Looking at England’s build-up in the SheBelieves Cup

Matchday One: USA

It can be hard to measure progress at international level, with such few games and special circumstances, but the game against the US was always going to be billed as an opportunity to see if England have closed the gap between the two sides. After a closely fought semi-final, many would have hoped for much of the same, but England were dominated this time around.

There were some encouraging signs for England in the early stages of the game. The midfield three of the US seemed to match up fairly aggressively to England’s midfield three. Rose Lavelle stayed close to Keira Walsh to stop her collecting the ball from the defence, Lindsey Horan marked Jill Scott, which left Julie Ertz with Georgia Stanway. What made it seem aggressive was the fact Ertz followed Stanway when she dropped into her own half.

In the clip below, which was probably one of England’s best attacking sequences on the night, Stanway pulls Ertz with her which opens up space in front of the US back four. Millie Bright plays the ball to Ellen White’s feet, who’s followed by Abby Dahlkemper, creating some space for England to move into. It leads to Hemp putting a ball into the box and, though nothing came of it, it was a positive start from England.

Seeing this so early on, it would have been nice for England to try and take advantage of how aggressive the US midfield were playing. Stanway dragging Ertz away could have opened up a lot of space in the midfield for England.

Five minutes later England had a less successful sequence playing out from the back.

Before going any further, it’s worth pointing out I’m not an analyst/coach/anything like that, I’m just someone with too much time on their hands, so I don’t really know optimal ways of building from the back. But watching the clips, it’s fun to think if you were the player in possession and wanted to move the ball forward, what would you do? So many times for England, it feels like there’s not really a good answer to this question.

Sometimes the broadcast angle isn’t great for this but thought I’d screenshot a couple of instances where a player gets the ball and show how few options there seems to be.

It starts with Steph Houghton, who pushes it wide to Leah Williamson, which is fine, but when the ball reaches Williamson, it’s hard to see what she can do other than go back to Houghton. Nikita Parris isn’t in shot, but with both Christen Press and Lindsey Horan ahead of Williamson, it’d be tough to pull off a pass down the line. Jill Scott’s dropped deep, but is arguably too close, particularly with how she’s been followed by Horan, to be a good option. While I’ve talked and will talk about midfielders dropping, it may be better for Scott to look to move away, hoping Horan will follow, in the hopes of opening up space for another passing lane.

Unsurprisingly, Williamson does go back to Houghton, who then goes to Bright on the other side.

While there are no immediate options, it’s disappointing that Bright didn’t look to carry the ball forward to try and commit some of the US players. In this instance the US aren’t as aggressive as the previous clip, with Carli Lloyd blocking Keira Walsh off, the two central-midfielders matched up against England’s two and Ertz free to guard the back four.

If Bright could have carried the ball forward, trying to get a player to leave their shape, it could have opened up a passing opportunity for her. It’s where the difference between how players play for their club compared to their country. You’d be pretty confident that Bright would look to carry the ball forward from defence if she was given the ball with space in front of her when playing for Chelsea.

In the end, she goes back to Houghton who then goes back out to Williamson. Press had tucked in a bit, so Williamson has some space and, like Bright, it would have been nice to see her try and drive into it more, rather than looking for the ball up the line to Parris. It may be because she sees Press shuttle over, which makes it an instance where Lucy Bronze was missed, who likely would have tried to drive further up the pitch and embraced the physical challenge with Press.

It’s hard to be too critical of Williamson though, given she’s filling in at right-back you expect some differences to how a more orthodox right-back would play there. Having said that, Williamson has played some different roles and positions for Arsenal. I think she’s filled in at right-back for Arsenal in the past, while this season she’s played as the right-sided centre-back in a back three with license to push forward, having Swiss international Lia W√§lti cover the space in the back three.

Having Williamson run the line like a typical full-back likely won’t go well as it doesn’t suit her qualities, but England could have played her as a more defensive/inverted full-back, which could have brought some more joy. Unless Rachel Daly had a knock, it’s surprising she didn’t get the nod to play if Neville wanted someone more in the mold of an orthodox right-back (even though she doesn’t play her club football there).

This type of sequence was a common theme for England though. The ball was played to the full-backs, who seemed to have nowhere to go other than a hopeful ball down the line. There was little movement from both the wide attackers and central midfielders to try and drop deep to create overloads or disrupt the US shape.

The build-up to Nikita Parris’ offside header was a situation where this worked, thanks to a bit of movement from Stanway and Hemp, but still doesn’t seem great.

The reason I don’t think it seems great is that it feels reliant on low probability passes or individual quality. Hemp comes deep and brings Kelley O’Hara with her which opens up space for Stanway to drift wide. Lavelle follows Stanway which creates some space for Walsh in midfield, who pings it to Parris running into the box.

It’s good individually, each player plays that part well, but it doesn’t seem sustainable to put these kinds of moves together given the pass up the line and the one into the box. It almost feels like England are reliant on individual quality when it comes to progressing the ball. It’s up to players like Houghton and Walsh to pull off these kinds of passes in order for England to move the ball from back to front, rather than these kinds of passes being a nice bonus on top of a sound structure.

Talking like this can feel vague and I feel like I’m going in circles, but I think teams should have strict structures. It doesn’t have to revolve around a specific formation or shape but should reduce reliance on individuals. A minor contradiction is that it should ideally be tailored to the qualities a team has, but it shouldn’t rely on these qualities.

