England 1-0 France: 16 triumphant conclusions

Date published: Monday 31st July 2017 11:30

* For all the increasingly quality, power, money and publicity around club football, there is still nothing quite like international tournament football to get you punching the air before nervously pacing the living room for a full 36 minutes anxiously begging for the final whistle.

There also no better illustration of the irrational effects of loss aversion on the human brain. At 0-0, you’re not exactly sitting comfortably, but you can watch the game pretty rationally, rolling your eyes at each rushed clearance and calmly directing your droll tactical ruminations towards the cat.

Go a goal ahead, and suddenly you’re shouting “JUST HOOF IT” whenever a defender gets the ball within 40 yards of their own goal.

It’s okay though everyone. We made it. We made it.

 

* One chance. When you have a striker in such unstoppable form as Jodie Taylor, and a defence as solid as the one marshalled by Steph Houghton, one chance can be all you need.

Like the eliminated Germans, France had been underwhelming all tournament, barely sneaking through a weak group to even to get this far – but they’re still France, and they still have plenty enough talent about them that a one-sided bombardment was never an option.

Taylor has been in the form of her life, and right now there is nobody in world football you would rather have up front in a game of such fine margins.

 

* Putting Fran Kirby alongside Taylor – rather than playing in behind as against Scotland and Spain – and persistent play down the right made Mark Sampson’s gameplan clear: forget finding space in the number 10 position. Just push the strikers right up against the back line and get the ball to the exceptional Lucy Bronze. She’ll make something happen.

It worked: With France having had no need for a holding midfielder all game, Bronze came inside from right-back and surged into that wide-open space before slipping the ball through for Taylor. True to form, the Arsenal striker made no mistake with the finish.

His side have done their jobs practically perfectly, but Sampson deserves enormous credit. Every game has brought new challenges for the manager, and each time he has nailed it.

 

* This is turning into an incredible summer for Taylor, who leads the Euros’ scoring charts with five. The next-closest players remaining on the tournament have just two each.

Taylor has been a great goalscorer through an itinerant career that has taken in 12 clubs in five countries on three continents, so it’s scarcely believable that 31-year-old Taylor made her England debut less than three years ago, and didn’t score her first goal until March 2015.

She is the perfect emblem for this team: hard-working, unrelenting, talented and clinical.

 

* Just 30 minutes into the game, I became concerned that England’s one and only attacking move seemed to be shuttling the ball out to the right. I don’t remember a single attack down the left wing, or any occasion when Demi Stokes ventured out of her own half from left-back.

Being so one-dimensional would be a cause for serious misgivings if Bronze weren’t so bloody brilliant. As we have come to expect, the Manchester City right-back and PFA Player of the Year was wonderful throughout, linking up well with Jordan Nobbs and causing endless problems with her unstoppably powerful running.

When you have one of the best players in the world down your right flank, you can’t really blame England for going there again and again – and sure enough, it paid off.

 

* The best word to describe the performance was ‘professional’. Taylor, Fran Kirby et al started looking to get and keep the ball in the corners from as early as the 80th minute, despite knowing they faced a reasonable spell of stoppage time for the delay caused by goalkeeper Karen Bardsley’s unfortunate injury.

As against Spain, when England ceded 74% of the possession, the Lionesses showed they are happy to stay off the ball and just take whatever the opposition can throw at them – but only once they feel confident the game is already won. Such an approach is not a sign of nerves or fear, but of an excellent understanding of strategy and the ability to pull it off.

 

* While my giddiness has not yet worn off, when I think of how easily it could have been so different, I feel like Ebenezer Scrooge facing the Ghost of Christmas Future’s grim tableau.

All of that careful planning could have been totally undone if officials had not erred on the side of leniency when dealing with Jill Scott’s leaping tackle ten minutes before the break.

Scott has always been something of a graduate of the Paul Scholes School of Tackling, and though she was lucky to avoid a red card, the yellow card she received will still keep her out of the semi-final through suspension, having needlessly picked up her first in England’s opening game against Scotland with the game already won.

Whatever you think of the rules regarding accumulated yellow cards in summer tournaments, it’s difficult to argue Scott doesn’t deserve to sit this one out.

 

* It looks like Scott will be joined on the sidelines by Bardsley, who certainly doesn’t deserve it.

The Lionesses’ number 1 was withdrawn through injury midway through the second half, and though Liverpool’s Siobhan Chamberlain is a more-than-capable and experienced deputy to Bardsley, it would be a massive shame if this is the end of the keeper’s tournament.

Apart from anything else, Bardsley has a great understanding with her club teammates Bronze, Houghton and Stokes, who make up three-quarters of the England back four. That goes a long way to making the defence – and tightly-wound England fans watching at home – feel a lot more settled. The only goal England have conceded in their four games so far came against Sampson’s second-string defence in the clash with Portugal, when he made ten changes to his side to prepare for this game.

Bardsley will be a big miss against the Netherlands, who have been the tournament’s (other) most potent attacking force.

 

* The odd one out in that rearguard is Chelsea’s Millie Bright, who has been immense for England so far this summer.

Bright only made her England debut last September and lined up in the first XI in this group stages solely due to Casey Stoney’s hamstring niggle, but has deservedly kept her place. She will probably end the tournament as the only player to have started every game for England.

There were times, even early on, when Bright was prone to hoofing the ball away when other options were available, but you’d rather see that than a 23-year-old trying to be too clever with it. By and large, she has been the perfect partner for skipper Houghton, and a dangerous outlet at set-pieces to boot.

