Updated: Jan 1, 2020
England enter the semifinals in good form, fresh off their best performance of the tournament—a 3-0 defeat of Norway. That match demonstrated both their strengths and weaknesses. It therefore provides a good template for understanding how they could win the tournament, or how they could lose it.
A strong and multifaceted attack
England’s primary strength is a dynamic and diverse attack. At the tip of the spear is Ellen White, who has probably done more than any other player to raise her stock over the course of this tournament. She has five goals, and has been integral to their attack. And this from a player who was by no means a certain starter coming in. This is because England’s strike force is extremely deep—almost certainly the second most powerful behind the US in the tournament.
Supporting White on the wings will likely be Nikita Parris and Toni Duggan (though the excellent Beth Mead could also make an appearance here). Both are top-quality strikers themselves, but have found themselves redeployed in support roles, to generally positive effect. Parris, in particular, has been devastatingly effective out wide, quite impressive for someone who is primarily a goal-poacher in her club role. But with England, Parris has been supremely unselfish, generally looking to create rather than score, and dragging defenses out to create space for the central strikers and onrushing midfields to work.
The England attack also relies on generating space for their progressive midfielders to work. Generally, the #10 has been Fran Kirby, one of the most talented passers in the world, who has the ability to unlock even the most solid defenses. But Kirby also has a tendency to go missing for long stretches—failing to generate space to receive the ball, or drifting forward and occupying space that is well-marked, and where her diminutive stature will make it hard to win balls coming in high. So coach Phil Neville may decide to opt for the young but extremely dynamic Georgia Stanway instead. In either case, that attacking midfield role will be critical to their chances. They can certainly survive a poor performance in that role—given their ability to create from wide positions—but without that extra spark in the middle, it will become quite predictable
Whoever plays the number 10 will likely be flanked by two more defensively oriented midfielders. Jill Scott will almost certainly be one of the two. The veteran brings experience and calmness to the team, and she’s playing about as well at the moment as we have ever seen. In the quarterfinals, Scott was joined by Keira Walsh. The pair largely controlled the game in the first half, as Norway generously gave them space to work. But once pressure was applied, Walsh began to falter a bit. That’s certainly what their remaining opponents will want to do. Both Walsh and Scott are excellent all-around players, but neither is a devastating ball-winner, nor are they at the top levels for retention. They therefore rely on support and positioning to supply them with options. An opponent that overloaded that space might find some real success.
The other key strength for England is Lucy Bronze. The right back is one of a handful of players in serious competition for the Golden Ball, particularly amazing for someone playing fullback. But Bronze is far more involved in all levels of play than the usual fullback. Her defensive work is good, but it’s in the attack that she rises by leaps and bounds above the competition. She has a vicious shot, as Norway was forced to recall in the last round, and can also make superb overlapping runs down the right flank. But the true heart of her ability is revealed when she cuts inside, effectively becoming an additional creative central midfielder. By adding a fourth player to the midfield, she can overload the opposition, ensuring there is always a free body. And since she arrives from unexpected angles, it’s extremely hard to pick her up before she arrives. All that attacking does mean England’s right flank can sometimes be dangerously exposed. This is where the deeper-lying midfielders will be critical. If they can read Bronze’s movement and avoid chasing play forward, they will be in position to protect that space. If not, they will be exploitable on the counter.
A solid but exploitable defense
England are most troubled by quick attacks. The central defensive pairing of Steph Houghton and Millie Bright have generally been solid, but neither deals especially well with balls over the top, and they can both also be exposed by quick passing on the ground near the top of the box, which forces decisions on whether to step or stay. If they are given the chance to set, the backline is robust. It’s when they’re trying to defend in space that things get far more dicey. So far, their hesitations and mistakes have generally gone unpunished. But against more lethal opposition, England could certainly have given away three or four goals in their previous knockout matches. Against the remaining opposition they might not be so lucky.
One other complicating factor is that Bright was clearly struggling with fatigue and sickness (she apparently caught a bug) in the last game, and was at fault three or four times in the final half hour against Norway. But England have a lot of depth in the role, and should be able to mix and match without huge concern.
At left back, Demi Stokes seems to have asserted her hold over the job with a competent and assured defensive performance against Norway—particularly useful since Bronze is so often far more advanced on the other side. But Alex Greenwood could potential start here. If so, opponents will be even more inclined to attack wide.
Finally the keeper, Karen Bardsley, is extremely dependable, though unspectacular. If they’re relying on her to save the team from a barrage of shots, they may be in trouble. But her presence will go a long way to stabilizing the defense and preventing that situation from arising.
England also have two other small but meaningful advantages, which are linked together. The first is their coach. Phil Neville was not a popular choice for the job in many circles, but he’s taken a team with potential and developed them into one that now consistently performs at the top level. He is adaptive, and helps organize his team to face the specific challenges of a game, setting them up to succeed. And he also seems to have kept the dressing room together. That someone like Neville could so easily step into the job and be a strength for his team is more a comment on the overall quality of coaching in the women’s game (frustratingly very low) than a resounding endorsement. But it is a strength.
The second advantage for England is a group of players who should be comparatively well-rested. Neville was criticized repeatedly in English media for rotating so much coming into the tournament and in the group stage. But England are now in the late stages with players who have expended less energy, and with a supporting cast that all have meaningful match experience. Given the heat in France, having a tiny bit more left in the tank could be the final decisive factor.
So just how good are England? It still remains to be seen. They have clearly established themselves as belonging in the top tier. Even if they lose to the US on Tuesday that will still be true, based on what they’ve accomplished so far. But there is still room for them to get even better. The next few days will tell us whether they can make the leap.