After losing 5-0 to the USA a bit over a week ago, you’d have been forgiven for thinking the Footy Ferns were in for similar treatment against another World Cup contender as they faced England in Brighton. Instead it turned out to be the best result the Fernies have had for at least a couple years. A clean sheet victory against the Lionesses on their own soil… New Zealand’s first ever win against England in an official game for any gender at any age level… who bloody saw that one coming!?
Tell you what, I didn’t. Especially not after a sloppy first twenty minutes. The USA game had a number of reasons why it wasn’t an ideal slice of preparation. Already written on that idea plenty so check the archives for that one but here against England, despite the intimidating opponent, we did get the Ferns at full strength for the first time in their build up as all 23 players were fit and available, while the bulk of the squad have been in training with Tom Sermanni and his team for the last few weeks now.
As such the starting eleven that Tommy picked… it looked pretty suspiciously like the best possible eleven. Erin Nayler in goal. Back three of Rebekah Stott, Abby Erceg, and Meikayla Moore with Ali Riley and CJ Bott at wingback. Ria Percival and Katie Bowen in midfield. Betsy Hassett in front of them. Rosie White and Sarah Gregorius at striker. Maybe you’d wanna find a place for Annalie Longo but after plenty of tinkering over his time, trying to achieve a four-year World Cup cycle in the space of a year, Tom Sermanni looks like he’s settling on his peak team now.
Problem was that they played like trash for the first twenty minutes. England’s movement was a lot to handle and the kiwi defence was making a mess of it, playing like possums in headlights with some of that passing at the back. Nayler and her centre-backs were on two different pages… but somehow we avoided conceding in despite a half-decent penalty shout (woudn’t have given it myself, looked like she tripped over Nayler rather than being tripped by Nayler) and another dangerous cutback both directly from sloppy giveaways at the back. That level of rattled-ness is definitely not what we want to see this close to the World Cup but yeah, no harm in the end.
Then Sermanni did something clever and switched CJ Bott into midfield (something we saw briefly in the Cup of Nations), with Rebekah Stott going to right back in a back four and almost instantly they looked more solid with an extra body in midfield to shield that backline. And England in response… well, they kept on plugging away with Toni Duggan and Nikita Parris in particular causing trouble yet they just aren’t a team that are going to slice you up through the middle in the way that Aussie or South Korea were able to do earlier in the year. Or America times five. The Lionesses fancied getting the ball wide and crossing it in and, first of all, Stott had an excellent game at right back (and at CB before that) which helped plenty with limiting those deliveries (didn’t think it was Ali Riley’s best game tbf) and second of all Abby Erceg wins headers as often as she does sit-ups and that’s a lot of headers. Say what you will about the early sloppiness but once the kiwi defence overcame those initial nerves or panic or miscommunications or whatever it was, they were really strong in defence. Erin Nayler’s hands were absolutely flawless.
With the extra midfielder, New Zealand were able to defend on the front foot a lot more and you started to see a few more free kicks conceded, which is a positive for a team that needs to be pretty aggressive to avoid getting locked in that defensive third. We also saw them slow it down with some more possession, even if the attacking third was largely unoccupied and far too many passes didn’t go to feet from minute one to ninety. It’s fairly obvious from a game like this that set pieces have to be a priority for the Ferns if they’re going to compete against the best… another reason why being aggressive and proactive is crucial.
Despite England’s dominance with the ball, all things considered they didn’t create a massive amount aside from the chances they were gifted by the Ferns. Then finally NZ did something of their own at the end of the first half, Percival pumping a free kick into the mixer and England didn’t handle it too well before Rosie White had two shots blocked and Betsy Hassett had an effort tipped over.
Even still, as the half-time oranges were served (or steaming cups of tea and coffee if you were watching from Aotearoa) it felt like we were extremely lucky to have it scoreless and that England would probably run a sub or two out in the second half and cruise to a simple win. That’s what America did, after scoring twice late in the first half. The concern there was all about fitness. The Ferns withstood USA well for 35 mins, then conceded twice in a row within sight of the break. They tried to steady it in the second half but as the USA went to their bench we couldn’t compete with that fresh injection of energy. Keeping things tied into the break against England was an improvement. But there were 45 minutes yet to play.
