England’s Lionesses will be hoping to make it five wins from five in the Women’s World Cup and reach a third successive major tournament semi-final this evening against Norway.
Phil Neville’s side have been mightily impressive thus far in the competition, conceding just one goal in four games, and go into tonight’s clash as strong favourites to progress against a Norway side boasting stars from the likes of Barcelona and Chelsea. England faced Norway in the round of 16 at the 2015 World Cup in Canada, beating the Scandinavian side 2-1.
This England team are capturing the imagination of the country as no other side has before them: breaking viewing records along the way and tonight is expected to be no different. However, for many spectators, the Lionesses are something of an unknown entity. As more and more football fans tune in to watch England make their final push towards a first-ever Women’s World Cup triumph, we’ve broken down their strengths and weaknesses so you know exactly what to look out for when the girls walk out onto the pitch tonight.
Strength: Squad depth
Goalkeeper Mary Earps is the only player in England’s 23-player squad yet to make an appearance in France. Phil Neville has a group that has competition in every single position and, with five different leagues being represented by the Lionesses, possesses a variety of play-styles which not many other sides can match.
This competition for places is particularly prominent in attack: Champions League finalist Toni Duggan, leading WSL assister Beth Mead and Euro 2017 Golden Boot winner Jodie Taylor have frequently found themselves warming the bench as England have flourished going forward. The Lionesses have scored eight goals in four games at this World Cup and only USA (+19) and Germany (+9) have a better goal difference than England (+8) in the tournament. Right-back Lucy Bronze and winger Nikita Parris have been particularly impressive with their combination down the right-hand side.
This strength in depth will have to be on show tonight, as both first-choice centre-halves Steph Houghton and Millie Bright are doubts with injury and illness respectively. Houghton is one of just three players to start every game at this World Cup, but potential replacements Leah Williamson and Abbie McManus have both featured prominently not just in this World Cup but during the successful SheBelieves Cup run as well. Neville’s willingness to rotate his side means that injuries do not seem to affect the fluidity of the Lionesses as much as it would other teams.
Weakness: Error-prone defence
Despite the fact that England have conceded just one goal all tournament, their defence has often looked far from assured. Cameroon were nearly gifted two goals in the last round: VAR and an excellent save from Karen Bardsley sparing England’s blushes. Unforced errors against Japan and Scotland also threatened to make games which the Lionesses had dominated far closer than they needed to be.
Former USA goalkeeper Hope Solo was fairly scathing in her criticism of Bardsley, 34, after the 3-0 win against Cameroon, describing her performances with the ball at her feet as ‘concerning’ and ‘hard to watch’.
She said: “I’ve seen her a little shaken, especially with the ball at her feet, and playing against an England side for so many years I’ve never quite noticed her struggle as much as she is now with her feet.
“It’s concerning, especially with the modern game and the need for England to play out from the back. With how much teams press, you have to have a confidence goalkeeper: a clean touch, be able to play out wide and short balls and I didn’t see that today. In fact, I haven’t seen it all tournament.”
Interestingly, Bardsley boasts a better passing accuracy (76%) than other leading ‘keepers at the competition such as Sarah Bouhaddi (70%), Almuth Schult (67%) and Solo’s successor as USA no.1 Alyssa Naeher (72%). Regardless, England cannot afford to repeat their errors of the previous rounds against better, less forgiving sides.
Strength: Controlling possession
Neville has introduced a clear philosophy into the Lionesses game which has come to the fore at this tournament: possession. England have dominated the ball in most of the games they have played in France and possess a comfort in possession that not many England sides, men’s or women’s, have had before them.
The experience of 32-year-old Jill Scott is pivotal to this style of play. Standing at 5 feet 11 inches, Scott has won 137 caps for England and is the woman tasked with winning the ball back and dictating the tempo of the Lionesses’ play: effectively, she’s England’s Sergio Busquets. 21-year-old Keira Walsh has started alongside Scott in three of England’s games thus far and has established herself as her partner in crime in the middle of the park. Whether it be Walsh or Reading’s Jade Moore accompanying Scott, England have had a stranglehold on the midfield for the majority of this tournament.
It is this foundation which gives license for the midfield maestro Fran Kirby to roam forward and provide the creative spark for Neville’s side. Kirby has been outstanding over the past two seasons in the WSL and is widely regarded as the key to any success England may have this summer. The 25-year-old was well rested through the group stage and should be fresh coming into the business end of the tournament.
Weakness: Failure to kill off games
In what some fans may say is ‘typical England’, the Lionesses have often failed to turn control into goals this tournament.
Despite absolutely dominating proceedings against Scotland and especially Argentina, both games were only won by the odd goal. Even against Cameroon, a game which England won 3-0, they were perhaps fortunate not to concede at least two goals. Against lesser teams, they may get away with it: Norway, however, are much stiffer competition and will likely make England pay if they fail to be as ruthless as they should be.
Fortunately, England’s resolute defensive displays have meant that their failure to create and convert as much as they could have done has not cost them. However, as previously mentioned, it has often been down to the opponent’s limitations rather than the Lionesses’ quality that England have kept three clean sheets thus far.
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Strength: Ellen White’s red-hot form
Despite an impressive track record for England and a goal in her only start at the World Cup, England’s no.9 Jodie Taylor has been a spectator for much of this tournament due to the goal-scoring exploits of Ellen White. White has scored four goals in three games at the tournament, including an impressive brace against 2015 Runners-Up Japan, and sits second in the running for the Golden Boot.
A striker showcasing genuine instinct and lethal finishing, Neville likened White to former team-mate Ruud van Nistelrooy: a comparison which any striker in world football would be flattered by. Given the excellent service that the likes of Nikita Parris, Kirby and Duggan are able to give the Manchester City forward, don’t be surprised to see White add her to her goal total tonight and in future games should England progress.
If White misfires, England can always turn to Taylor: the first woman to score a hat-trick at a major tournament for England and the winner of the Golden Boot at Euro 2017. Her winner against Argentina ended a 14-month run without a goal, and will have given her a much-needed confidence boost.
Weakness: Pressure of expectation
As England’s cricket team are learning, being a favourite for a major tournament can often play on your mind.
So often used to being underdogs, the impressive victory in the SheBelieves Cup coupled with the reputation of Phil Neville has meant that England have been widely touted to push the hosts France and outright favourites USA all the way. Whilst results may suggest that England are handling this pressure with ease, performances have been somewhat less convincing.
Neville insists that England will “embrace” the pressure, and tonight provides the perfect stage to show the nation that’s exactly what they’re doing. It is not in England’s DNA to match expectation: written off before 2018, England’s men reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in Russia before crashing out to the Netherlands in the Nations League, a tournament they were favourites to win.
However, England’s women are playing with an authority which is unfamiliar to our nation’s football fans, and it would be unfair to compare them to the men since they are totally different teams. Should they prevail tonight, Neville and his side will have every reason to believe they can get their hands on the World Cup trophy for the first time ever.