 

* To cover Scott’s suspension, it’s likely we’ll either see Toni Duggan drafted in for the semi-final, or that Jordan Nobbs will move into central midfield with Karen Carney starting on the right.

With Stoney now fully fit, though, another option would be for Sampson to move Bright into midfield, where she played regularly for Doncaster Rovers Belles. Plus, she has this in her locker, which helps.

We’ve written before about England’s phenomenal strength in depth; for Sampson to have so many different tactical options available to him means that whatever he decides for the semi-final, it’ll come as a slight surprise for the Netherlands.

 

* There were, of course, two sides in this match (all the best games do feature two, I’ve noticed). It’s just that there isn’t really a whole lot more to say about France that I haven’t said already through my three Winners and Losers articles.

Sampson made headlines in the build-up to the game by suggesting his opposite number, Olivier Echouafni, was ‘wet behind the ears’. While this was no drubbing for France, by any measure, there were still some questionable decisions on the manager’s part.

Most notable was the withdrawal of the richly-experienced Camille Abily with 12 minutes to go. The only way France looked likely to get anything out of the game by that point was from a set-piece – indeed, all three of France’s goals so far this tournament have been from dead ball situations.

Withdrawing Abily, his best free-kick taker who secured passage into the quarter finals with a set-piece equaliser against Switzerland, on the occasion of what may well be her last-ever appearance for Les Bleues after 184 caps, read as an admission of defeat by Echouafni.

* With France, Germany, Sweden and Norway now all out, four of the tournament’s five biggest favourites have failed to make the semi-finals.

This doesn’t really apply to Sweden, but I have had the distinct feeling from watching the other three that they expected to turn up and waltz into the semi-finals: Germany have won seven of the least eight, Norway have appeared in two of the last three finals, and France were represented twice over in the Champions League final.

This is the first time this tournament has featured as many as 16 teams, and the big girls have been caught totally on the hop. England and Denmark reaching the semis is not too big a surprise, but for them to be joined by the hosts and debutantes Austria – who have eschewed waltzing into the semi-finals as old hat and conga’d through instead – shows we may well be standing on the pivotal moment in women’s football akin to the changing of the guard that happened in the men’s game in the 1950s.

With full-time professionalism becoming more and more prevalent in the women’s game across a growing number of countries, the gap between Germany, Norway and the rest is shrinking at a faster rate than ever before. That can surely only be seen as a massively, massively good thing.

 

* The result of that, of course, is that we now have a wide open tournament being competed by four unlikely but all likeable teams.

Austria are the big romantic story but will surely struggle against Denmark, a solid and punishing counter-attacking side best represented by their steamrolling captain Pernille Harder, one of the Euros’ best players so far who has hold a special place in my heart since leaving one Norwegian player on her arse and another two totally flat-footed in the space of about five touches in the group stage.

Then there’s the other semi…

The Netherlands are the most finessed side left in the tournament. Their front four make up an attacking diamond capable of picking apart any side, consisting of Shanice Van De Sanden, Danielle Van De Donk, Vivianne Miedema, and the utterly wonderful Lieke Martens; while goalkeeper Sari Van Veenendaal has barely put a foot wrong in a tournament riddled with goalkeeping errors.

Fittingly for this stage of the competition, the Dutch pose by far the toughest test England have faced yet. The positive for England is that the Dutch can be defensively naive, which may well play their professional hands.

 

* I don’t want to end on a negative, so I’ll put this just before the end: this has been a wonderful, wonderful tournament, and most especially as an England fan. The idea that people still continue to thumb their noses at women’s football purely on the basis that it’s women playing, or that they lack the patience to understand that the game is simply played differently, really is to their own detriment.

Our own Johnny Nic reckons this is the most he’s enjoyed a tournament since Italia 90. I’m just too young to remember that, so bar three snoozefests in the remaining games, will almost certainly go down as my favourite summer international tournament.

If you’re not converted yet, please, I implore you: it’s not too late. There are three games to go; watch and cherish.

 

* Those who know and love me best can confirm I am a cynical and grumpy sod at the best of times, but I am unbelievably, ridiculously excited for the semi-finals. And it’s not just because it will be the first England game I’ve ever attended at a major tournament, though obviously, that’s a big factor.

The one drawback of knock-out tournaments is that the luck of the draw sometimes deprives us of seeing the biggest, most mouth-watering ties, either due to an unfortunate early elimination or teams being on opposite sides of the bracket.

Not here. These are not just the only two sides with a 100% record, but subjectively they have also been the best two teams in the competition, coming through four very tricky ties each as deserved and often stylish winners.

I’d be impatient about getting the Enschede for this game even if it weren’t my country vs the hosts, which pushes the whole thing to another level. I might actually burst.

 

* Compounding the possibility of my imminent explosion (no flowers please) is the very real possibility that England might only go and bloody win it. England are now the favourites across the board, with their outright odds only a little longer than evens.

There is no telling how much good this performance, even as it stands, will have done for the women’s domestic game. Most teams in the Women’s Super League saw attendances double after England’s third-place finish at the World Cup in 2015, so to have performed so admirably may well provide yet another boost of that magnitude. It would be really wonderful if it did – and I can only imagine how the public’s imagination might be captured if they were to emerge victorious.

It is a dream that I barely dare speak, particularly ahead of a semi-final encounter with an incredibly free-flowing attacking outfit that could well end in a 3-0 defeat; I don’t believe in jinxing it or any of that nonsense, but my cynicism and nervousness are both poking through just enough that I can’t allow myself to get that carried away yet.

But they might you know. They only bloody might.

 

Steven Chicken

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