Three Lionesses: Regret and mirages of 2006

 

Three Lionesses: Regret, and mirages of 2006

  • Powell’s women bowed out of the 2011 Women’s World Cup three Saturdays ago, and see Les Bleues finish fourth in the competition overall, whilst Sweden finished third.
  • Heart-breaking penalty shootout reminisces of the England men’s elimination in 2006.

 

It was devastating. To those in the stadium and watching at home either wearing the colours of the white and navy blue, or yelling and screaming “C’mon England!” as patriotism engulfs our fellow compatriots like smoke in a room. If you were one of those who watched the quarter-finals tie between England and France in the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Leverkusen, then you’ll know what this article is about. If not, then you need to search the Women’s World Cup on Google, or browse the BBC website to find it, because it is indeed worth a watch. Even FIFA.com has the highlights of the goals from every game in the tournament. As they would.

In about a year or two, people will forget about the women’s World Cup. It’s only natural. The even bigger World Cup set to be staged in the sun-kissed nation of Brazil where the Three Lions have their own chance to redeem themselves once again for their elimination from the World Cup on either controversial or problematic circumstances. Last year, the Germans were the culprits of England’s defeat and another reminder why other national teams are light-years ahead and into their own real of football and bright future talents, whilst we sit around in the same bubble, hoping to avenge football ancestry in the nation’s only World Cup winners – the heroes of 1966. Thank you very much Mr. Geoff Hurst.

But in the meantime, whilst we can still look back with purpose on what was of the England women’s national team, we can analyse where it went wrong. How it went wrong. Why it went wrong. It’s not done often, but with women’s football garnering a bigger base in a slow uprising and people turning to other tournaments whilst senior men’s competitions take a break for a month, it’s worth a shot. We can also see why it coincidentally sits beside what happened five years ago, eight days before and only a 45-minute drive from Leverkusen – in Gelsenkirchen. Yes, I am talking about the penalty shootout between England and Portugal. Read and weep.

 

Bright hopes, big expectations and a valiant performance expected

So prior to the trip to Wolfsburg in order to take on the first opponents of the group stage, it was the same old, same old. Player interviews, coach interviews and a lust for the likes of Kelly Smith, Rachel Yankey and Faye White to step into their role as star players of the England kit – much like Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and John Terry were somewhat-12 months ago in South Africa, or David Beckham and Co. in 2006. The team that Powell had enrolled for the Mexico meeting featured many a experienced head, including the distinguished and veteraned centre half Faye White, who occupies 102 caps for her country. Far greater than Chelsea’s defensive skipper who holds 68. Even so, five of England’s final 21-squad featured 5 defenders with more than 50 caps to their name. Four of whom had above 80. Albeit that it may not be an incredible feat in men’s football due to the size in comparison, it’s still a great achievement to have in respects.

The centre of the park and wings had similar experience. Accomplished in Rachel Yankey, Karen Carney and Fara Williams, combining 272 caps altogether, brought both solidity and comfort to a place that would see a lot of the ball. Jill Scott and Fara Williams’ partnership as the two centre midfielders held the midfield line whilst Carney and Yankey traced back and forth down the right and left-hand sides. And then the attack would bestow legendary forward Kelly Smith, speed merchant Eniola Aluko (who would be later deployed as a winger and expose the opposing fullback) and rising talent Ellen White.

It looked strong, experienced and determined to win – much like their coach. To level the plain fields with the England men and draw out the claims that women’s football is little compared to men’s. The entire 23-man squad that travelled to Germany in ’06 had a total of 747 caps. The entire 21-woman squad that travelled to Germany last month trumped that of England’s by a long way, with 1,144. Almost 400 caps more. Far more experienced, and with a greater amount of players that are registered members of the England Centurion Club.

 

This was practically the best eleven that the Three Lionesses could have for the World Cup. The majority of the players in the England eleven featured in all of the games that they had in the World Cup and was probably suited in the way it is. A different formation in a 4-4-2 would have sufficed, but also risked having less adventurous wingers and fullbacks, as well as a weaker midfield where the attacking midfielder in Kelly Smith doesn’t track back and help out – a commodity from the impervious centre forward/second striker.

