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England at the SheBelieves Cup: Five things we learnt

Given how it was talked up before hand, it would be hard to say that this year’s She Believes Cup was a success for England, the performances were mixed but the results not positive. But after three matches against three different nations, in three different states what have we learnt?

Defending crosses is still the Lionesses’ Achilles

You’ve probably already seen the stat, read it in reports or heard it on the BBC: ten of the last 18 goals England have conceded have come from set pieces or crosses. It remains one of the constants for Phil Neville’s team and when watching the side attempt to defend set pieces, the defence looks entirely at sea. This isn’t a run of bad luck but rather a reliable problem.

Alexia Putellas’ match winner last night is glaring for the amount of space the attacker was allowed in the box with no one picking her up, her bullet header a punch to the gut but one England were entirely complicit in. Time and again the communication seems lacking and the marking [either man to man or zonal] is no existent, the opposition is given time and space to exploit and more often than not convert when gifted the chance.

That darn offside trap

Fans will remember Ellen White being denied an equaliser in the World Cup semi-final by a marginal offside picked up by the VAR, the new technology something the striker admits she can’t stand. But playing in a tournament without video technology, White almost seemed like she was trying to abuse the privilege and frequently strayed into an offside position.

A striker with keen positional awareness, it was particularly surprising to see White repeatedly [and correctly] flagged after slipping into offside positions and became her theme of the tournament. Although the team was rotated and refreshed over the three games – that could give rise to a disconnect – White’s constant offsides are well worth monitoring going forward.

Midfield options

A devotee of 4-3-3 and its variants, Neville’s go-to midfield has often mirrored Manchester City’s with Kiera Walsh deployed in the pivot and Jill Scott in theory next to her younger compatriot (but sticking to her usual box-to-box role). Still tinkering with who to play behind the front three, the coach has alternated between Georgia Stanway, Lucy Staniforth, Fran Kirby, Jordan Nobbs and Lucy Bronze with varying degrees of success.

If we put Bronze aside and accept that she’s not a midfielder, just as Kirby is better played out wide where she can cut in and take players on, that still leaves three options. With Staniforth the most logical #10 in the group, it was therefore disappointing to see her only manage 21 minutes in the USA with Stanway and Nobbs preferred in a creative midfield role.

Whilst Stanway didn’t bring her best form to the tournament, and had to keep adapting her position in the game to have an impact – something she doesn’t struggle with domestically – Nobbs finally looked to hit her stride for her country at senior level, bringing her Arsenal form to the Lionesses.

The biggest issue for Nobbs is largely that she wants a position that doesn’t exist in the England set-up, far too often shackled in one role or another, Nobbs is at her best when she can float around and affect play as she wishes, linking passes and working as a roving architect. Given far more freedom this month, the midfielder might have finally locked down a role that works for her, the challenge for her coach will be constructing a midfield that can work in tandem with her.

Passing under pressure

In his time at the helm, Neville has tried to promote more of a passing style that starts at the back, yet after two years the team still crumbles under pressure. So, whilst the intended style will work against many teams, against the calibre England faced at the She Believes, it categorically did not. There is also the suggestion that the personnel Neville favours aren’t the right ones for the passing play, his centre back choices over the three matches no instilling much confidence when pressed (collectively or individually). Something needs to change.

Youth is the way

Facing inevitable player turnover, Neville has been proactive in brining in younger players – notably taking training players to the She Believes Cup in each of his trips – and although neither Sandy MacIver or Grace Fisk managed to get onto the pitch this month, his younger charges shone.

Having to sit out the third fixture through illness, Lauren Hemp might have been England’s best performer over the first two matches, her inexperience a non-factor, her dynamic runs and purpose in attack something that caught the eye of everyone watching on.

Given a start against Japan, Chloe Kelly didn’t make the deepest impression during her hour on the pitch, yet given another chance against Spain, the Everton woman immediately began to affect play. Not quite the same player for club and country, Kelly looks to have a bright future in the national team ahead of her if she can keep impressing. Similarly, Alessia Russo (still playing collegiate football in the USA) had a strong late cameo against Spain, her 20 minutes on the pitch helping give rise to a strong late push from the Lionesses.

All in all, not the biggest success for England but not the biggest disaster either.

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