England should be able to progress the ball because they systematically create overloads or have movement that creates space in certain areas of the pitch. They shouldn’t rely on players like Walsh or Houghton hitting a whatever-yard line-breaking pass. That’s a nice thing to have, but if you’re reliant on it all it takes is one of those players to have a bad game and everything falls apart.

It’s similar to xG. You want to play in a way that helps you create more goalscoring opportunities, not be reliant on players taking limited or low probability goalscoring chances.

Part of me thinks I think like this because I worry and think what if a player doesn’t have a good game or doesn’t pull that pass off, but if England don’t improve in this aspect it’s hard to see them improving at all. It stops them getting up the field as often as they should and can lead to them turning the ball over in their own half more often, acting almost like a double jeopardy. They’ll create less and also give the opponent more opportunities to hit them in transition.

A clip a couple of minutes later shows England looking to break after winning the ball, but again the structure isn’t great.

Hemp does well to resist the pressure from O’Hara and squeeze the ball through to Stanway, but it’s hard to see what Stanway could do. Part of this is good play from the US – and Tobin Heath in particular – to get back and halt the counter, but what’s frustrating from an England point of view is the positioning of Parris and Scott.

They’re both occupying the same space and neither looks to try and change that. It’s a fairly small window, but there could have been a chance for Stanway to play it across the pitch should Parris have darted into the centre, who could then run at the defence with White running in behind. Alternatively, Hemp could have made a run on the outside of Stanway, to try and stretch the play and create some space for her teammate.

Again, there were good sequences from England, but they were very much the exception. The typical pattern seemed to be passing it along the back four, before one of the full-backs looks to hit it up the line. But in the above clip, Bright carries the ball a bit, dragging Lloyd over, and Stanway drops deep, again with Ertz following her. It opens up some space in the middle, with Walsh able to turn on the ball after Lavelle goes to press the backwards pass to Houghton.

How did Jordan Nobbs change things?

What’s quite interesting is most the clips of England building well came down the left side, in contrast to the World Cup where most of this play was down the right. It’d be easy to think it’d be because of Bronze’s absence, but Greenwood didn’t really push forward much, with Hemp offering the width. The big difference seemed to be in the central midfielders. In two instances above where England moved the ball well, Stanway dropped to help in the build-up and dragged Ertz with her, which created some space in the middle. This just didn’t happen on the other side. Scott didn’t offer the same help in the build-up as her City teammate did on the other side. Sometimes she’d drop, like in one of the screenshots earlier, but didn’t seem to offer a great option. The graphic below shows the difference in how she received the ball against the US in the World Cup compared to the most recent game.

She offered a good option in that right channel back in 2019, but didn’t in Orlando. It may be systemic, but Jordan Nobbs came on and received three times as many passes as Scott did, despite playing half the time. Nobbs even received more passes than Stanway, which shows how it wasn’t common for the type of build-up play with Stanway dropping like above. It may just have been an off-day for Scott.

Two positives to take from the game would be Lauren Hemp’s performance and Jordan Nobbs’ performance after coming on. Scott seemed fairly static, rarely offering a strong option to pass to, but Nobbs was the opposite. The clip below is immediately after she came on and shows her constantly moving to be an option and glueing the side together. There are times it seems she may tread on Walsh’s toes, but just having another body in there offering a passing option seems to benefit England’s build-up. I couldn’t find a way to trim this down so have gone with Streamable, but the energy and movement Nobbs brought into the midfield can be seen below.

@Stillberto is quoted in a BBC article about Nobbs saying “It’s how she judges and sets the tempo of a game – everything she does is quick but never rushed and she always tries to go forward and break the lines.” The above clip shows this, while the below clip shows how her movement off the ball helped England when she came on too.

Nobbs gets the ball in midfield and doesn’t get it again until she sends the cross in, but she seems to be constantly moving to try and make the angle for a pass or helping to open passing lanes elsewhere. Scott didn’t offer this on the night.

This type of sequence feels closer to what you’d want to see from England. Nobbs drops in to help move the ball forward, before going forward herself and trying to find space in between the lines. As a result, the US midfield doesn’t want to press so much and leave the space for Nobbs to receive it, which means the centre-backs and Walsh have a bit more space to play in. Houghton carries the ball which commits Ertz. Nobbs looks to make the angle for the pass, which Ertz tries to close off, but this only creates space in the middle for Walsh to receive the ball. Nobbs moves again to try and make an angle to receive the ball between the lines, which is enough to drag Ertz inside slightly and allow Walsh to push the ball wide to Parris, who is 1v1 against Crystal Dunn. Nobbs move once again and has space to play a ball into the box.

This type of play from Nobbs shouldn’t come as a surprise, in the league this season she’s received the most progressive passes played along the ground by quite some distance (I used ground passes to try and differentiate between focal points and players finding pockets of space). She’s received 9.1 per 90, the next closest is teammate Beth Mead with 6.7 per 90.

England weren’t good against the US, but there are some clips above that show glimpses of good play. It just feels like there needs to be more movement when building from the back. Whether that movement is central midfielders dropping, wingers coming inside and having full-backs push up the line or centre-backs being more aggressive when carrying the ball to try and commit opposition players and disrupt the shape. Often with England things can feel too static, making it easy for the opposition to just funnel the passes from side to side, unless someone like Houghton or Walsh can step up and hit an improbable pass.

The game had me thinking about whether, in hindsight, the semi-final against the US was only so close because of Jill Ellis’ tendency to have her team retreat into a deep 5-4-1 shape when defending a lead. Had the US continued as normal after going into a 2-1 lead, would the late stages of the game have been more like the recent game in Orlando?