For all the positive football and balls hitting the back of the net at the SheBelieves Cup last month, England was dealt a familiar taste of the past under Phil Neville as the Lionesses spluttered to a frustrating 0-0 draw at home to Wales in World Cup qualifying.
England did more than enough to win a game against a Welsh side who were happy to play for a point that keeps them top of the group and with a great chance of at least making the playoffs, while Neville will rest safe in the knowledge a win against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Tuesday puts his side in the driving seat.
With much to ponder regarding team selection, tactics, and a familiar lack of cutting edge against a tight defense, there’s also an acceptance Jayne Ludlow’s tactics were perfect and her Dragons executed the game plan to perfection.
Goalkeeper Laura O’Sullivan — rightly named player of the match — put in a superb performance given she plays semiprofessional football in Wales while many of her teammates are full-time in the FA Women’s Super League.
O’Sullivan brilliantly tipped a dipping effort from Jordan Nobbs over the bar in the first half and continued her performance for the full 90 minutes as she continuously frustrated England’s attack.
Though Sophie Ingle and Hayley Ladd may be more familiar with midfield roles, both excelled as a center back pairing while Rhiannon Roberts and Loren Dykes did their best to thwart England out wide.
Wales can also lay claim to the best chance of the match. After Carly Telford denied Rachel Rowe, the ensuing attack saw England’s defense once again look unorganized as Natasha Harding was given a free shot from the edge of the box.
Her effort deflected toward goal off returning captain Steph Houghton and appeared to cross the line before Lucy Bronze cleared the ball away, although credit goes to Bronze for doing enough to ensure it was a less-than-easy call even with the benefit of four or five replays.
From there on in England dominated the match but only ever tested O’Sullivan from long range. Jodie Taylor started up front with Toni Duggan on the left but with Phil Neville admitting after the game he told his team to take short corners because he’d never seen a goal from a corner in the FA WSL, it appeared strange he set his team up in a way that meant crosses were his side’s best chance of causing Wales problems.
On the odd occasion Jordan Nobbs defied the message and swung her corners into the box they caused issues for Wales’ defense and O’Sullivan. Perhaps it would have been more prudent to use Duggan up top — a position she’s played for Barcelona this season — with the impressive Mel Lawley out wide, the in-form Ellen White or even Fran Kirby who could have caused the defense more issues with her footwork than a rather isolated and static Taylor managed.
Neville continued his experiment of playing Kirby in midfield and once again it didn’t appear to get the best out of the Chelsea star. Instead of doing what she does best and tying what eventually became a tired defense in knots, Kirby was too deep to have any influence inside the box.
It once again left England’s midfield without balance. A tired looking Keira Walsh was left with sole defensive duties behind Nobbs and Kirby while another in-form player, Izzy Christiansen, wasn’t even brought off the bench.
The defense didn’t have a whole lot to do but too early in the match did England go back to what become the go-to reserve tactic under Mark Sampson — the long ball. Nothing wrong with that with five minutes to go but the move played into Wales’ hands and was a world away from the football on show from the Lionesses at the SheBelieves Cup.
While England in general performed well and did little wrong bar managing to beat O’Sullivan, the biggest concern is that they once again failed to break down a team that were happy to sit back with everyone behind the ball.
Two years ago England faced back-to-back Euro 2017 qualifiers against Belgium and Tuesday’s opponent Bosnia and managed just two goals in the two games. Belgium held the lead for a large part of the match in Rotherham before Jill Scott’s late equalizer and it took until the very last minute for them to beat semiprofessional side Bosnia.
It was a theme that lasted until shortly before the Euros as England struggled to score against Italy in a warm-up friendly and the warning signs returned early in this game.
Overall Neville has still had a good start to his time in charge and now is certainly the time to tinker and find out what your players can and can’t do rather than at the World Cup next year, but there are clear signs Neville is yet to unlock his best eleven in the system he appears set on.
His hands were tied somewhat by losing the likes of Jill Scott and Millie Bright before the match with Scott generally playing an important box-to-box role in the middle, but there’s still plenty of work to do to get his team to work out how to get past a team happy to sit back.