Maybe it’s the English or maybe it’s just football. Whichever it is, the beautiful game loves a cliché. Which is maybe why, as I was sat at Wembley, wrapped in the rising chill of the season, my brain jammed on the expression:
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
England’s qualifier against Northern Ireland certainly wasn’t “a game of two halves” in the traditional sense, although there was the argument that the speculative effort Alex Greenwood pinged off of the bar was “hit, almost too well”. Yet, there on a chilly autumn evening, as attack clashed with defence, there was a deep sense of the familiar. A full-time England, comfortably the top seed in their qualification group, frustrated, and short on fresh ideas against a lower ranked nation who refused to kowtow until their fatigue told.
The new era looks disconcertingly familiar
Sarina Wiegman’s first two games in change had given little indication into how well the squad was reacting and adapting to their new manager. The eye-popping scorelines were indicative of the nations England were playing, not of the Lionesses themselves. So too, the last half hour against Northern Ireland, was about the difference in domestic league strength, in professionalism and scales that would always be unevenly weighted by investment.
As Northern Ireland manager, Kenny Shiels, noted after the match, “England have got superior strength....superior fitness, which restricted our normal game. If you look at the full-time and part-time, there’s a perfect example of it. We couldn’t get close to them.”
For England and for Wiegman, who could call upon a loaded bench, things did finally change as resolute defending began to fray and tire, and as fresh eyes lit up when offered up unregimented spaces to attack. It was the Beths – England and Mead – who punched a hole in the Irish defence. Just seconds after coming on, Mead’s hopeful flick at an unclearable corner found a way through and from there, there was simply no way back for the visitors.
Past England matches that had been 90 minutes of English pressure vs 90 minutes of dogged defending (ie. versus Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2015, 2016 and 2018) had usually brought about one goal and nothing more. Other matches had seen no sudden downpour, no dam bursting with goals gushing forth, but at Wembley, as the Green and White Army failed to marshal the danger from out wide, the goals came thick and fast.
England’s approach didn’t change. It didn’t need to. The ball still moved a little slower than it should have and the team still opted for the more narrow, rather than a sustained broad barrage.
The frustrations of the first half melted away. Beth Mead’s 14 minute hattrick enough to put any early anxiety to bed, but just as they had been in England’s first two World Cup qualifiers, the goals weren’t born of brilliance but of error. Shiels’ team had done so much right for so long in the match but it was mental lapses and slackening marking that had given England so much joy.
Should it matter though? A goal is still a goal, a win is still a win and it’s not as if it wasn’t a deserved one, and the team are, after all, still just getting to know their new manager. Change takes time and although it would be ideal, players aren’t just sponges who can soak up ideas and apply them, so maybe it’s still just too soon to judge quite what the Wiegman Era is. Even the manager herself was beyond happy with the performance, saying there is nothing she’d change, particularly praising the energy and mentality of the team.
Yet that sense of the familiar, of England running into brick walls, of willfully racing down cul-de-sac’s time and again, and of not changing their approach, remained. The chilly night in London with Wiegman in the dugout could easily have been a chilly night in Bristol under Mark Sampson, or a forgettable one in Zenica under Phil Neville.