short, England need a spark.

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Obviously they would have expected that to be Fran Kirby. The Chelsea forward came into the tournament carrying the hopes of the nation, earning a starring place in Nike’s pre-tournament advert. But she has yet to really ignite and this is going to be a problem because Nikita Parris and Lucy Bronze can only generate so much attacking penetration as a right-flank double-act.

The World Cup thus far has shown that outstanding individuals are capable of making an enormous difference in the fortunes of sides. And England need their outstanding individual (attacker – Lucy Bronze is obviously world-class) to do the same.

If Kirby’s not capable, then there is another: Toni Duggan. England’s no. 11 is still out injured and won’t be back until the round-of-16 at the earliest, but she could yet be the spark of life that England need. Duggan has been playing for Barcelona since 2017, winning the Copa de la Reina in 2018 and this past season helping the Blaugrana reach the Champions League final.

Duggan is a sensational forward, and her movement plus goalscoring instincts could be exactly what England need to knit their attacks together in the final third in a way Kirby or Jodie Taylor (who would be the safest bet to make way for Duggan) haven’t been able to do.

England took a risk bringing Duggan to the tournament knowing she wouldn’t be fit before the knockout rounds because of a thigh injury. But that they did bring her shows her potential influence on things. They’d rather use a spot in hope that she can return to play than bring in someone who will be guaranteed fit but won’t have Duggan’s proven brilliance.

Ultimately the Lionesses have purred their way into the knockout rounds, but now they need to really roar if they’re to avoid being swallowed up by one of the other big dogs. They will hold out hope that Kirby can step up, but if not they have Toni Duggan waiting in the wings to step back onto the pitch and lead England’s hunt for the World Cup.