The Football Ferns had a brilliant win over England on the weekend but just in case anyone was getting carried away they went and chased that with a 1-0 defeat against Wales. It was a comedown game in many ways. The last match before crossing the channel to France for the World Cup and, at Leckwith Stadium in Cardiff on a midweek evening, it was a far cry from the 20,000 fans they played in front of in Brighton three days earlier. Tom Sermanni also used the game to get a few of his wider squad members some game time, specifically those who might yet be needed to play big roles in France, and in the end it turned out to be kinda similar to the England game but in reverse.
This time it was Wales who defended stoutly with numbers behind the ball, their central defensive trio of Hayley Ladd, Sophie Ingle, and Loren Dykes all clearing anything that came their way, while New Zealand were the team that controlled most of the ball but couldn’t break down the wall in front of them thanks to a lack of creativity and a lot of wayward shots, many if not most from outside the penalty area. The biggest difference between the two games, apart from the inverted kiwi performance, was that we scored early in the second half against England while Wales scored late in the second half against us. That’s about it.
New Zealand and Wales have a fair bit in common as sporting nations and it was easy to watch this game and imagine that had they been the team qualifying through Oceania and us through Europe that we’d be in opposite positions yet again. Wales have never qualified for a major tournament, though they’re pretty pumped about the 2021 Euros and their prospects of getting there. Meanwhile we qualify for basically all of them but are still trying to figure out how to get the job done once we get there – though we’re pretty pumped about this upcoming World Cup and our prospects. Similar sort of journeys, really. New Zealand are just a little bit ahead is all (but with the rise of women’s footy in the UK that’s not something to take for granted).
Also of note is that Wales didn’t have Jess Fishlock for this game, who wasn’t selected in order to give her some much needed rest after winning the Champions League with Lyon. That’s their best player missing. Angharad James was out too which depleted their midfield. On the other hand, Tommy Shades made four changes from the team that started against England, with Anna Green in for Meikayla Moore, Olivia Chance in for CJ Bott (with Katie Bowen going to right wingback), Annalie Longo in for Betsy Hassett, and Hannah Wilkinson in for Rosie White. Assuming the England XI was first choice, then this was about ensuring that we’ve got a fully match-fit set of subs as well. Green is the next defender up off the bench if someone is injured or suspended, both at CB or LB. Chance looks like being a key contributor off the bench in the midfield. Longo and Hassett are probably competing for one spot.
And of course Hannah Wilkinson needs all the footy she can get. This was her first start in an official game since returning from that ACL injury (it was also the first Ferns game that Rosie White hasn’t started since she was rested in the second game of the OFC Nations Cup). She lasted 45 minutes before she was replaced by White at half-time and those 45 minutes were enough to show she’s still pretty rusty, which is to be expected. The strength and speed are there but her touch was way off and she often looked to be out of rhythm with the game despite the Ferns playing a style that basically only suited her – whipping in early crosses and lobs that the shorties Gregorius and Longo weren’t ever going to be able to compete for. But that’s why Wilko needed these minutes. It’s all a process and you don’t return from a long term injury fully formed.
Having said that, Olivia Chance is making a late play at a starting berth and in the very least she should be a jolt of electricity off the bench. As the front few looked disjointed, with the wingbacks either too eager to cross or too isolated to work their way in behind the defence with a quick one-two or whatever, Chance and Percival absolutely locked down the midfield in the first half especially. Percy is rough and she wins those loose balls. Chance doesn’t mind the throwing her weight around either but her main weapon is being able to carry that ball forwards in possession. Chance is also coming back from an ACL injury but she’s had a couple extra months to recover than Wilko and it shows. Borderline best on the pitch for the kiwis. (Best on the pitch fullstop was Sophie Ingle though, dominant at the back with a clean sheet and she set up the winner - teammate of Ali Riley’s at Chelsea too).
