Bring on the World Cup after England’s victory in the US
The SheBelieves Cup triumph came at a perfect time in the team’s journey. They are exactly where they need to be only three months before France 2019
England’s first SheBelieves Cup triumph is a sign of the progress they have made and their huge potential come the World Cup in June. When you look at their recent results, the quality of the Super League in comparison with other competitions around the world, the success English teams are enjoying in the Champions League and the number of English players at top clubs across Europe, we can no longer be surprised when England win prestigious tournaments. It is what we should be expecting and this victory in the US has come at a perfect time in the team’s journey.
What was particularly pleasing was the style of football England played, often controlling possession from the back in a way that should allow them to dominate teams once they get to France 2019, while also having a cutting edge in front of goal. The tournament also highlighted aspects of their game that still need to be worked on, and England did look shaky at times when they were pressed at the back and in midfield. Week in, week out in the WSL players such as Steph Houghton and Abbie McManus play calmly out of pressure at Manchester City but they need to do so more consistently in an England shirt.
A few players really stood out for me. Arsenal’s Beth Mead continued her great club form for her country, scoring two goals in three games; Ellen White always seems to play well at international level; and Fran Kirby is excellent in the No 10 role. I believe the team’s attacking tactics should be built around Fran, who just needs teammates to find her in that area between the opposition defence and midfield.
We saw the benefit of this when Fran set up a goal for Nikita Parris in the game against the USA with a world-class, first-time, round-the-corner ball. She can really hurt the opposition from the space behind their midfield, but she needs to see plenty of the ball with penetrating passes from the backline and midfield.
There is a great combination of youth and experience in the squad. Keira Walsh is still 21 but is a mainstay for Manchester City and plays with such maturity. Her long-range diagonal pass to assist Mead’s goal against Japan shows exactly what she is capable of, even when under pressure from an opposition midfielder, and I expect her to be one of the first names on Phil Neville’s team sheet.
Mead is 23, gives the disciplined width you need in a 4-3-3 formation and can come in on to her left foot as she did against Japan or score with her right as she did against Brazil. Lucy Staniforth opened the scoring against Japan and is particularly good from long range, as she has shown for years in the WSL. These players have really stood up and declared themselves ready to be relied upon if necessary at the World Cup.
I haven’t seen another team with the ability across the board that England have at the moment. Now it’s about maintaining confidence, honing and refining their play and making sure they are adaptable. This week’s victory in Tampa will be a huge confidence boost, and they are exactly where they need to be only three months before the World Cup. They should go to France confident they can win their group, and keep going from there.
The USA are the world’s No 1 team in Fifa’s rankings but on the pitch they look unsettled. They rotated a lot during the SheBelieves Cup, and although I understand these tournaments are seen by managers as an opportunity to experiment, it is crucial that reinforcements can produce the same level of performance as regular starters.
Up front, however, they remain one of the strongest teams in the world – Alex Morgan looked fantastic, offering excellent link-up play and dangerous runs, while she is still the great goalscorer she has always been.
Other friendly tournaments have been played, too. At the Algarve Cup, Poland, the world’s 34th best team according to Fifa and not good enough to get to the World Cup, came top of their group and reached the final, where they lost to Norway. The Netherlands were expected to dominate Group B but lost both of their games and ended up in the 11th-place play-off, where they needed penalties to beat China.
And this despite having a star-studded squad including Vivianne Miedema, Daniëlle van de Donk and Lieke Martens. Perhaps having won the Euros at home two years ago there is a feeling among the group that they have already experienced their finest hour, making motivation an issue.
There are players in that team, such as the brilliant central midfielder Jackie Groenen, who are the best in the world in their position, but as a collective they have severely underperformed since 2017. Perhaps this is the wake-up call they need.
In the Cyprus Cup, Italy reached the final, where they lost on penalties to North Korea. It was tough to see so many of my Juventus teammates falter in the final but the fight and resilience shown to twice recover from falling behind is what will be needed in the summer. To reach the final they beat Mexico, Hungary and Thailand in a very tame group stage, and by an aggregate score of 12-1.
Reaching the final will boost morale, but I am not certain it has been the best possible preparation for a very difficult World Cup group. This is in contrast to England, who have proven again to be capable of beating some of the world’s best teams. Soon we will find out if they can do it again, on the biggest stage of all.