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Time to switch it up? What might come next for the Lionesses

Ben Gilby discusses changes England could potentially adopt alongside the rise of the Matildas


Thursday, 11 April 2024

When the Lionesses drawn in a fiendishly tough group for Euro 2025 qualifying, a collective “wow” was let out by fans up and down the country. However, the draw was influenced by teams’ performances in the prior Europa League, and with England missing out on the semi-finals of the tournament, they were always likely to do it tough when the balls were drawn out of the pot for this one. International football is tough gig – it has massive rewards in the good times, but slightest deviations from consistent wins come with longer term consequences.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it’s something that benefits all – including the England coaching staff who will be well aware of the moment when the first signs first began to show that the team were not quite hitting the heights they were in the Euros and during World Cup qualification.

The Lionesses coaching staff and players will now be thinking about what comes next and how they continue to ensure they are at the top of the pile both in Europe and globally.

The roots of the current study of the side’s need to evolve can be traced back to the World Cup. England were warmly welcomed in Australia. They were heralded out there as footballing giants who would sweep all before them. However, just a few days into the competition and group stage performances that were not at the level of the team’s previous all-encompassing joyous attacking football and defensive solidity – there were murmurs of “hang on…”

Photo: Adam Mitten

The Lionesses were being pressed to death, they were unable to get their midfield attacking weapons on the ball, and defensive errors were occasionally creeping in. As the tournament was full of bigger nations being rocked by developing women’s football nations, this was, by some largely written off as a case of the opposition stepping up.

England’s greatest performance in the World Cup came in the semi-final against the hosts Australia at a raucous Stadium Australia in Sydney. The Matildas are renowned as a fast pressing team themselves, looking to create space out wide with pace to deliver the ball for the picture painters in midfield of Kyra Cooney-Cross and Katrina Gorry. That played into the hands of Sarina Wiegman’s team who produced a professional performance of know-how to strike when it most mattered and take their place in the World Cup Final.

That final once more saw England pressed all over the place and passed to death by the all-conquering Spanish. Since then, the Lionesses’ opponents both in the UEFA Nations League and the opening games of the Euro 2025 qualifiers have largely copied the tactics that the likes of Haiti, Denmark, Nigeria, and Colombia employed in Australia with success.

Therefore, there is a question worth posing. Is it time for England to both amend their style, and be that bit more experimental with player selection?

Let’s look at the example of the Australian national team. They have just come off the back of finishing fourth at the last Olympics and World Cup – their greatest ever achievements. Rather than concluding that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, head coach Tony Gustavsson and his assistant Mel Andreatta spent months analysing his team’s World Cup performances, coming to the conclusion that they needed to evolve and be that bit smarter.

Photo: Girls on the Ball

The Matildas still have attacking weapons across the midfield and up front that many nations would deeply desire, but Gustavsson is moulding his team to be more pragmatic with a growing emphasis on solidity at the back. Yes, they still love to attack and shift the ball quickly, particularly along the flanks, and using the guile of the central midfield talent, but it’s not all about attacking opponents.

They are now choosing when to go and when to be patient – looking at their opponents tactical set up once the game is underway and looking to shift through a raft of potential options. Gustavsson himself told the media after their 2-0 win over Mexico this week that: “We probably had eight to 10 different variations in formations today in our attacking game. Everything from inverted outside backs to six dropping into the back three to overloading one side and isolating another – there was a lot of different tactics.”

There are answers for his players of what to do when faced by a rapid press and physical battles. The team’s Achilles heel in previous years has been struggling to break down the massed defences of teams, who were on paper, far weaker than them. The new tactical fluidity that Gustavsson has introduced since the World Cup is making that a thing of the past

There have been teething issues – the two games in Canada back in December when the new plans were first unveiled a case in point – but, as Ellie Carpenter said to me during this international window, “I think it nearly has clicked…come mid-July…I’m really thinking forward with this team for the Olympics, and I really think we can achieve something special.” Performances since Christmas would suggest that this is the case.

So do the Lionesses need to take a leaf out of the Matildas’ book? Is it time for Sarina Wiegman’s team to develop an approach to manage the oppressive press that opponents are continually applying to them with success?

Let’s look at Europe’s other most successful nations over the past 10 years. Sweden have consistently made the semi-finals of World Cups, European Championships and Olympic Games. Peter Gerhardsson’s side have done it with an exceptionally well organised defence allied with a physical, defensive press style of game which has them patiently waiting for the right moment before clinically taking advantage.

Spain are outrageously talented and comfortable on the ball, dominating possession – but let’s be honest, England have supreme talent and great ball players who are tactically astute as well – they just need to find ways to amend those weapons to dissect the most constrictive opposition.

Photo: Adam Mitten

Is it time for Sarina Wiegman to cast the net that bit wide? Defensive issues have occurred again in recent games, albeit in a side still without talismanic captain Leah Williamson – but even with the Arsenal star back in the starting line-up, it feels that the time is right to experiment that bit more with personnel and playing style. There needs to be a Plan B, C, and D that the team can switch between – the best nations in the world can do so – and England are definitely one of those. They have the quality coaching staff and players to drive this sort of approach.

England will qualify for the Euros, even if they don’t finish as an automatic qualifier in the top two of their group, they will go on to the play-offs to face the likes of Romania, Slovenia or Luxembourg in round one and then potentially nations such as Portugal and Wales in the deciding round. They have scope to try things out and evolve their style and personnel – they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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