It was cool to see the Ferns knocking the ball around and looking to be positive. However this was a new challenge for them. They were up against the kind of team they’re trying to be themselves. Breaking down a defensive wall takes patience and creativity and the Ferns didn’t show a lot of that here. They just needed to back themselves some more and not be so eager to shoot or cross at the first opportunity. That’s why it was such a good test though. Plenty of lessons to be learned from a game like this and one of the main ones is this team absolutely needs to be clinical with their chances. Sarah Gregorius did that against England. But against Wales she had the opportunity to put the Ferns ahead after 35 minutes when she was cut down in the box on the end of a rare bit of incisive play from NZ. Grego stepped up to take the penalty herself… only Laura O’Sullivan made an impressive save diving low to her right to deny a pretty gentle effort from Grego. What is it with kiwi football and penalties this week, aye?
Curious to see Sermanni sticking with the back five despite that formation not even lasting a half against England. But this was a different sort of game, one in which our midfield was solid with just the two central cogs, so perhaps not a surprise. The Ferns have played enough with both defensive shapes now to be able to use a horses-for-courses approach. This 5-2-1-2 kinda thing works best against teams who aren’t able to stop our wingbacks from getting forward, whereas against England they really gave us some trouble early on in those areas to where it wasn’t tenable anymore.
As the game went on we started to see more of Kayleigh Green up front for Wales, who were starting to look like they could do a few things on the break. Again, same story as the England game but in reverse. The longer it stayed nil-all, the more confident the underdogs became. And Wales are a strong defensive team too. They don’t concede a lot of goals. They also don’t muck about with the ball back there so they weren’t a team that the Ferns could press either which takes away another of their main attacking focuses: quick transitional play.
Into the second half and it was clear that we needed more pace and dynamism, which reminded you how important Rosie White is to this team as a striker who can mix it up. She scored the winner against Norway. It was her shot that set up the winner against England. There were also seventeen minutes at the end for Emma Kete who is basically the only other attacking option in this squad outside the main crew (and I’m counting Paige Satchell in that main crew now after appearing in ten consecutive games under Sermanni, eight of them as a sub). This wasn’t really a game where she was gonna get a lot to do in seventeen minutes but there was one half chance she almost got on the end of.
Set pieces were our best bet and a few of those corners were pretty useful. There were also quite a few strikes from range, with Chance and White especially keen to let it fly. Hardly any on target though, most of them went close enough to get a rise out of the commentators (by the way, shout out to BBC Wales for live streaming the game without a geo-block – bloody legends) but apart from one from Rosie White that drew a decent save out of O’Sullivan there was nothing that came close to matching CJ Bott at the Cup of Nations. Those are low percentage chances but floating one of those into the top corner is the type of luck this team might need.
Already mentioned that the wingbacks weren’t as effective as we needed. Katie Bowen tends to drift inwards a lot (she does that for Utah too), which makes sense from a natural midfielder, but her delivery into the box is as good as anyone’s in this team and we largely got stuck playing down our left where she wasn’t involved. As for Ali Riley, she’s quick and she’s full of enthusiasm but I dunno… not sure she’s been anywhere near her best these last few games. The captain’s not had a lot of regular football with Chelsea this year and maybe that’s caught up with her. You always trust your senior players going into these tournaments though.
Then, just as it looked like we were traversing our way towards a mildly frustrating goalless draw, ol’ Kayleigh Green popped up to nod in a flicked-on header and we lost. Erin Nayler had looked flawless in goal, keeping up her fantastic form from against England, but there wasn’t much she could do about that. Defence caught slipping on the mixer ball is all – losing focus at a key moment. If anyone deserved a goal this game it was Green and incredibly that snapped a streak of six straight games for Wales without scoring and I mean the entire team there, not just Green. Wales were held scoreless in six consecutive games then scored an injury time winner to avoid a seventh. Damn.
Up until this game the Ferns had done a good job of winning the games they were expected to win but losing the ones they were expected to lose. They flipped the script this week. There are now just seven days until their World Cup begins and no more warm-up games so what this team is now in the aftermath of these last two results is what this team will be when they take on Netherlands at 1am on Wednesday morning.
This was a dud result caused by their failure to make their dominance count for goals and one last reminder that they need to own the big moments if they’re going to have a successful World Cup campaign. They can do that. Nothing changes. This may have been a loss but, unlike the USA defeat, it’s the kind of loss that teaches you heaps and if they put those lessons into practice in France then things are still looking sweet. This is when the journey gets real.
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