Beth Mead dink settles Euro 2022 nerves for an England team with talent in reserve at Old Trafford

Will Ford
Beth Mead England

Beth Mead scored a brilliant opening goal of what promises to be a special tournament, but England need to make more of their talent to win it.

The crowd was very big, very loud and England looked very nervy in the first few minutes at Old Trafford. It’s a home tournament they are expected to win, or at least get very deep into. England are the most invested-in team in Europe and the Gameplan for Growth strategy launched by the FA five years ago targeted success for the team at Euro 2022. They were unbeaten in all 14 games under Sarina Wiegman before this opening game of the tournament, winning 12, scoring 84 and conceding just 3. They are well prepped, well managed and have world class players.

They’ve been behind just once under the new manager, roaring back to beat the Netherlands – with whom Wiegman won the last European Championships in 2017 – 5-1 in the penultimate friendly two weeks ago. And despite the early nerves, which saw captain Leah Williamson misplace passes and the first touch of all the Lionesses being less than assured, it took them just over 16 minutes to take the lead.

Georgia Stanway, although not directly involved in the opening goal, was the catalyst for England. While those around her still suffered with the jitters, the Manchester City midfielder put her foot on the ball and eased what had been a fevered start to the game. She allowed the wonderful creative talent in front of her – Beth Mead, Fran Kirby and Lauren Hemp – to weave patterns of play Austria were unable to keep tabs on.

Hemp, who one might describe as being sh*t quick, had already put a couple of dangerous crosses into the box having left the poor sod attempting to mark her for dead. But it was Kirby and Mead who linked up so beautifully to give England the lead. Kirby is an expert at finding herself in space and creating more. She let a knockdown move across her body before delivering the perfect lofted pass through for Mead, who controlled the ball expertly on her chest before dinking it over Arsenal teammate Manuela Zinsberger. It was a fine finish.

And no mean feat given the Austria stopper had the most clean sheets in the WSL last season (13 in 20 starts), and Zinsberger came off her line quickly to deny Hemp just before half-time. Ellen White had robbed an Austrian defender of possession, found Kirby who had broken beyond her, but the Chelsea playmaker’s pass across the box was heavy and forced Hemp to take a touch before her shot was blocked by the goalkeeper. It really should have been 2-0.

England will have tougher tests, likely on Monday against Norway, and the defence will be a worry for Wiegman. Millie Bright was brilliant and consistently in the right place at the right time, in what you might call ‘the John Terry position’ at the front post, but the concern is that she had to be. Austria had little possession in the final third, but when they did, a cross was invariably delivered into the box. Better delivery, more movement or both would have resulted in clear-cut chances and possible goals. Neither Lucy Bronze or Rachel Daly did enough to stop those crosses, but were also lacking support from the midfielders, who far too frequently left the defence to their own devices.

It was a decent, if not completely convincing, display from England; there’s certainly plenty of space for them to grow as the tournament goes on. The strength in depth, particularly in the forward areas, is what can take them a long way. Mead, Kirby and White were replaced just after the hour mark by Ella Toone, Chloe Kelly and Alessia Russo, all of whom provided extra impetus with no noticeable dip in quality.

Few teams, if any, have such an abundance of talent to call on. England just need to find a way of making the most of it.