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Lessons from the Inaugural Arnold Clark Cup

As I sit here writing the introduction to this piece, it’s roughly a week since the first Arnold Clark Cup kicked off in Middlesbrough. A lot has happened, both on and off the pitch, in and out of sport, since last Thursday, but if you’d told me I’d be sat here contemplating the image of Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas and Millie Bright sharing a golden boot trophy and a player who wasn’t even in her nation’s squad this time last week winning player of the tournament, my reaction would likely have been a puzzled one.

Arnold Clark, man.

But aside from the oddities, the tournament delivered what it needed to, for both fans and the players and staff involved. Unsurprisingly, given all four nations involved are currently ranked in the top 10 worldwide, the games were closely fought, competitive, and in the end, provided a dramatic final 10 minutes of competition.

No one game was decided by more than one goal until Fran Kirby’s stoppage-time breakaway in the final minute of the tournament, and all coaches involved will have learned plenty about their players, their teams, and for three of them, their chances of success at the European Championships this summer — the ultimate goal and why this tournament was facilitated in the first place, to offer the ideal preparation.

It was England who walked away with the silverware, and while it was nice to see players and fans celebrate together after too many games played behind closed doors, there are the usual caveats that come with friendly tournaments. All four nations had key players missing and every one of the six games descended into substitute-induced chaos in the second halves amid an amount of rotation that wouldn’t happen in the heat of a major tournament.

Lionesses head coach Sarina Wiegman said pre-tournament she wanted to learn more about her players after having only seen them compete against lesser European nations and post-tournament admitted she had indeed learned a lot. She played players in various positions, shifted them around, offered them different challenges, and generally made sure she saw everything she wanted to, with positive results to match.

Only Because of Wiegman Do We Know who England’s Number One Is

One thing that was obvious heading into the tournament was every England goalkeeper would get a game, with Mary Earps facing Canada and Hannah Hampton producing a superb debut display and England’s only clean sheet against Spain, while Ellie Roebuck returned to international duty after a lengthy injury against Germany.

All three stated their case for the No. 1 shirt, but it was Wiegman who admitted pre-Germany that Manchester United goalkeeper Earps is her current number one, and rightly so.

Injuries are a tough part of sport and Roebuck has done nothing to deserve losing her shirt, one she gained through performances for all of Manchester City, England, and Team GB. But such has been the nature of Roebuck’s absence and Earps’ form for United, it would be unfair not to give the latter the opportunity against tougher opposition.

Earps had yet to concede a goal under Wiegman until Janine Beckie’s brilliant effort a week ago but also had come up against teams in which conceding would have been nothing but an embarrassment.

With both likely to be number ones for their clubs until the end of the season, the battle is on for both, and there’s still little doubt that Roebuck, given her age and potential to develop, will eventually wrestle that shirt back, but the United stopper has earned her shot.

A Tale of Center Backs and Fullbacks

England’s defense was an ever-increasing question mark toward the end of Phil Neville’s tenure as head coach, and it still was coming into these games off the back of a series of World Cup qualifiers which left the Lionessses defense untested.

The Arnold Clark Cup offered a promising outlook from this point of view, with the Lionesses conceding only twice against three top-class opponents, both of which neither Earps or Roebuck could do anything about, although the way in which England conceded possession in the buildup is certainly something to work on.

The most promising aspect was the center back pairing of Bright and Alex Greenwood. While her goals against Canada and Germany took the headlines, Bright is in top form at the heart of defense for both club and country and has found an unlikely ally in former fullback Greenwood.

I’ll be honest, I always felt Greenwood was more incisive in her attacking play than defensive play as a fullback, so I was skeptical when originally she moved to the center of defense first for Man City, then for England. But, she couldn’t have done more to prove me and other skeptics wrong and has quickly turned into a very good center back.

The awkward question now surrounds captain Steph Houghton, who only this morning will now undergo another surgery on her persistent Achilles injury, further casting doubt on her involvement in the Euros.

Getting the emotional stuff out of the way first, it would be a huge shame if the long-serving captain who has been through plenty both on and off the pitch of late missed her home Euros, and hopefully the surgery can mean she is fit in time for July, even if it means missing the rest of the club season.

There’s little doubt given her stature and importance on and off the field that if Houghton is fit come the summer, she will be part of the England squad, but even if she is, does Wiegman risk splitting up what is becoming a very competent center back pairing for a player who has had minimal game time lately.

