A Look Back At England’s World Cup Campaign

For the third major tournament in a row the England Women’s team has lost a semi-final. After losing to the USA, the Lionesses face Sweden in a third place play-off game to try and match their achievement of a bronze medal in Canada four years ago.

This piece should probably wait until after the aforementioned game against Sweden has taken place, but I won’t be able to post anything for a couple weeks from this weekend onward. I’ve opted to do this now rather than a few weeks after the end of the tournament.

Style of Play

Before jumping in and talking about how players performed, it’s worth talking about how Phil Neville wanted the side to play – to try and help guide what to look for and how well they executed the plan, or if the plan is a worthwhile one.

In this video he talks about his style of play with England. He mentions wanting to play from the back, before talking specifically about the tactics chosen for the game against France in the 2018 SheBelieves Cup. He talks about having full-backs push up, centre-backs moving wide and sometimes the left sided player (Toni Duggan) coming narrow to try and gain superiority in midfield and get the midfield players on the ball.

He continues to state that he does this to try and control the midfield, which often leads to the team controlling the game, particularly with the #6 (which he refers to as the #4) and centre-backs.

He then goes on to talk about the specifics of playing against a low block, but the bulk of the style is what’s mentioned above. He wants England to control the game and midfield in particular, while having full-backs push high and centre-backs wide – who will play out from the back.

Underlying Performance

The group stage was a pretty straightforward affair for England. The opening game against Scotland saw England be awarded a fairly soft penalty, while also dropping off slightly in the second half, but they created the better chances and did enough to win.

Against Argentina England created ~2 xG not including the missed penalty, but a good performance by goalkeeper Vanina Correa kept the score down for the South American side. At the other end of the pitch England only conceded two incredibly low quality shots, so much so, that on the xG timeline it’s rounded down to 0.

The final game against Japan was dubbed the real test, but, with Japan having some poor numbers in their opening two games and rebuilding their team with some younger talent, it didn’t really feel that way. It was England’s closest game on xG, but Japan’s chances came through a late rally when chasing the game.

Moving into the knock-out round, the 1.1 – 0.7 xG from the Japan game was reproduced, with England being put on the ropes at the start of the second half and almost going down. A trailing leg from Gabrielle Onguene saw a goal ruled out, while youngster Alexandra Takounda missed a huge chance which could have had a big impact on the game.

Before some sloppy defending after being 3-0 to the good, the performance against Norway was probably the best of the tournament. Norway didn’t help themselves with their performance, but England did a great job at stopping Norway advancing the ball to their attackers, while being strong in attack – creating ~2 xG not including the penalty.

Against the USA the xG was equal, not including the England penalty. While the conservative style of the US also helps, England only really conceded low quality chances and mostly in the first half. At the other end of the pitch it was more quality than quantity with the Ellen White goal and penalty, while also having a half decent chance at the start of the second half.

Going off the above numbers, there’s lots of positives for England to take. Even against the best side in the world they had an even game, while they looked pretty comfortable against strong sides like Japan and Norway.

The Right Side

Looking at aspects of England’s performance, the first thing worth mentioning is the right side of the team. Much of England’s build-up and attacking play came from the right, with right-back Lucy Bronze being one of the best individual performers in both the team and tournament.

Watching the games saw Bronze look hugely important to England and the numbers back it up. Bronze had England’s highest pass progression completed per 90 and 4th highest xA p90 – behind more attacking players like Beth Mead, Fran Kirby and Nikita Parris.

Bronze’s athleticism gets a lot of credit and it’s not surprising to see why. Her ability to get up and down the flank and her powerful running is hugely impressive, with her powering down the flank one of my favourite things to watch in the World Cup.

There was another fairly similar clip against Norway, where she turned defence into attack almost on her own, leading to a shot from Beth Mead (which I accidentally cut out).

She’s not just all athleticism though, as her strong progression and xA numbers indicate. She talked about how she became better technically thanks to the standard and training at Lyon and it seems to have paid dividends.

