There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Mark Sampson has done an incredible job with the England women’s senior side since taking over late in 2013. A team that was eliminated without a sole victory in Euro 2013 walked away from last summer’s World Cup with a bronze medal and have consistently put themselves within touching distance of the world’s big three — France, Germany, and the United States.
This month, England in taking on all three countries within a week of each other in the SheBelieves Cup, and it’s another three games for Sampson to test his squad against the best. This is a manager who is unbelievably methodical in his approach to each match, and has a different formation and lineup for every opponent.
But while Sampson has made England incredibly solid on a back five based largely on goalkeeper Karen Bardsley plus defenders Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton, Laura Bassett, and Alex Greenwood, his intense pressing system isn’t getting the best out of the abundance of attacking talent available to him. The 33-year-old took a hefty cadre of attackers to Canada and he has several more currently in England preparing to be selected in the future — competition for places up front has never been this competitive.
Yet the cold, hard facts aren’t good. Since England walked out for their first international at Wembley against the Germans in November 2014, Sampson’s Lionesses have faced the “big three” six times, winning just once and managing one goal, and a penalty at that. They have managed 16 shots on target in those six matches, never more than three in a game and have by-and-large tested different attacking combinations in every encounter.
Against the U.S. on Thursday night, Toni Duggan ran herself into the ground and looked bereft of energy when she was finally replaced late on. This is a striker who scored goal after goal in the FA WSL last season, yet she has regularly cut a frustrated figure at the lack of goals for her national side lately. Against Germany in 2014, it was Lianne Sanderson the Manchester City striker found herself partnered with, with Eniola Aluko in a wider position.
When England took on the U.S. in Milton Keynes last year, Jodie Taylor paired up top with Fran Kirby and in the World Cup opener against France, hard-working Ellen White was given the role of pressing Wendie Renard and Co., a role she was also given against Germany in the third-place match in the World Cup. It was once again Taylor and Kirby when England went to Germany at the end of 2015, with Demi Stokes starting in an unfamiliar wide role. She once again took up that position against the U.S. last week with Taylor partnering Duggan up front in a 4-4-2 formation that saw Fara Williams out wide and Jordan Nobbs in a deeper role.
The England side that took on the U.S. were competitive, no doubt about that. Had it not been for a superb Crystal Dunn effort, England may well have walked away with a point against a side that doesn’t drop points easily on home turf. But Sampson has made England solid now, there is a base there, and it’s good enough to allow England’s attack more freedom — they’re good enough. Germany aren’t in their best-ever spell at the moment and it would be the perfect chance to let Duggan, Carney, Kirby and Co. weave the magic we so often see on a domestic level.
While the rise of England women’s team is superb and Sampson has again done a sensational job up to this point, it’s time to start forcing the issue ourselves. One spot kick in six games against the top teams isn’t enough, will tonight finally be the night England get their goal from open play against the Germans?