 

Tactical advancements

Attacking and midfield/forward inter-change

 

England kicked off their World Cup campaign in the almost-certain 4-2-3-1 that Powell was more than likely to use with the arsenal of players she had that could also operate as strikers, right and left wingers, and attacking midfielders. Yankey, Carney, Smith and Aluko were all able. Ellen White still garnering her abilities at 22.

Taken from BBC Sport’s highlights of the game, there is an obvious feel of the versatility that runs through the attacking thirds starting to take shape. Originally, Eniola Aluko was fielded as a centre forward in the team sheet with Kelly Smith operating as a second striker. Carney and Yankey escorting the right and left wings for the attacking full backs in Unitt and Scott. You can see in the picture, taken from the first half of the game, that already things have changed. I’ve highlighted this. The dots in bright green, blue and yellow designate their positions. In the picture, you can see that Smith is the centre forward (bright green), Aluko is now the central attacking midfielder (bright blue), and with Carney and Yankey out wide with Jill Scott moving forward (all yellow).

34 minutes and 24 seconds into the first half, Smith is chasing down the ball whilst Aluko sits back and waits for possession to be retained. Carney looks to have some inclination to follow suit, but stays down the right hand side in order to provide width and allow the ball to come to her, instead of risking an opportunity to bomb down to the by-line and create an goal-scoring chance.

 

Possession is retained and Aluko has it. The positions don’t fully switch, but the movement instigates that White is now the centre forward and creeping on the left centre back as a sly poacher, ready to pounce on the ball. Yankey and Carney see and react accordingly by offering options to Aluko and the same in Jill Scott.

It looks like, with the right through pass that England could be within an earshot of scoring their second goal. Whilst White is boxed in by a combination of Mexican midfielders and defenders, England has the numbers advantage in a 5 v 4 whilst others track back to defend. Aluko has the time, and the inter-change has clearly put Mexico on the back foot. Minor, but effective, as Smith’s hounding for the ball pays dividends.

 

But, Aluko ignores those options and vies for the shot. Unfortunately, it goes begging of the target and her fellow team-mates do look dejected as 3-5 inches of a pass through could have been the difference maker and break the deadlock. It is understandable but many a player cannot slow themselves down and compose like others to find that kind of pass. You’d rely on the likes of Xavi, Fabregas, Sneijder or Iniesta to do such, but alas.

 

Pressing system

 

In the same match, but earlier, there was glowing evidence that the team were told to press inside the opposition half and make it difficult for them to get out. With the attacking inter-changes in place, Carney and Yankey took the roles of centre forward – second striker whilst Aluko was shifted out right in Carney’s position whilst they took on the overall duties of getting goals. Picture shows Yankey (light blue) pressing a Mexican defender whilst Carney (bright green) stands back and waits. Similar to Aluko, without exposing one’s self. And an England midfielder stands back and zonally marks the centre of the park to cover the dangers of the Mexican attack – should it unfold.

 

 

Yankey is successful and the pressing pays off. Carney is away and into space whilst once again the Mexican backline has vanished to just two players, one of whom is rushing back. Albeit that Yankey was fouled and unavailable to support, Carney doesn’t mind and she is on the way. In spite of it being the same as the Aluko situation, in that she misses the target, Powell’s pressing and pressure system works and for that dominated the preceedings of the first half whilst they looked for the equaliser.

Mexico sat back in hopes of counter-attacking, but mainly to see out the game unscathed for their next match in the tournament, which would see them take on the eventual winners, Japan. They were humbled 4-0, with Sawa netting a hat-trick and leading them to eventually draw 2-2 with New Zealand in their final group stage match, settling for third place in Group B.

