(England had a Wale of a time last night)
A rampant England side dismantled a Welsh defence that was a shambles on set pieces, securing their place at next year’s World Cup in Canada with four first half goals. Shown on the BBC, and called by Lucy Ward and chronology’s Johnathan Pearce, England were fluid going forward, effective from set pieces, and took advantage of a defensive Welsh game plan that was too rigid to allow for a comeback whose catastrophic weakness at set pieces undermined the discipline and effectiveness of the Welsh defence in open play.
Although Wales essentially handed the game to England, the visitors weren’t underserving of their 4-0 win. Eniola Aluko tormented the Welsh defence, operating both as a striker and a left winger in Mark Samson’s narrow 4-3-3, getting in behind Welsh defenders Dykes and Kylie Davies all evening; one counter-attacking Sanderson pass in the 40th minute hit Aluko, who was able to win a corner simply by exploiting the gaping space between the Welsh full-back and centre-half. She scored an excellent technical volley, and was physically strong too, ensuring she could find space between the Welsh midfield and defence – their 4-4-1-1 system was unsuited to their defensive strategy – and hold possession, acting as a pivot for the attack; had more direct players like Katie Longhurst and Gemma Davison playing up front, space could have been exploited with runs from deep played in by Aluko.
Fara Williams was also exceptional, serving as the link between midfield and defence, and switching play from flank to flank, which was especially effective against the compact Welsh defence. Her corner led to Laura Bassett’s 43rd minute goal, and was the epitome of her accurate passing all game. But both England standouts embodied Samson’s tactical fluidity throughout the game: Aluko swapped places regularly with Duggan and Sanderson, sometimes lining up as a narrow front three, and sometimes as two strikers and a number ten, exploiting either the space between the Welsh defence and midfield, or the spaces in the corners left by narrow full-backs; and Williams started as one of two deeper midfielders in the first half alongside Nobbs, but moved alongside Carney in the second, giving England two midfield playmakers that the Welsh found impossible to mark.
I feel that it was this fluidity that really won the game for England; Wales couldn’t man-mark Williams out of the game after half-time because of Carney’s new position, and their defence was overloaded by the English front three, supported by aggressive runs from Stokes and Alex Scott as full-backs.
Yet England only scored once from open play, and that was Sanderson’s 44th minute header to make it 4, by which point the game was finished; England had a lot of possession – 71% by the 53rd minute – in promising areas, but the exchanging of positions from the full-backs, front three and Nobbs running from midfield left few players in and around the Welsh six-yard box to actually turn goals into chances. It’s no surprise that the first instance of a striker playing centrally – Sanderson’s run between the Welsh centre-halves – immediately led to her goal; Wales were constantly weak at defending centrally, as evidenced by England’s goals from a corner and free kick, and this could have been exploited more.
But this minor criticism is nothing compared to Wales’ glaring weaknesses; while Samson’s fluid tactics were spot-on, Jarmo Matikainen’s tactics were far too rigid, playing a deep, narrow 4-4-1-1, with too much space on the wings to be exploited, and a lack of a specialised holding midfielder – neither Fishlock nor Green looked totally comfortable so deep in their own half – meant England had plenty of space in front of the back four to exploit. The Welsh counter-attack was also non-existent, with the wingers Bleazard and James too narrow to get on the end of clearances, and even the attackers Wiltshire and Harding were dropping deep to close down Williams and Carney, often leaving just the England centre-halves and goalkeeper in the English half.
Wales were also poor individually; goalkeeper Nicola Davies – who is a corporal in the RAF, apparently – kicked poorly all game, gifting possession straight to Williams in the England midfield, who looked like the best holding midfielder in the world without having to make a tackle, simply because she could win every second ball and every clearance totally unchallenged. This also opened up Jordan Nobbs to run at the Welsh defence as a box-to-box midfielder, instead of sitting as a holding midfielder, because Williams could control that area by herself. There was also a lack of clinical finishing from Wiltshire, who Lucy Ward called Wales’ best player, and it is telling that the hosts’ best performer was a midfielder who was overrun in defence and only had three poor shots, two of which came from English lapses in concentration rather than anything the Welsh created for themselves.
By far the biggest problem, however, was the Welsh inability to defend set-pieces; Carney’s opening goal was a looped ball into the box, untouched by everyone, that bounced into the net from 35 yards. Although Nicola Davies was unsighted by bodies in the way, the cross entered her six-yard box, an area that she should be dominating; also, her view was blocked by an unmarked Aluko who missed her header – she would have scored herself if she timed her jump better – meaning that Wales, as a team, failed to mark the English goal threats. The third goal, Bassett’s tap-in, came from a corner that passed over everyone in the box – Davies’ lack of aerial command on display again – and fell to the goalscorer’s foot at the back post where no Welsh defender was positioned.
What’s infuriating for Wales is that they stifled England in open play quite well, often reducing the visitors to long shots from Jordan Nobbs which, while threatening, were nowhere near as dangerous as the prospect of Duggan, Sanderson, and Aluko running in behind the defence. Also, a deep cross from full-back Dykes led to a clear shot for Wiltshire (which she hit straight at Bardsley), suggesting that Wales could be at their best when going back to front quickly, and exploiting England’s attacking full-backs, and lack of height and physicality in central midfield, which left Bassett and Houghton exposed in the penalty area.
But Wales played poorly for the majority of the game, and England weren’t so much exceptional, as they were skilled in exploiting their opponents’ weaknesses; England will be looking forward to a trip to Canada next year, while Wales will now literally have to do it on a cold Wednesday night in Ukraine.
Wales (4-4-1-1): N Davies; Dykes (Lawrence 58), K Davies, Ingle, Cousins; Bleazard, Fishlock (c), M Green (Hawkins 52), James (J Green 88); Wiltshire; Harding
Subs not used: Dando, Wynne, Quayle, Keryakopolis
England (4-3-3): Bardsley; A Scott, Houghton (c), Bassett, Stokes; Nobbs, Williams (Kirby 62), Carney (T Scott 67); Sanderson, Duggan, Aluko (Taylor 60)
Subs not used: Chamberlain, Greenwood, Stoney, Dowie
Goals: Carney 16, Aluko 39, Bassett 43, Sanderson 44
Referee: E. Mitsi