Her ability to go both outside and inside of Nikita Parris on the right helps bring variety to attacking play. She can do the typical full-back overlap, taking the ball to the byline and picking out someone in the box.

But she can also come inside and link play there too. The best example would be her assist against Cameroon. While there isn’t much pressure from Cameroon, she runs inward with the ball and rather than making the easy pass out wide to (an offside) Nikita Parris, she plays a clever little outside of the boot pass to put Ellen White in on goal.

These kind of moments aren’t just spurts though, Bronze was hugely influential. There was only the match against Argentina where Bronze didn’t have the most touches for England – although she did have the same amount as Alex Greenwood vs Scotland and Demi Stokes vs Norway.

The game against Cameroon was the one where England seemed to place the most focus upon the right flank, while the game against Norway seemed to be the one where they reaped the most rewards from it.

The pass map below shows just how much England looked to build down the right flank, with Jill Scott and Nikita Parris having an almost identical average position and Fran Kirby being closer to the right.

The right side wasn’t just strong in build-up though, it also had some stronger numbers than the left defensively. Looking at the pass completion for passes that move the possession closer to goal and intersect the flanks, England’s right side performed better than their left and was the 4th strongest in the tournament.

Of course this doesn’t look at what’s created from the progressions, but England did have the biggest disparity for pass completion between the right and left for sides with a stronger right side, as can be seen below. Under the line means the right is stronger, above the line means the left is stronger.

Click to Enlarge

While Bronze was great and looks to be a contender for the Golden Ball, she wasn’t the only reason the right side was strong.

In front of her Nikita Parris received the 2nd most pass progression per 90 for England, had the 3rd best xA per 90 and most attempted dribbles per 90. While her xA per 90 is England’s 3rd best, it does feel like she should’ve made a bigger xG contribution given how strong her and Bronze looked on that right side.

I’ll come back to this later on, but she only had 1.4 shots per 90, while her best chance in terms of xG came against Norway and she probably should have cut it back to Fran Kirby.

The final piece of the right side was midfielder Jill Scott. Scott did a great at operating in the right half space, capable of receiving the ball with her back to goal and still look to progress play.

@EveryTeam_Mark found a weird quirk in Scott’s game in this piece on StatsBomb, where she’s much more progressive (higher percentage of passes aimed towards goal) when she’s under pressure. This seems like an ideal thing for her role. She can receive the ball in the half space, hopefully committing a defender, before resisting the pressure and looking to find the free player.

The clip is split because of the GIF site. So the first clip shows her keeping the ball under pressure against the USA..

Before getting the ball from Walsh a second time and this time drawing Crystal Dunn in and finding Parris in space out wide – although the pass is slightly overhit and gives Becky Sauerbrunn time to get across.

Her positioning and ability for these round the corner type passes is great. The disallowed goal against the USA comes from a similar situation. She positions herself in the half space, scans to see Ellen White’s positioning and receives the ball before playing a first touch pass to send her through on goal.

As I’ve mentioned before, I used this World Cup as a gateway into women’s football, so I’m not too sure on the talent pool that England have, but it feels like it’s going to be difficult to replace Scott’s ability in these kind of situations and given she’s now 32-years-old, it’s something England will need to be thinking about.

England’s right side was one of their highlights of the tournament. It was effective and often great to watch, which makes it even more frustrating that Phil Neville changed it for the biggest game of the tournament.

I’m not sure whether Rachel Daly was seen as a better option to deal with the US attack on the left or Neville thought utilizing Parris centrally could be beneficial, but it seems odd to change the best part of your play for the biggest game. Game state and America being conservative plays a part, but England did look like they had more of a chance of equalizing when the trio of Bronze, Scott and Parris were reunited on the right again.

Centre-Backs, Playing Out From The Back and The Left Side

England’s playing out from the back is immediately obvious when looking at some numbers in the tournament. England had the 2nd most passes per game coming in their own half, with only Australia making more, while also having the most passes per possession.