That links nicely to the other element of England’s defense — fullbacks. The left back spot hasn’t really been nailed down. Demi Stokes offers a solid presence while Jess Carter had an impressive tournament, and intriguingly was tested out in that role against Germany, sadly, though, succumbing to an injury before halftime.

It would be an easy out for Wiegman to shift Greenwood to left back should neither Carter nor Stokes nail the role down, and while the other side of the pitch seems more secure with Lucy Bronze, the Man City right back didn’t enjoy her best tournament.

There are caveats. Bronze hasn’t played a huge amount of football this season, particularly for England, and there were definite glimpses of the old Bronze going forward, particularly against Spain, but defensively she had a hard time against Athenea del Castillo and then Klara Bühl on Wednesday, although as Lauren Hemp showed, the best fullbacks can struggle against the best wingers.

Bronze has plenty of credit in the bank and like all top players has a knack of performing when it matters and popping up at the biggest moments. See the 2015 and 2019 World Cups and the 2020 Olympic Games as good examples.

Midfield Conundrum Solved?

The above also links into another issue that was starting to become more obvious with England: a clear lack of midfield depth. Wiegman doesn’t have a huge amount of midfielders knocking on the door, hence the continued inclusions of 35-year-old Jill Scott, who admittedly did as good a job as anyone of handling Alexia Putellas against Spain.

While Jordan Nobbs, Katie Zelem, and Georgia Stanway all offer different qualities, there’s a distinct feeling there are few options to help out Keira Walsh when it comes to holding down the England midfield and protecting the defense.

Step up, captain Leah Williamson. I can’t lie, I am delighted Wiegman sees Williamson as a midfield option, despite now being a long-standing defender for both Arsenal and England. In one of Williamson’s first sit-down interviews with me in 2015, she told me about how she enjoyed her box-to-box role; anyone who saw her chipped goal against Chelsea in the FA WSL as a teenager will attest to her ability to break forward.

With Bright and Greenwood holding down the defense and Houghton to return, there is really no excuse not to use Williamson in her natural role, not only potentially getting the best out of her but also curing a potential problem for the Lionesses head coach in shifting depth not needed elsewhere into a position where it is very much needed.

Besides their quality on the ball and ability to also read a game defensively, Walsh and Williamson have a connection, having played together throughout the England youth teams, and it was obvious from the very moment the opening game kicked off against Canada last week.

Williamson didn’t take long to return to that marauding box-to-box role, popping up in the Canada box to get crosses into the box and then drifting to the edge of the box where she very nearly found the corner to score the opening goal, and the same happened again against Germany.

With Fran Kirby likely to play a more advanced No. 10 role, Wiegman will likely have to settle on a more rigid 4-2-3-1 than 4-3-3, so it makes absolute sense to keep Williamson and Walsh together for the long-term.

England’s Attack is Exciting but also its Biggest Question Mark

It is very hard not to be excited about England’s attacking options right now. And not just for the here and now, not just for Australia/New Zealand in 2023, not even for the next Euros in 2025, but for the next decade.

While Ellen White showed she still has plenty to give with a battling performance against Spain where she held the ball up brilliantly, her instinct to make space for herself and find the net against Germany proved that like Bronze, she still has the knack of popping up when needed most, whatever her form at club level. White has throughout the past 12 months been a constant source of goals for her country.

But while White approaches the back end of her career, the same cannot be said for the rest of England’s attack.

Lauren Hemp was undoubtedly the outstanding attacker for the Lionesses throughout the tournament, almost to the point it became painful watching Germany’s Maximiliane Rall trying to deal with her on Wednesday. Canada’s Jayde Riviere suffered a similar tough night last week, while Hemp’s introduction at the break against Spain brought almost instant rewards.

Her agility, speed, and skill make her one of the most terrifying wingers to play against anywhere in the world right now, but there is still the argument her end product needs work. At 21, Hemp is still young and it’s easy to forget given how long she has been at the top level, and that in itself tells its own story.

But too often Hemp did the hard work and then hesitated or saw crosses go awry or blocked — no huge crime, that happens. But if she can refine her technique and add more goals and assists to her game, she is going to be one of Europe’s very best for a long, long time and a key weapon for the Lionesses.

