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

Matchday Two: Japan

Speaking to the BBC before the game, Neville said he wanted a better performance in the game against Japan. He said the key objective was to perform well before saying they want to play on the front-foot and in Japan’s half, with lots of energy in the midfield in attack. He referred to (Bethany) England, Stanway, Nobbs, Hemp and Chloe Kelly as the front five, which feels right given how they lined up in the game.

On paper, it’s a good line-up. With Hemp and Kelly on the sides of their dominant foot it seemed England were looking for width to stretch the Japanese 4-4-2 and create space in between the lines for the likes of Nobbs and Stanway. All of this is fine, but the difficulty came in getting the ball into these areas. England’s midfielders, except Keira Walsh, pushed right up to be on the Japanese backline. If England get the ball forward it’s great. They’ve got five attackers running at Japan’s back four, but it also made it harder for England to move from the back.

I talked about a similar problem after the World Cup, with the midfield running off and leaving Keira Walsh alone in the middle. My main memory of it is the below screenshot.

England opted for a similar strategy in the recent game, giving us a nice sequel to the above.

Then, from earlier in the match, you get to see just how much Walsh is surrounded in motion. I don’t have any opinion on what this means, I just think it looks quite funny.

I always make these diagrams look messy, but this is the kind of shape the sides had when England looked to build from the back.

Japan positioned themselves high and narrow, cutting off access to Walsh. England mostly moved it from side to side again, with the midfielders rarely dropping and helping with the build-up. England’s joy seemed to come from being either more direct or winning the ball high up.

If England went to (Bethany) England early, she could knock the ball down and have four players ahead of the Japan midfield and ready to run at the defence. England could collect the second balls and Japan’s backline would likely be disorganised or exposed. But if England want to play Neville’s non-negotiable, patient build-up play, there’s nothing centrally, making it easy for Japan to move side to side as England go from full-back to full-back.

There were a couple of instances where England combined well on the flanks, like in the below clip. You can see how high up the England midfield are and Kelly drops slightly deeper before playing a 1-2 with Nobbs. Kelly plays the return ball too soon, but it’s an instance where this approach works. They play around the Japanese block and have dragged two of the back four out of position, giving themselves some space to move into.

The idea of a front five isn’t new (I feel kind of weird about linking paywalled content, but Michael Cox wrote a good piece in the Atheltic about it), it’s how a lot of top teams play, but England’s play in getting the ball up to those five tends to not be great.

A lot of the time from England this set-up can feel like they’re trying to run before they can walk. Sure, if they can progress the ball past the Japanese midfield they’re in a great position, but by having such a disconnect between the defence and attack they’re not going to progress it as often as they could or should.

It’s a situation that makes me question the role of the full-backs too. You do wonder whether the full-backs could play differently, particularly against this Japan 4-4-2. If they could tuck in they could support Walsh in the middle and possibly open up the flanks for passes to the wingers – especially if the wingers were to drop slightly deeper in response to the full-backs moving inwards. It’d still leave the midfield two stayed close to England centrally.

Having midfielders or wingers drop to create overloads is an option I’ve mentioned a lot, but England still have five players with the back four and Walsh (you could argue six if the manager likes to involve the ‘keeper in the build-up) when they build from the back. England’s full-backs seemed in a funny place during this tournament. They stayed wide but didn’t push forward all that often. It helped make England predictable in the build-up. When the ball was passed out to them, they could be pressed and forced into a low probability ball down the line or just knock it back to where it came from.

Was it an improvement on the USA game?

This is genuinely tough to say. A lot of this is dependent on what England were trying to do versus what England actually did. If the plan was to play on the front-foot and in the Japanese half like Neville said, then there’s plenty of reason to say this wasn’t a good performance at all. They got a bit better after the subs were made in the second half, but, for the most part, England just didn’t do what Neville said they intended to. If England wanted to try and get Nobbs and Stanway on the ball, particularly between the lines, they didn’t do that too well either. The graphic below shows their received passes against Japan. Nobbs got on the ball more but a lot of her advanced receptions were out wide.

It would have been nice to see Nobbs given more freedom to drop and link in midfield, like she did in her cameo against the US, and leave Stanway to roam behind the striker. Nobbs attempted 41 passes against Japan, which isn’t too much more than her 23 attempted passes against the US, where she played a third of the time. Fresh legs in humid weather can affect her numbers against the hosts, but you would have liked to see Nobbs get on the ball more often than she did, particularly in a front-footed system.

It’d also have given some support for Walsh and likely a few more opportunities on the ball. England have someone with a great passing range in Walsh, who can help dictate games, but it doesn’t feel like they’re doing much to help utilise this.

Walsh spoke about how the criticism in the World Cup made her question if she wants to be playing football at all, which can make you feel bad to see just how isolated she is in midfield. There’ll obviously be times where she makes mistakes or could have done something better, like every player on the pitch, but there are also plenty of times she seems to have no help both in and out of possession, making it hard to be critical of her individually.

Despite playing with quite a few of her club teammates, she always seems to get on the ball less and be more defensively exposed when playing for England – both of which seem more dependent on the team than the individual. Sometimes it can feel like she isn’t aggressive in looking to progress the play, mostly when she receives the ball with her back to goal, but this feels far from the cause of England’s problems in the build-up.

If Neville’s pre-match interview was different and England had set out to keep things tight and hit Japan in transition, the performance could be classed as a decent one. Japan didn’t offer too much threat going forward, shots they had tended to be from a bit of a distance or tight angle, while England created a couple of nice chances after winning the ball high up. The problem is that this isn’t how they wanted to play, based on what Neville said before the game. If they did set out to play on the front-foot and in Japan’s half, it gives the impression things aren’t quite happening to make that statement a reality.