It is questionable just how good England were at progressing the ball from the back though. The Lionesses had the 10th lowest numbers for the percentage of passes in their own half going into the opposition half. However the significance of this is debatable and it’s something I’m never quite sure on. It’s a fine line between it being a stylistic feature and building from the back, or passing it between defenders and struggling to move it forward.

For instance, Manchester City’s men’s team usually take a lot of passes before moving out of their own half but you wouldn’t say they struggle to progress the ball.

The defenders score well when looking at progressive passing, but I still think there’s room for improvement for England, particularly with the progression on the left side of the team.

Millie Bright received some criticism during the World Cup but, while she had some lapses in concentration defensively, her numbers on the ball weren’t too bad. She didn’t have huge numbers for progression, but did have England’s best pass completion for passes that move the possession at least 20% closer to goal.

Despite this, I do think England would be better suited with a more progressive ball player on that side as well, to try and mirror the threat they pose on the right. Looking at who the centre-backs passed to helps show the difference in their passing styles.

Bright passed mostly to Steph Houghton, Keira Walsh, Demi Stokes/Alex Greenwood, Karen Bardsley and Ellen White. Except for Keira Walsh, most of her passes were to the side or back to the ‘keeper, except for a few long balls each game to Ellen White.

Houghton’s numbers don’t jump out as incredibly different, with her most common pass being to Lucy Bronze and then to her centre-back partner Millie Bright or Abby McManus, but after that she goes to Jill Scott and Nikita Parris most, before Keira Walsh rounds off the top five.

This ability to find players like Jill Scott and Nikita Parris in more advanced areas was a huge part of England’s progression from the back, but that progression only seemed to come from the right side.

I have a couple of gripes about the shape of England in build-up anyway and the clip against Japan below highlights a couple of them.

With Neville talking about pushing the centre-backs and full-backs forward and wide, I feel as though it makes it easier to stop England progressing and move the ball in a ‘U’ shape between the back four, particularly if a midfielder doesn’t drop in.

An extreme version of this can also be seen in the game against Japan. Walsh receives the ball with her back to goal and a Japanese player closing her down, but the gap between Walsh and the rest of the midfield is huge.

While England will be in a good position to attack the Japan back line if the ball is progressed, Walsh is in a 3v1 in the middle of the pitch, making it no real surprise she sends the ball back to Stokes and England get trapped in the corner.

Jill Scott tends to drop in a bit more and help create overloads out wide, but the midfielder on the left (Georgia Stanway in the above clip) rarely does. I’m not sure whether it’s a feature of the play, with the left sided centre midfielder being more advanced, or whether it is a weakness but, personally, I’d rather England look to mirror the set-up from the right on the left.

It’d not only make England more effective at progressing the ball, it may help get the other central midfielder involved in play more often, with the left sided central midfielder being a part of the side that hasn’t felt quite right.

Fran Kirby has the ability to be effective there and has some good numbers, but just doesn’t seem to be involved enough and it was the same when Stanway played there. Against Japan, Stanway had the least touches of the ball, while Kirby had the least against Norway. Both of these players are more than capable of dropping into pockets and helping with build-up, while still offering a threat in the final third.

The lack of rotation and dropping in for the left sided midfielder can be seen when looking at who they receive the ball from compared to Jill Scott. Scott received most of her passes from the right quartet of Bronze, Houghton, Parris and Walsh.

Not only are Kirby’s numbers for passes received lower, the leading names were Greenwood, Mead, Bronze and Parris. Greenwood and Mead mirror the right side, but the midfield link with Walsh wasn’t there in the same way as it was with Walsh and Scott, while the link with Bright also isn’t there.

What Could Be Changed?

I suppose the question is: What’s the solution for England? How can England better their build-up play on the left to try and mirror the right?