Elsewhere, England’s other attackers were on the periphery and there will be worries that while the Lionesses enjoyed spells of control in all three games and often got into good positions, there was a lack of clear-cut chances, albeit nobody expects to create chance after chance against three of the best teams in the world.

Ella Toone worked hard but is still adapting to top-level international football, while Alessia Russo would likely be better off in the right wing role after struggling to gain the service she needed playing as the striker against Canada, again with the caveat she was up against one of the toughest defenses in the world.

Beth Mead had minimal game time but was lively against Spain, while Nikita Parris once again cut a frustrated figure but did offer energy late against both Canada and Germany.

The reality is, though, for all the above, winning the tournament will do England the world of good. It was clear on any media day the poor run of form post-World Cup semifinal heartbreak was negatively affecting the team, game by game, defeat by defeat.

As the saying goes, winning breeds winning, and as England discovered all too recently, losing breeds losing. Winning the Arnold Clark Cup does absolutely not mean the Lionesses will lift the European Championships, but it will do them no harm.

The Rivals

Alexia and Athenea’s Statement of Intent

I mentioned at the top of this piece that a player not in the squad seven days ago won player of the tournament. Bizarre, right? Real Madrid forward Athenea was initially left out of the Spain squad by head coach Jorge Vilda and was only called up after Mariona Caldentey limped out of their first game against Germany.

The flying winger then didn’t feature in the first half against England, but introduced herself to the rest of Europe in the second half, giving Bronze a horrid time down England’s left side as a constant source of danger for her nation.

While all the talk surrounding Spain is their core of FC Barcelona dominant players, including the midfield trio of Putellas, Aitana Bonmatí, and Patri Guijarro, some of their most exciting youngsters come from elsewhere. See not only Real’s Athenea, but Athletic Club’s Lucía García and Real Sociedad duo Amaiur Sarriegi and Nerea Eizagirre.

Following up her cameo against England with a superb performance against Canada, Athenea was awarded player of the tournament despite only turning up after the first round of games — quite the achievement.

Ballon d’Or winner Putellas was one of only two players to score more than once in the tournament (Hi, Millie), and did what big players do, pop up when their team needs them most. Alexia was particularly influential in Spain’s best performance of the tournament against Canada on Wednesday and offered a statement of intent ahead of the Euros this summer.

Germany Stutter but There are Positive Signs

Looking at the final table, it would look like a poor tournament for Martina Voss-Tecklenburg’s side. That, though, doesn’t tell the full story given the incredible amount of players unavailable to the Germany head coach.

Aside from key players like Dzsenifer Marozsán, Melanie Leupolz, and Svenja Huth, there were plenty more unavailable on top of that, leaving Germany heavily handicapped against their rivals. That didn’t stop them putting in three respectable performances; firstly, giving Spain some real issues in the game where they arguably had enough chances to win the game before drawing a blank against the solid Canada side.

They didn’t start well against England but grew into the game and if we’re being honest, forced England into arguably their most uncomfortable half of the tournament before Bright popped up with the late winner.

Germany had a handful of uncapped players in the squad and while I said this tournament in the summer may be one too early for them, and I standby it, there are signs of a really exciting generation coming through.

Merle Frohms was the best goalkeeper of the tournament, while the likes of Sophia Kleinherne, Lena Oberdorf, Nicole Anyomi, Klara Bühl, and Jule Brand all showed glimpses of why they are going to make up key parts of this Germany squad for the next decade and beyond.

Canada the Odd One Out

Bev Priestman’s side always came into the inaugural Arnold Clark Cup with different expectations for various reasons. Firstly, half the squad is still in preseason ahead of the new NWSL season, and secondly, they will not be at the European Championships this summer.

Priestman is now focused further ahead to the 2023 World Cup and while few would be underestimating them given their Olympic success, Canada only emphasized the point they are no longer one of the underdogs going into major tournaments.

Given they were at a different stage of their season to their European counterparts, they offered all three of England, Germany, and Spain a really tough test.

Their defense is now clear as one of the best in the world, with Jayde Riviere and Vanessa Gilles emerging alongside the world-class duo of Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan, the latter one of the outstanding performers of the tournament.

As expected, they proved tough to break down throughout the competition and if they can add more goals to their game through the likes of Jordyn Huitema who enjoyed a positive tournament, under Priestman they are going to be a force to be reckoned with for tournaments to come.