 

Direct passing

 

Skipping ahead to the 2-0 win over Japan, direct passing was a strong element too. As shown in the screenshot, passing around the defence eventually leads to a direct pass from the defender Casey Stoney (bright yellow, after the pass) into the path of Karen Carney before the on-rushing Japanese strikers come to close her down. Carney (blue) is the receiver whilst the midfielders (bright green) retreat to their original positions.

 

And once again, it opens up. Five options spread out across the pitch allows Carney to play either a short or direct pass into the midfield or attack for an opportunity on goal. Carney can roam with the ball, cut inside and find even more options, but needs to act quickly are the Japanese are quick to gain possession again. The fullback and central midfielder have their eye on the left winger, which also results in the lofted through pass.

 

As Carney tucks onto her right foot, she hits it long with a searching ball up to Smith, with three defenders back to clear the ball and deny a chance for the Arsenal out-and-out forward. A 3 v 3 situation in essence, but really a 1 v 2 since the two defenders have practically sandwiched White (green) into an uncomfortable situation. The third defender, who happens to be the right back, after marking the left winger in Carney, comes back whilst the two England wingers (red) burst forward with intent.

She scores, but the direct pass, so early into the game, was most likely to try and establish a foothold in the match. Had England not won the match as they did, they might’ve been replaced in the knockout stages by Mexico – but with fortunate luck, they were frustrated by their Oceania counterparts and lost out. It has reminders of Arsenal’s and Holland’s styles of play and how both Arsene Wenger and Bert van Marwijk operate their 4-2-3-1 formation. In spite of them both not playing with second strikers (instead with Fabregas and Sneijder) White’s link-up play with whomever may be the spearheading striker almost makes her a playmaker in her own right. Her work rate and determination often presides her to set-up chances for her team-mates, and sort of defines the attacking midfielder role in more than just sitting up top and pulling the strings.

 

Regret is nothing new, but little blame falls on Powell

 

It would be very unfair to place the blame onto someone who has managed the England women’s national team since hanging up her boots in a well-established career based in London and with the England national team. Playing professionally from the 1980’s until 1998, as well as making 66 appearances for the white and navy blue internationally and scoring 35 goals (as a midfielder), she remains the head coach of the Three Lionesses since 1998, when she retired. For 12 years she has had the final as her best performance; that came in 2009 with the UEFA Women’s Championship staged in Finland where the Germans (surprise, surprise) were victorious by 6 goals to 2. The majority of the team that played in that final were selected for the 2011 World Cup, but it was again to be not their night.

She led her team through the qualification stages of the 2011 World Cup with a flawless performance and overcoming the likes of Spain, Turkey and Austria. In men’s football, on the contrary, it would be seen as a huge step forward and enter the media falling over whilst hopping into the proverbial bandwagon. She has played a great system over recent times to upstage Capello’s dreary 4-4-2 formation and lacklustre 4-5-1 (see England vs. Switzerland) with good success. What stands in her way is just a trophy. A tournament. In 2013, it will be the same all over, but may not have the same Rachel Yankey and Kelly Smith that she has now. New talent will arrive and take over whilst looking to rise up further than the England men before they get their time a year after. Carney, Aluko, Rafferty and White seem the potential future stars, who may due far better than they did in Germany.

And then the frequent questions being raised by the football media about if she could cut it in men’s football? There are no women, to date (or not that I know of) that have managed in the top-flight or Football League. I have heard of Donna Powell, the former manageress of the now-defunct Fisher Athletic, but those can be quelled. It is unknown whether she could or couldn’t. She had been once linked with the job at Hull City following Phil Brown’s departure on “gardening leave” if I remember correctly, but she is proven. What she has done at international level has shed quite a lot of light on the English game for the other half, and it may not be the same commandeering of the dressing room when 2-0 down at half-time to raise the spirit of the team, but on her side, 2-0, 3-0 … 5-0 down, she can always command respect because she’s experienced, level-headed and very much on the loins of most England managers who have set foot into the Wembley changing rooms after a dreadful 45 minutes.

Because she is that good.

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