One option could be to bring 22-year-old Leah Williamson in for Millie Bright. Based on their numbers in the FAWSL and Neville’s emphasis on building from the back, it’s hard to see why Williamson isn’t starting for England already. The below graph shows how Williamson is almost in a league of her own when it comes to progression.

* of Passes that move the ball 20% closer to goal
Click to Enlarge

Bright offers more of a physical presence, having much better aerial duel numbers than Williamson (being lazy and using WyScout numbers here), but it’s not as though a centre-back pairing of Houghton and Williamson is lightweight.

To the side of Bright, a problem on the left is that the left-backs in the squad aren’t as strong as Bronze on the ball, with Alex Greenwood having slightly better progression numbers than Demi Stoke but not being quite as good defensively – with Stokes chosen against the three toughest sides England faced.

* of Passes that move the ball 20% closer to goal
Click to Enlarge

It’s questionable whether the lack of progression from the left-backs comes as a result of England being so biased towards the right, or whether England are so biased towards the right because of the lack of progression from the left-backs. Looking at the numbers, around 50% of Bronze’s passes move possession towards goal, while ~45% of Greenwood’s and ~35% of Stokes do, so they’re not as progressive as Bronze, but they’re not incapable of progression either.

England could opt for Stokes on the left, having more defensive solidity, knowing that Williamson is more than capable of progressing the ball on that flank. Alternatively, England could continue to pick the left-back based on the opposition like they did this summer.

Moving forward, Williamson for Bright is the only big personnel change I’d look to make in defence following this tournament, to try and help England progress the ball from the back more effectively and with less bias towards the right. I think there’ll also need to be more movement in front of her, with the ball side midfielder dropping in, in order for England to further improve.

This brings us on to Fran Kirby. There’s question marks about Fran Kirby in the midfield role, although I’m not sure whether the questions concern her or the system. As previously mentioned, Kirby is a good candidate for the role and has some strong numbers, but didn’t feel involved enough, not creating the same kind of link with the deeper players as Jill Scott did on the other side.

If it is a personnel issue, one player who could be tried there is Jordan Nobbs. Nobbs had huge numbers for Arsenal before she suffered her injury. For players with more than 450 minutes in the FAWSL, she had the 3rd highest numbers for both xG + xA per 90 and pass progression received per 90.

It’s worth pointing out that Kirby isn’t far behind her in both metrics, but Nobbs could be better suited to the midfield role if England stay with the 4-3-3 shape, which Neville seems set to do based on the video I linked earlier.

Click to Enlarge

It’ll be interesting to see what England do in midfield after the World Cup. A 4-3-3 with a ‘1-2’ midfield feels as though it’s more beneficial for Walsh, Scott and the build-up in general, while Kirby feels as though she’d be better suited to playing as a more traditional #10 in a 4-2-3-1.

With Arsenal having strong progression numbers in the FAWSL, having an Arsenal triangle of Williamson, Nobbs and Mead on the left certainly seems like it could help England progress the ball on that side.

For what it’s worth, I still think Kirby can be effective in the role, but I would like to see the trio of Williamson, Nobbs and Mead given a chance together over on that side.

Finally

The way I like to think about how England create overloads out wide is a diamond with the base being the ball side centre-back, the middle two being the full-back and Keira Walsh and the tip being the ball side midfielder. If England do progress the ball they can have a 2v1 against the full-back or draw a defender wide from the centre and create space there.

A good example of this can be seen against Japan. You can see the diamond shape I mentioned as Bronze recieves the ball, while Scott’s movement pulls the central midfielder with her and opens up space for Walsh to go into White’s feet, dragging the centre-back out of position and allowing England to get at the Japanese defence.

Having a left side capable of progressing the ball like the right side does should help make England a lot more effective, while also giving them some variety in their build-up – rather than being so reliant on Lucy Bronze.

Keira Walsh

Walsh was a player I was looking forward to seeing in this World Cup as she popped up as one of the best progressive passers in the FAWSL, probably the best midfielder, when I looked before.

