England have played five games in the World Cup, and won all five. After the events surrounding their 3-0 victory over Cameroon ended up overwhelming any conversation about their actual performance, they came out tonight and recorded another emphatic 3-0 victory. With many of their fellow contenders struggling mightily to overcome their opposition, England is both the first team to take a berth in the semifinals as well as maybe the team with the most momentum.
They were fourth-favorites coming into the tournament, according to the bookies, and none of the teams ahead of them (the US, France, and Germany) have yet been eliminated. But one will be gone by this time tomorrow. So England is certainly among the favorites. But have they done enough to lift themselves up to the level of the other top contenders? Or maybe even outpaced them?
I wouldn’t go that far. Because while a 3-0 performance tonight was certainly reflective of the game overall–a match that England dominated for long stretches–there were also far too many danger signs here to simply ignore.
But let’s start with the good. First and foremost: Lucy Bronze. She was unstoppable tonight, and has arguably been the player of the tournament so far. She created the first goal, with a brilliant overlapping run, as well as the confidence and skill to take her defender on rather than simply sending in a fruitless cross. By attacking on the dribble, she ripped through the Norwegian defense, and gave her two wide open targets when she cut back her pass. Ellen White completely whiffed, but it didn’t even matter because Jill Scott was right behind her to bury it. Bronze also created the second goal and scored the third. She was a force of nature.
But this wasn’t purely the Lucy Bronze show. England also got a great performance from Nikita Parris, who is a goal scorer for her club but has refashioned herself very nicely as an unselfish wide creator for England. Ellen White scored another, pulling level with Alex Morgan and Sam Kerr in the golden boot race. Jill Scott and Keira Walsh bossed the midfield. Steph Houghton and Millie Bright executed some superb tackles and clearances to keep the clean sheet. Fran Kirby showed off the magic she can perform with the ball. And all of this was orchestrated by coach Phil Neville who (despite grumblings to the contrary over the past weeks, months, and years) actually does seem to have a very good idea what he’s doing.
So there were many positives. England played well for long stretches, toying with Norway, then breaking with incredible speed. When it all clicked, they looked masterful.
But the lingering, glaring problem: when things broke down, they broke down fast and catastrophically. Norway didn’t manage to score, but it was only through an almost comical inability to finish the chances that kept presenting themselves.
Many of the most dangerous plays came from incredibly simple attacks. Norway would simply launch direct balls straight at the centerbacks, who repeatedly struggled to handle them, sometimes literally just missing their clearance and watching the ball bounce behind. Bright and Houghton both seemed to have a lot of difficulty mapping defensive space, and found themselves caught by these simple attacks repeatedly. This may be in part to a lack of experience playing together. Despite being the obvious first choice pairing, they have actually had very few chances to actually appear in the same game. On one of these, goalkeeper Bardsley came out to close down an attack and clattered into Lisa-Marie Utland. Play went on as Utland kept her feet. But on a different day, with a more aggressive VAR check, that could easily have been a penalty and a red card for the keeper.
On a similar note, Scott and Walsh controlled the midfield for much of the game. But when they lost their grip, it almost instantly turned into a huge problem. On those few occasions where Norway found a slipped pass, their wide runners like Reiten and Saevik were clear through into the penalty area before anyone got near them. On a different night they could have turned those chances into high-value shots.
There were also quite a few nervy moments when England tried to play out from the back, or across the backline. Misplaced passes or dilly-dallying on the ball left them struggling to catch up to a quick Norway attack.
Again, I don’t want to overstate these points. England were excellent for 85% of this game. They could easily have scored three or four more, on top of the three they did manage. They pushed Norway around with ease.
But that other 15% generated five or six excellent opportunities for Norway. Only a superhuman effort by the Norwegian attack to find more and more new ways to avoid putting the ball in the net, and some top quality goal-line clearances, kept England’s clean sheet.
So that is the big question for England. Can they produce this sort of dominant attack–fast, direct, intelligent, multifaceted–without bringing along the calamitous defensive breakdowns? If so, they can absolutely beat anyone in this tournament. But we haven’t seen it yet. In every game so far, there have been moments when they switched off and relied on extreme generosity from their opponents to avoid scoring. Somehow, their luck has continued to hold. But Japan could easily have scored several. Cameroon were ascendant for a big chunk of the second half. Norway absolutely should have found at least two tonight. And good luck has a way of running out when you encounter the very best opponents.
All you can do is beat the teams in front of you. And England have managed it five times from five so far. But the real test is still to come in Lyon. And only time will tell.