From Toyota Stadium (England 0-1 Spain) - 83 minutes played, the Lionesses conceded a late corner against Spain. Thirty seconds later with the ball comfortably nestled in the back of the England net, all energy and colour seeped out of their SheBelieves cup campaign. The positive wave of momentum that had engulfed English women’s football just blurred a little out of focus.
Of course, that gradual transition from World Cup semi-finalists to a team that lost two out of three at the SheBelieves Cup is not about one moment. Still, the Lionesses now will leave the USA wounded, with regrets and with a lot to work on. It’s hard to put a finger on the exact issue within three incredibly different performances, in terms of the team shape and the playing staff on the pitch. However, there have been some common threads.
'We don’t want to have this feeling of defeat going into the next camp.— 90min (@90min_Football) March 12, 2020
There will be a reflection, there will be a reset,
we’ve got to make sure we start performing to the levels I expect,
that I know these players are capable of.'
Tough day for the @lionesses and Phil Neville. pic.twitter.com/WLmnQZRb8i
For the defeat to Spain in particular though, perhaps the negatives were so frustrating because of the stark contrasts between the first and second half.
In the first half, England’s shape was strong. They started in a 4-2-3-1 and they maintained that structure particularly well in defence. The moment the opposition took hold of the ball the defensive and midfield lines pushed together making it difficult for Spain to progress through the team.
England were physically dominant, they looked as though they had more energy and were ready for the physical battle. Jill Scott and Millie Bright thumped into challenges and headers and Leah Williamson buzzed around in midfield well. England were on the front foot and rarely made a misstep in terms of their physical game, despite the Texas heat.
As the half progressed - although there weren’t clear missed goalscoring opportunities - there were strong spells of pressure. Ellen White blazed a chance that you’d back her to score when through on goal. She also then was just pipped to a fierce Jordan Nobbs cross. Nikki Parris was back to her dancing best, weaving between defenders and threatening at will.
The attacking shape was also strong. From the moment possession was regained, full backs split, midfield created space, wingers hugged their touchlines and White played on the shoulder. The ability to make the pitch big in attack and then feel claustrophobic in defence was a strong choice against a very technical Spain side, who were capable in possession.
The @lionesses player of the match @carlytelford1 talks to @benhainess about a tough end to England's #shebelievescup campaign and how the team can move forward.— 90min (@90min_Football) March 12, 2020
A sad end to the tournament, but a brilliant performance today from England's number 1. #ENGSPA #Lionesses pic.twitter.com/KUKIeOcovo
Then in the second half, the shape got sloppy. The lines and transitions between defensive shape and attacking shape seemed to blur and become laboured. That, in turn, meant that holes appeared, holes which Spain seem to excel in exploiting as they meandered between midfield and defence with ease. Where the Lionesses had started further up the pitch with the base of their two close lines sitting just beyond halfway, they now moved deeper. And deeper. And deeper. To the point where they found it difficult to break out.
The physicality which the Lionesses had displayed in a very encouraging first-half started to dissipate. Leah Williamson and Jill Scott who had bossed the midfield in the first half suddenly found themselves having to cover twice the amount of ground to apply simple pressure such was the change in momentum between the two sides. As legs started to tire unintentional laziness started to creep in across the board. The ability to recover into a default defensive position became infinitely more difficult.
Phil Neville has always made it clear that he has faith in every single one of his squad and has maintained that philosophy throughout the entirety of his time with the team. Against Japan, Neville will point to the players that came on and were able to massively impact the game positively. He again pointed toward Stanway, Russo and Kelly who came on and threatened, only, this time it looked as though the stranglehold Spain had on the game, who made three substitutions at half time was unlikely to loosen. And when the fatal blow was struck it’s hard to argue that Spain didn’t deserve it.
'To be honest, I feel like, Let's get to work. Let's fix what needs to be fixed'— 90min (@90min_Football) March 12, 2020
Leah Williamson, reflects on her performance as well as the Lionesses final game of the SheBelieves cup. #ENGSPA #Lionesses pic.twitter.com/PUx5DuLdNV
There will be many words, voices and opinions ventured in the wake of this small but important nine-day campaign. There is a lot that can be absorbed form this tournament in particular. Its ability to create and simulate group stage/knockout/tour football all within a nine-day period is helpful, and provides food for thought on which players and coaches fair the best in which environment.
However, the deeper lessons will take time to process, learn and analyse, most importantly whether this version of the Lionesses team that’s been labelled ‘In transition’, can trace back their steps in the hope the can gather some momentum toward their hopeful end destination, a European Championship final at Wembley in 2021.