I think, due to some sloppiness on the ball, her tournament was a bit mixed, but her passing range and ability is a huge strength for England and should be utilized as much as possible.

While some of her passes or touches did seem a bit sloppy, it may also be due to how she receives the ball. @EveryTeam_Mark found that she received the ball under pressure quite a bit when he looked at the semi-final match-ups. It isn’t too surprising given the screenshot above from the Japan game where she’s surrounded by Japanese players as she receives the ball with her back to play.

On the ball, Walsh does seem like she’ll turn over possession a few times per match, but only because she’s looking to progress the ball and when it comes off, it’s hugely effective. Her pass that progressed the ball towards goal by the most was against Japan, sending Rachel Daly in on goal.

It’s not as though her only good passes were long balls over the top though. The below pass against Cameroon is a nicely weighted ball out wide to Nikita Parris.

She played a few good passes against Japan to start moves on the right, like the clip I used above showing an attack. Then there’s also the below one, where Jill Scott makes a rare error when it comes to her around the corner type pass – I think she may have even been able to let it run straight through to Bronze.

Against the USA she played a cross field ball to Mead leading to the goal, a nice pass for Scott before the offside goal, as well as a nice pass out wide to Bronze in some space.

These passes show what she’s capable of but, with some sloppy errors and not huge progression numbers, it feels as though she lacked a bit of consistency this summer. Given she’s only 22-years-old, this is her first international tournament and the pressure numbers for when she received the ball, I don’t think it’s a huge worry.

One weird quirk in her numbers is that she makes quite a few pressures, 5th most for England, yet has the least defensive actions per 90. I should probably dive into why, to see whether she isn’t turning pressures into winning the ball back, or whether it’s a situation where she pressures players out wide and then one of the defenders wins it back, but I feel like I’m rambling enough as it is.

She’s reportedly handed in a transfer request at Manchester City, amid interest from Lyon, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens there. With her already strong technical ability and Bronze’s endorsement of Lyon, it does feel as though she could make huge strides if she was to move to the French club.

Attack and The Importance of Ellen White

Moving forward, the importance of Ellen White for England can’t be understated. It’s something I talked about in the preview for the Norway game and, although her numbers have taken a bit of a hit compared to then, it’s something that’s stayed true come the end of the tournament.

White has the most pressures in the final third p90 in the whole tournament and also has strong numbers for pass progression received p90 as can be seen below.

Click to Enlarge

Her goals are obviously the highlight, but being the player to lead the press and offering a focal point upfront should England need to go direct separates her from the likes of Jodie Taylor who are competing for the role.

White’s importance with her goals shouldn’t be discounted because of this as well though. It’s something I also mentioned in the preview for the Norway game, but England’s attackers didn’t do a great job of generating chances this tournament, which can be seen on the plot below.

Click to Enlarge

It’s why the attacking performance against Norway was probably my favourite. England did a good job of creating both quality and quantity. The cut backs for Scott and White were good chances, but England also had a few mid quality shots from people other than White. Parris had 3 shots (not including the penalty), Scott had 3, while Stanway came off the bench to have 2 and Mead had 1.

The game against the USA was the opposite of Norway, where White had 2 shots and no one else had more than one. In open play the only shots England had were White’s goal and two long shots, one from Walsh and one from Jade Moore.

It’d be nice to see the likes of Mead, Kirby and Parris taking more shots from just inside or even around the edge of the area.

It shouldn’t come as a detriment to trying to create good quality chances, but with such tight games in the latter stages of tournaments, it feels as though only trying to create the perfect chance can have its drawbacks and it may be worth trying to up the shot volume in and around the box – particularly when you have technically gifted players like Kirby and Mead.

Beth Mead is also a player worth highlighting for England and, while Toni Duggan is an extremely talented player too, it was disappointing to see Mead lose her spot.

