Sarina Wiegman's Lionesses taste first defeat as their 30-game unbeaten run comes to an end
Australia put on cohesive display to beat highly-ranked England 2-0 ahead of the World Cup
Sam Kerr was the was the first to hit the net after some poor decision making from England captain Leah Williamson allowed the Australian marvel to lob the loose ball over the top of a somewhat late on-rushing Mary Earps.
Williamson’s individual slip-up, whilst she will no doubt be disappointed, was not the sole reason the European Champions went on to lose. Across this international break, bar a passable first half against Brazil in the Finalissima, England have simply looked out of sorts.
There has been plenty of change within the England squad since their historic win of last July. A mix of injuries, retirements, and the introduction of younger talent, has meant that the Lionesses of April 2023 are a different side to that of July 2022, such is the tide of international football.
Amongst this rotation however, prior to last night, the Lionesses had not lost a game since September 2021 and had not conceded more than one goal per game. Such an illustrious run of form is remarkable, there is no denying that. It is an achievement few can tie their name too, one that has drawn the attention of the masses and has ranked England as a favourite for the upcoming World Cup - the only trouble is, it cannot last forever.
Hidden have been the cracks that are compromising the foundation. In fact, so delicate had some of these joints become, all it took was a little pressure to send them tumbling.
England’s left side, for some time now, has been a weak area. Manchester City’s Demi Stokes was the Lionesses last 'trade' left sided fullback, yet striker Rachel Daly was favoured by Wiegman to take on the role. Since Ellen White’s retirement, Daly has played upfront meaning the fullback role is essentially up for grabs.
For the last two matches Chelsea’s Jess Carter has occupied the position - and it must be noted, Carter played it very well - but it is an area that is consistently targeted by oppositions. Wiegman’s selection for this camp (and previous camps) does not contain a defender that regularly plays as a leftback. Left-footed Alex Greenwood would perhaps be favoured by supporters, however has been stationed as a centre half domestically now for quite some time.
Everton’s Gabby George, Aston Villa’s Maz Pacheco, or even Manchester United’s Hannah Blundell, all regular fullbacks for their respective clubs, perhaps could have been called-up to gain further international experience, but it seems Wiegman is content with her choice of ad-hoc fullbacks for now.
Just as pressing as the fullback conundrum is that of the centre-back pairing. The is a strong argument to be had that the most notable absence in the Lionesses camp of late is that of Millie Bright. Without the Chelsea leader, England just feel that little bit more exposed. The Bright-Williamson pairing works largely because each is able to execute their skillset whilst relying on the other to cover the weaker elements of their game.
Williamson is a progressor, Bright is a holder. Williamson thrives with a more physical presence protecting the space left behind as she steps out, which is why Lotte Wubben-Moy or Jess Carter might have been a more favourable choice for this particular meeting with Sam Kerr.
Where Australia and indeed Brazil offered pressure upfront, England offered very little in the way of creativity or clear-cut chances despite having the majority of possession on both occasions. Part of this is down to oppositions clamping down on midfield marvel Keira Walsh and nullifying her passing options as well as limiting her time on the ball.
Yet the issue also lies further upfield. England have plenty of the ball, their passing network is an image of beauty, and typically, they are able to advance into superior positions, yet little is done when it comes to finding that final product.
A definitive lack of creativity has crept upon the Lionesses as writers block renders an author wordless. The deliveries are good, the positioning is good, but missing is that little piece of innovation that will open the door.
Ella Toone has done a decent job of finding her feet in the number 10 role and demonstrates a growing influence in build-up play. However, although Toone and fellow Manchester United teammate Alessia Russo start together for club, when the duo line-up for country the workings do not seem to have quite the same effect. The question could be posed as to whether Alessia Russo’s impact is more significant as an “end of game” player as opposed to a starter.
Further to this, with the leftback position still an ominous one, and the very real prospect of Daly settling back there at any given moment, England could do with a traditional off-the-shoulder box-roamer, much like that of Spurs striker Bethany England.
It is a tall order to reach 30 games unbeaten and an even taller one to even contemplate carrying this through another major tournament. A loss at this moment might seem cruel, might hurt the players it has pulled the rug from under, but it is, in actuality, a blessing in disguise. Losing is not the end, quite the opposite - it is the beginning.
Wiegman will not make wholesale squad changes ahead of the World Cup, nor does she need to. Right now, England's cards are laid bare and pinpointed have been the improvements that need to be made, the relationships that need to be strengthened and the tactical nuances that need tweaking.
This defeat must be viewed as a gift that arrived at precisely the right time, and nothing else.