Except this time the Ferns did something different… they scored a goal. Exactly to plan for how they wanna play against these types of teams, it was smash and grab. Early into the second half and Carly Telford spilled a shot from White and Sarah Gregorius followed it up to score. Bit of a shocker at 1am in the morning but combined with Martin Guptill and Colin Munro popping runs on the other channel (shout out to modern technology and double-screening) it was a lovely couple hours of kiwi sports in the British Isles. Yes, there was a mistake from Telford involved (a poor defensive header from Alex Greenwood too). But the longer you hang around the more likely you are to get that luck. Gregorius didn’t waste it either. It was her one opportunity and she put it away with ease, perfectamundo.
This was England’s last game before they open their World Cup campaign against Scotland in a week. They’d just beaten Denmark 2-0 a few days earlier, a game where they ground out a result but didn’t look in pure attacking form and there were ten changes made from that one by manager Phil Neville. As the Ferns have narrowed things down to a more or less top eleven, Neville seems to alter his defensive line with every game and so there are questions in attack and defence going into the World Cup for them. Even more so after they failed to muster the desperate pressure you expect from a dominant team trailing by a goal. It was all very much that friendly football feeling from the hosts as the Ferns defended with excellence, boosted by the confidence of that lead, and England ran out of ideas.
The funky thing here is that on the whole this wasn’t even a particularly excellent performance from the Ferns. If the first half was poor then the second half was great but poor first halves are not what are going to get this team into the knockouts in France. Grinding out results will, though. The question now is whether they can do this at the World Cup against Netherlands, Canada, and Cameroon.
I mean… Netherlands just beat Australia 3-0 so that’s not the best indication. Canada I think are more vulnerable but any team with Christine Sinclair is going to be a handful – had Jodie Taylor been sharper for England here, the way that the American forward line was vs NZ, then you’d be reading a much different story. There’s also the lingering feeling that styles make fights, as they say in boxing, and that England played in a way which suited the kiwi defence’s ability to deal with balls in the air and defending in formation. Netherlands you’d assume will be more tactically fluid and that’s a bit scary.
But, like, we just beat one of the top sides in the world away from home on the eve of a major tournament. Goes down nicely with my claim that the hiding against USA was just a blip, or at least not representative of where this team is at, although we do have to admit that a few things went our way here and we can’t get carried away by this one either. There’s still work to be done and the defensive shakiness at the start simply cannot continue into the World Cup, plus some of that passing honestly has to be much crisper… but they ticked more than a few positive boxes too. If the Football Ferns can defend that solidly and take their spare chances on attack then that’s the recipe for success right there.
The other major thought is what they do formation wise now. At the Cup of Nations they played a back four. Since then the idea has been that we need more cover deeper so instead of a front three it was a back three with two strikers against Norway. That then became a 4-2-3-1 shape against USA. The Mexico game wasn’t televised but it looked like the same as USA but then here we reverted to a 5-3-2 shape before changing mid-game to something more like a 4-3-1-2 or 4-4-2, depending on how deep in defence we were. They’ve gotten great results with both four and five player defences and one thing for sure is that we need Stott, Moore, and Erceg all in that starting team… but maybe that means Stott at RB? Which would be ruthless on Bott who has been a top performer in recent times, which I believe is what a coach will call a ‘good problem to have’. Just sneakily, Moore played some defensive midfield in Germany this season with MSV Duisburg. Doubt we see that all of a sudden but it ain’t totally out of the question.
The Ferns begin their World Cup against Netherlands on 12 June. Before that there’s one last warm-up game against Wales on Wednesday morning at 6am. It’s a game that this team should win and, exactly seven days before they face the Dutch, it’s the last chance to really iron things out. The Ferns have been great at beating the teams they’re expected to beat lately but even if they do that against Cameroon in the World Cup it might well be that they need a win or draw against the more favoured Netherlands and Canada to sneak into the next round. They’ve been beating equal or lesser teams but they’ve also been losing comfortably to better sides and I know it was only a friendly and there’s heaps still to wonder about even after that game but they just beat England for the first time in their history and that breaks that trend of losing the ones they’re expected to. That can only be a good thing with the World Cup so close.
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