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Day 2: On the value in being comfortable
England kicked off Euro 2022 with a 1-0 win over Austria thanks to a goal by Beth Mead. But a lot of the celebration has been rather muted with a focus on England supposedly being wasteful or not blowing Austria away.
Listen, it certainly was not the world’s most exciting match but I think there is a tendency to overlook the reality of these games. This certainly is not unique to women’s football - I’m sure England men only winning 1-0 in an opening group stage game would involve just as much hand wringing - but perhaps at points it gets exacerbated when there is less awareness of who these teams are.
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We know Austria are a defensively solid team - they have not conceded more than two goals since they lost 3-2 to Italy in June of last year - and England only beat them 1-0 when they played in World Cup Qualifying. To bank three points against a side who could easily have been a banana skin feels like a reasonable way to start the tournament.
In fact, it felt much more controlled than some of England’s other recent outings against top 25 opposition (Austria are ranked 21st). Against Switzerland, there were points where England did look concerningly open and against The Netherlands, they struggled to play out from their first half press. The inclusion of Leah Williamson in defence in part seems like a bit of a reaction to that. The variety of her passing last night was exceptional, and playing her there seems to give Keira Walsh more freedom in midfield too. It is strange because Alex Greenwood was one of the WSL’s best passers last season but it seems to not be working in quite the same way for her at England right now.
England scored nine goals across those two games in the end so maybe they were able to make greater in-roads because the opposition teams had tired themselves out in trying to get at England earlier in the game. Here Austria did not exactly sit back but they certainly were well-organised enough to not let any real gaps open up until the last 15 minutes.
England seemed comfortable to keep Austria at arms-length too, perhaps due to the time of the goal. With Mead scoring after only 16 minutes, England did not need to force the point and seemed unbothered about taking any unnecessary risks in terms of pressing forward.
When England were threatened, particularly in a slightly nervous opening 15 minutes, Millie Bright was impervious in defence. Bright won eight aerials across the game, with a 100% win percentage, and looked well set to head away absolutely anything that came into the box.
Whilst a lot of the noise has been about the feeling that England should have been more clinical in front of goal, no one wins a tournament by smashing a side in the group stages. England experienced that themselves in 2017 when they beat Scotland 6-0 in the opening game, only to be totally defensively frazzled by The Netherlands when they reached the semi-finals.
To show that they could be defensively compact whilst creating good chances, particularly under the pressure of a record crowd, will see England a lot better through future matches in the tournament than just being able to dance through a leaky defence. They have shown they can score goals; more will come.