Mead and Duggan both played just shy of 250 minutes in the end and Mead was much more productive. Mead has the highest xG assisted per 90 in the entire tournament, mostly thanks to her crosses leading to goals in the games against Argentina and the United States.

Her xG + xA of 0.62 per 90 was only behind White for England. The next closest was Nikita Parris with 0.30 per 90, while Toni Duggan had 0.20 per 90.

@Stillberto wrote about her transformation from an out and out forward to a winger for ArseBlog and she seems to have almost everything you want from a wide forward. She’s strong technically, capable of scoring and creating with both feet while also possessing strong set piece taking, while she also had strong numbers for attempted dribbles and progression received in the FAWSL last season.

I don’t mean to belittle or disregard Duggan, but it does feel as though Mead offers a lot more for England on the left flank than the Barcelona forward does.

It’d be wrong to talk about England’s attack without mentioning Nikita Parris. As briefly mentioned earlier, the forward was a huge part of England’s right side, she had the 3rd highest xG + xA per 90 for England, the 4th most pass progression per 90, the 2nd most pass progression received per 90 and the most dribbles attempted per 90.

Her performance against Norway was probably her best. She set up 2 chances for Ellen White, had 3 shots of her own and linked up with Lucy Bronze on the right for the opening goal.

Then, how can you forget her great bit of skill in the opening game against Scotland, introducing the kind of combinations we’d see on the right flank.

I’ve talked about the right side enough, but the combination of Bronze’s powerful and direct running and Parris’ 1v1 ability in tight spaces really is a huge strength of England’s. It’ll be interesting to see both how Parris develops at Lyon and also if they can recreate this relationship there. It also makes it all the more frustrating that we didn’t get this right side from the start in the semi-final.

Conclusion

England still may not match their showing in Canada four years ago, but I do think there’s positives to take from this World Cup campaign.

The right side produced some of the best (or at least my favourite) football of the tournament, while they had strong underlying numbers in every game. America changing to 5-4-1 early in the second half helped but, after an initial flurry of shots, England looked pretty even with the US, they just didn’t do enough in the final third to turn possession into shots.

I think my main bugbear with Neville is changing the team and system for the game against the US. Norway’s performance helped, but the game against Norway was where it looked like things had started to click, after a stop-start game against Cameroon.

With the ball, England looked strong, combining well on the right and creating both a good quantity and quality of chances. Without the ball they did a great job of stopping Norway progressing the ball through the midfield, with their attackers not being able to receive the ball how they did against Australia.

To go and alter things that have been working before the biggest game just doesn’t make much sense to me.

Moving on from here I’d quite like to see England bring in Leah Williamson for Millie Bright to help with the build-up and progression from defence, while also having the left sided midfield player’s movement be more like that of Jill Scott’s on the other side. I think Fran Kirby’s capable of doing this, but it’d be quite nice to see Jordan Nobbs be given a chance there should she recapture her pre-injury form.

In attack I don’t think there needs to be a personnel change but it does feel as though England need to find a way to get their wingers into goal scoring areas more often.

With England combining well down the flanks and capable of getting into good cutback areas, it feels as though there’s a window for the wingers to chip in with some goals. Both Mead and Parris have played upfront, so both seem great candidates to be goalscoring wingers who arrive at the back post when the ball is being cut back from the other side, but it’s not something that happened during the World Cup.

Failing that, it’d also be nice to see England take more shots, particularly in even games. While I’m not advocating for 30-yard potshots, both Mead and Kirby on the left seem capable of opening their body up and digging out a few shots in and around the edge of the area, yet both finished the tournament with just 3 shots each.

Having said that this is my first real venture into women’s football, I can’t compare this World Cup campaign to the last and judge if any progress has been made, but I do think there’s reasons to be optimistic about this England side. There’s still a lot of room for improvement, but there’s also lots positives to be taken from the performances in this campaign.

Data from StatsBomb

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *