The minute was 86th. The match, a World Cup semifinal. England were already 2-1 up. The old textbook would suggest them to see this through by defending deep and bombarding bodies inside their own box to deal with incoming threats. Instead, Lauren Hemp – who had already run her fair share of miles in the game – burst towards the Australian goal with four yellow shirts in front of her while two approached from behind. Alessia Russo was there to her right, but England were outnumbered – five to two. And yet, the 23-year-old kept sprinting until she cut inside and thread a through ball for Russo the other way. A one touch finish and England were 3-1 up. Against the hosts, in front of an almost 75,000 strong crowd rooting hard for their failure.
Their defence in the minutes that followed was evidence to the fact that the European champions would’ve been alright even if they didn’t get another goal after their second. But they did. It’s been in their nature for a while now. To kill the opposition while it’s down. The 151 goals in 38 games under Sarina Wiegman prove so. That’s right, a hundred and fifty one. The Dutch manager has shaped the Lionesses into an attacking machine. An English side that doesn’t shy away from juicing the most out of its attacking riches. In stark contrast, stand the Three Lions with their measured approach.
While the women’s team go full throttle in attack, the men’s outfit more often than not is content on seeing the match out after having a one-goal advantage. A tactic that has betrayed them in big games multiple times. This was never more apparent than in the Euro 2020 final against Italy in front of a buoyant home crowd at Wembley. After Luke Shaw opened the scoring at just two minutes, Gareth Southgate’s side seemed content to sit back and see out the match with that slender lead. Until the inevitable and long-time coming response from Leonardo Bonucci.
Following the equalizer, Southgate brought in Saka and switched to a more traditional 4-3-3, which saw the hosts create more chances but the dogged Italian defence stood resolute. A bevy of attacking changes late into the match saw Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho thrown into the mix but the match, which ultimately went into a penalty shootout, seemed lost long before.
The primary question arising out of it all was why Southgate waited so long before switching to an attacking formation despite possessing such a treasure trove of talent or why he did not opt to start a final with these options who week in and week out dazzle the English Premier League with their skillset. It’s been a question that’s been asked of English football for some time now. Perhaps, from the genesis of the ‘golden generation’. Why can’t the attacking riches of their league lead to success on the international stage?
It’s hard to deny that the men’s team has come a long way since their humiliating loss to Iceland in Euro 2016 – reaching the semis, final and quarters of their next three major tournament outings, but this faltering just near the end of the line has become an all too familiar malignant problem. The solution to which seems to be with the other England team that’s one win away from winning a first World Cup title to complement their continental success from last summer.
Keeping up the tempo
Let’s revisit their last semifinal in a major tournament. Against Sweden, the highest ranked side of the continent at the Euros. While England Women did take a lead in the first half, it was in the second that they really took the attack to the Swedes. Three more unanswered goals to stamp their authority. Despite the Swedes only being able to shoot on target thrice on the night, the Lionesses were relentless in their approach right to the final whistle with a total of 17 attempts on goal.
Wiegman’s words post match would sum up what makes her side so unique. “In the second half, we played better. We were tighter on the ball, we made better decisions, and the spaces became bigger, so we had a little more time — and they couldn’t keep up with the tempo they defended with in the first half.”
It’s been a key characteristic of this English team. Being able to keep up with their attacking ‘tempo’ in the later stages of the game – at times even up it – when the opposition backline is unable with falling energy levels.
Experimenting on big stage
It wasn’t Haiti, who Wiegman and Co faced as their first challenge at this World Cup but the unavailability of Euro 2022 top-scorer, Beth Mead, Fran Kirby, and captain Leah Williamson. Going with twin strikers up front was referred to as a last resort by the Dutch manager ahead of the tournament. Like most top contemporary coaches in football, she has been a true advocate of bombarding numbers in the attacking midfield region rather than the more vintage approach of two forwards.
But the absence of Keira Walsh in the midfield for the game against China, paved the way for the last resort, and how? Give it to Wiegman to turn to Lauren Hemp, a winger, as Alessia Russo’s attacking partner. While Rachel Daly, who plays striker at Aston Villa and was the top scorer of the last Women’s Super League (WSL) season, was modeled as a wing back. A gambit which has paid off really well with Hemp having found the target in England’s last two knockout wins.
Her partnership with Russo was best flexed in that last goal she helped set against Australia. A no-look pass meeting a perfectly timed run, as if they both knew what the other was going to do. A partnership that wasn’t foreseen but one that makes sense given the different set of strengths honed by the two players.
While Hemp is known for her pace and creative allure, Russo is the physical striker you need at the end of your passes. The two have come along to help England Women reach their first World Cup final. An experiment done right at the biggest of stages. There is little doubt as to why Wiegman was proposed as a candidate to replace Southgate when his tenure comes to an end. But before it does, he and his team may as well benefit from borrowing notes from the Lionesses.