In the frozen tundra of Tilburg’s Koning Willem II Stadion, Jodie Taylor scored the only goal of the game as England women beat the Netherlands 1-0.
It was their final game of 2016 and Mark Sampson will be happy to have finished a mixed year on a positive note. After a goalless draw against third in the world France in Doncaster last month, the Lionesses weather a lot of Dutch pressure before hitting on the break in the second half.
On as a substitute, the Arsenal striker, making her first appearance since the third-placed play-off against Germany in 2015, latched onto a beautiful over the top pass from Jordan Nobbs to lob Paris Saint-Germain’s Loes Geurts in the Dutch goal.
Here’s what else we learned from Netherlands v England.
What A Difference A Striker Makes
Arguably the best finisher available to Mark Sampson, it’s amazing to think that 520 days have passed since Taylor scored a wonderful goal against Canada at the 2015 World Cup to fire England into the semi-finals.
Injuries for both club and country had meant that this was her first game back in an England shirt since March 2016. She made a huge difference on Tuesday night. She knows how to play into feet, she’ll run in behind defenders and her intelligence is nearly as good as her ability to finish.
Against the run of play, England broke on the counter, Nobbs, her Arsenal team-mate picked a stunning pass over the top and Taylor was onto it in a flash. Beating the defence, Geurts ran out and The No.19 played a perfect lob over the ‘keeper and into the back of the net.
“There’s no better feeling than scoring goals,” game-winner Taylor told Yahoo UK after the final whistle. “I’m just happy to be here and helping the team. It’s all about winning for us, and helping the group get better and better.”
In terms of their attacking play, it was almost undeserved, but that is the instant benefit you get from having a goal-poaching, clinical striker. It is something the Lionesses have definitely been missing in the final third.
“Any team in the world would miss Jodie,” Sampson told Yahoo Sports after the game. “She’s absolutely one of the best No.9s on the planet. To miss her for nearly a year now, has been a big loss for our team.”
Defence Wins Championships
No matter how bad you play in the opposition’s penalty area, when you have one of the meanest defences in world football, you will always have a chance.
Since the World Cup, they have only conceded seven goals in 16 games and just once in the last eight games. That is the sort of form that you want going into an international tournament.
“We didn’t not win the World Cup because we didn’t score enough goals,” Sampson continued. “We were one of the top scorers at that tournament. It was conceding goals that killed us. We had to score two goals every game to get through. It was the only clean sheet we got that won us the Germany game.”
Despite some poor performances, the England boss admitted he would rather play poorly and win, than play good and lose. That is the type of form that makes you a contender in a tournament.
Square Pegs in Round Holes
Since the 2015 World Cup, when Sampson gained a deserved reputation for changing his teams and adapting his tactics, he seems to have gone backwards in some ways.
As it was against France, England set up playing 3-5-1-1 against the Dutch – a formation that could suit the team perfectly – but with quite a few players out of position.
Lucy Bronze, an attacking, marauding right-back, one of the best in her position, played at right centre-back – slipping into a back four when the team were no in possession. Alex Scott was due to play ahead of her on the right of the midfield but due to illness, the England boss was forced to pick Izzy Christiansen there. Clearly not her natural role.
As Man City went on to win the WSL title in 2016, Christiansen played her best football as a box-to-box midfielder. “Izzy’s been playing so well, we also wanted to find her a place in the team. If you looked at our best team, regardless of formation, Christiansen would be in it. She has such a tactical football brain, she can adapt, and I thought she did a great job for the team tonight,” Sampson said.
Regardless of how well she played, it takes away everything from the midfielder’s game that you nulify her in attack, something that has become a regular theme of this current England team.
Toni Duggan who has consistently performed for City on the left of a three up front, played as a long striker. Too often, when attacking down the wings there was no one in the box. Her best moment, when she perhaps should have scored, came after she was moved to the left of the front three.
All too often, England are the definition of square pegs in round holes. That is the biggest thing Sampson has to work on before next summer.
Formation Building Blocks
With the right players, starting in their natural positions, the 3-5-2 could be a great formation for England. Sampson showed on Tuesday that he is tactically very aware, with his team switching to 4-1-4-1 without the ball. Demi Stokes moved to left-back, with Bronze pushing out right.
It made them solid and tough to break down, however, the gaps appeared when they lost the ball up the pitch. Stokes was allowed to bomb on, sometimes higher than any other England player and Liverpool’s Shanice van de Sanden took that opportunity to burst down the flank constantly.
Jo Potter, not a natural centre-back – and under the weather – didn’t have the pace to cover and the away side were lucky Holland didn’t capitalise on that space. In theory, the flexibility and quality of his players offers the prospect that we could see so much more quality from this group of players.
Have They Progressed?
England have won six games in 2016, losing twice in the She Believes Cup in March and drawing three times. In the past this would have been a great return for 12 months of work, but since coming third in the World Cup, you have to question if they have actually progressed as much as they would have hoped.
Despite qualifying for the Euro 2017, in Holland next summer, drawing at home to Belgium and not managing a shot on target against France, just isn’t good enough for the team fifth in the world rankings.
“Tonight is the type game where you go, ‘go get your clean sheet, be solid, and hopefully we’ll get the goal. We’ll play much better than tonight. This team know, when we are at our best, we’ll beat anyone. But when we are not at our best, we’ve just got to learn how to win games.”
Tuesday’s fixture was tough, playing at the end of the season, against a partisan crowd on a cold November night. Saved by a great pass and a wonderful finish, it showed resiliency, but overall, it wasn’t their best, but they have eights months to get it right.
Netherlands (4-3-3): 23 Loes Geurts, 2 Desiree van Lunteren, 3 Stefanie van der Gragt, 4 Mandy van den Berg (capt), 5 Merel van Dongen, 7 Shanice van de Sanden, 8 Sherida Spitse, 11 Lieke Martens, 12 Tessel Middag, 14 Renee Slegers, 21 Lineth Beerensteyn
Substitutes: 26 Ellen Jansen for Slegers 10, 25 Jill Roord for Martens 67, 34 Sisca Folkertsma for Beerensteyn 73
Substitutes not used: 1 Sari van Veenendaal, 16 Angela Christ, 15 Kika van Es, 17 Kelly Zeeman, 20 Dominique Janssen, 28 Jeslynn Kuijpers, 29 Siri Worm, 31 Anouk Hoogendijk
Coach: Arjan van der Laan
England (3-5-2): 1 Karen Bardsley (Manchester City); 2 Lucy Bronze (Manchester City), 5 Steph Houghton (capt; Manchester City), 6 Jo Potter (Notts County); 11 Isobel Christiansen (Manchester City), 7 Jill Scott (Manchester City), 4 Jade Moore (Notts County), 8 Jordan Nobbs (Arsenal), 3 Demi Stokes (Manchester City); 10 Karen Carney (Chelsea), 9 Toni Duggan (Manchester City).
Substitutes: 19 Jodie Taylor (Arsenal) for J Scott 58, 16 Gilly Flaherty (Chelsea) for Duggan 76, 17 Fara Williams (Arsenal) for Carney 81, 12 Alex Scott (Arsenal) for Christiansen 91
Substitutes not used: 13 Siobhan Chamberlain (Liverpool), 21 Mary Earps (Reading), 14 Laura Bassett (Notts County), 15 Gemma Bonner (Liverpool), 18 Gemma Davison (Chelsea), 20 Rachel Daly (Houston Dash), 22 Nikita Parris (Manchester City), 23 Danielle Carter (Arsenal).
Goals: Jodie Taylor 75