Forward starred in assured victory for Phil Neville’s side over Scotland to begin campaign in confident style
As World Cup openers go, I thought it was a very assured and mature performance from England considering the anticipation there had been building up to the game against Scotland. Because of the rivalry between the two countries and the familiarity that exists among the players, it was always going to be a tricky hurdle to overcome for Phil Neville’s side and I was impressed by the way they approached the task. England look like they are mentally prepared to play seven games in the tournament by their measured, tactical approach, managing the speed of play for the majority of the game.
I agree that England can do even better if they are going to go all the way but this was arguably the toughest opening game of the tournament, so to end it with three points should not be underestimated. For me, this was also the hardest game of the group. Yes, Japan have reached the final at the last two World Cups but this is a completely different Japan team with very young players and a coach that has one eye on next year’s home Olympics.
I think 4-2-3-1 is the formation that best suits England because it makes it easier for the two central midfielders to pick up the opposition’s No 10 and gives Scott the platform to launch counterattacks, a feature that is key in the absence of Jordan Nobbs.
We also saw the depth of the squad at Neville’s disposal. Four years ago, someone like Alex Greenwood may not have been experienced enough to step in for Demi Stokes in the opening game of the World Cup, but Greenwood showed she was capable of playing at the same level. Then there are the strikers – Toni Duggan has been a big player for England for a long time and started on the bench but Ellen White and Beth Mead are just as dangerous. Having them and Jodie Taylor also to come off the bench bodes well because they are all capable of scoring goals at crucial times.
But it was Nikita Parris who was the real star of the show. She is in a really rich vein of form and you can tell by her celebration of the goal against Scotland that she is far from afraid about playing on this stage. Nikita has become much more clinical over the last couple of seasons and is the sort of big personality in the team who has that X-factor. She really gets on the nerves of defenders – you could see how annoyed the Scotland players were when she went down after a tackle or nutmegged them. You need that spiky player in your team to irritate opposition and she could be England’s standout in this World Cup. Hopefully if they can get to six points by winning their next match then Neville can give Nikita a rest as England will be confident of beating Argentina.
By contrast, Scotland seemed to struggle to find their attacking rhythm at times and I’m not sure if it was the best tactical decision to have Erin Cuthbert playing out of position as a striker. Moving Cuthbert up front in place of Jane Ross and moving Kim Little further forward didn’t really give Scotland any cutting edge going forward that manager Shelley Kerr probably intended.
It will be interesting to see if Ross comes back in for the next match against Japan because Scotland will need to try and have much more attacking force going forward to beat Japan. I believe Scotland are the best team out of the four World Cup debutants and will advance at the very least as one of the best third-place spots.
The penalty after 15 minutes really seemed to affect Scotland and that allowed England to take control by drawing possession into the midfield and exploiting space on the wings. It is becoming clear that if the ball hits a player’s hand in the box and the hand is in an unnatural position, a penalty will be given. However, there is a slight grey area in terms of unnatural position because what may seem natural to most defenders is deemed unnatural by referees. The intent of the player to play the ball with her hand is irrelevant if the ball happens to hit the hand/arm outside the ‘natural’ position of the body.
I had a really interesting discussion about VAR with Ariane Hingst, who used to play in defence for Germany, and she recognised that this is something defenders are just going to have to adapt to. When a cross is coming in, defenders should instantly put their hands behind your back. Simple. As much as that is unnatural too and people will say it’s ridiculous, it is an adaptation that defenders will have to do to avoid penalties.
We’ve now seen most of the contenders in action and despite Brazil’s win against Jamaica on Sunday, I think the best South American team in the tournament could actually be Chile. Brazil ended an eight-game losing streak, without Marta, but they still have a long way to go to look like a Brazil team capable of going far in the tournament. But of course it’s Brazil, so they could easily prove me wrong.
At this stage, the hosts France look like the team to beat. The only question is about their psychological resilience. They have some of the best players in the world but can they hold it together when it matters most? It will be fascinating to find out.