The good times are drying up for the Lionesses – here’s how to fix things

It has been the soundtrack to so many wonderful moments for this England team, the song that accompanies an abundance of magical memories. “Dear Caroline, good times never seemed so good…” But will they end?

It’s a pertinent question to ask after the Lionesses were deservedly beaten by a well-organised and street-wise France at St James’ Park on Friday evening. Despite taking the lead through Beth Mead and controlling the game for a long time, the Lionesses were tamed.

England had to look normal, their aura of invincibility gone, and not for the first time recently. Since being outclassed by Spain in last year’s World Cup final, England have lost to Belgium, the Netherlands and now the French. Sweden also held on to a draw.

They failed to qualify for the Olympics and now sit a disappointing third in their European Championship qualifying group, with trips to France next week and Sweden next month, either side of a home game against the Republic of Ireland.

Sarina Wiegman’s team will have to win at least one of those away games to have a chance of finishing in the top two and automatically qualifying for next summer’s tournament in Switzerland. They haven’t won in France since 1973 and Sweden pulled off a pair of victories at Wembley the last time the two sides met.

The reigning European champions are in trouble, although even a third-place finish will give them the safety net of a play-off to ensure they still have a chance to defend their crown.

Still, it’s safe to say that England will no longer be considered the favorites to retain their crown. For starters, Spain will be there, and there are others on this continent who have stronger claims on the evidence of recent form.

England are a team that, by their own admission, has a target on their back. A team that wants to beat everyone after their recent success on the world stage. The concern is that too many opponents seem to be hitting that target.

We should point out that England were presented with a ridiculously difficult qualifying group, with three teams reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2022. But it is Wiegman’s side that is most at risk halfway through.

When you’ve routinely reached the semi-finals of every major tournament since 2015, any defeat can obviously lead to an overreaction. England are simply not a team that is used to losing.

This English team is not used to losingThis English team is not used to losing
This England team is not used to losing – Reuters/Phil Noble

However, there is an argument that things are outdated, bad habits have developed and weaknesses are exposed.

Where are the new players emerging to challenge the established stars? This generation has been phenomenal, but there must always be an eye for the next one. Wiegman doesn’t seem to think there are youngsters good enough to oust her proven favorites. That is a concern. We will only know how big that will be at the end of this qualifying campaign and, hopefully, the European Championship next summer.

In the short term, these players must rise to the challenge before them. This is a new experience for them, a negative one. It’s hard to lose and trust is just as fragile in professional sports. But they must show that they can take both criticism and praise. That’s what the big players and teams do, and England still has a lot of that.

None of the best teams saw their demise coming. They didn’t realize they were in decline; they have not consciously chosen to allow their standards to deteriorate; they didn’t realize an era was coming to an end until it was over. England still have three qualifying matches to prove that is not the case in this one.

Here’s how England can resolve their issues ahead of their trip to France.

Keira Walsh is ditching her ‘safety first’ approach

She has been the playmaker in this England team for so long that the opposition is doing everything they can to suppress her. The problem is: it works.

Walsh can tear teams apart when she gets her head up and fires balls through the lines, but she doesn’t do this enough against the very best sides. In fact, she has become far too conservative in her playing. Placing herself in small boxes, demanding that the ball be played into her feet by one of the defenders, and then quickly passing it back. It happened again and again against France and rendered much of her play meaningless.

It meant it was left to Millie Bright and Leah Williamson to try and pass through midfield, which worked for Beth Mead’s goal, but they were also intercepted by the French on a number of occasions. Walsh needs to be braver and more adventurous, cornering the ball and passing forward rather than sideways or backwards.

Keira WalshKeira Walsh

Keira Walsh needs to be braver on the ball – PA/Owen Humphries

Strengthen the defense at set pieces

England look vulnerable with defensive corners and no team will be successful when teams know they can hurt them from set pieces. Both of France’s goals came from corners on Friday evening and although the first was a clever long-range finish from Elisa De Almeida, it looked like it was a planned routine.

The second goal was simply poor defending. England had plenty of opportunities for someone to attack the ball and clear it, but they were too timid which allowed the ball to bounce. It was there for a defender to clear the danger, but instead it was centre-forward Alessia Russo who had to intervene. Her overhead kick didn’t get enough distance, allowing France to bring the ball back into the area for Marie-Antoinette Katoto to finish clinically.

England can’t be so passive when it comes to crosses into the penalty area. It has only become a problem since the World Cup, but it needs to be solved – and quickly.

Take Alessia Russo into the penalty area

Russo did a lot of good things against France and helped create the England goal. Some of her link-up play is excellent and she works so hard, usually against two centre-backs, to keep the ball up. But as a striker she doesn’t get enough touches in the penalty area and it looks like she won’t score the same number of goals as her predecessor, Ellen White.

Interestingly, White was instructed by former England manager Phil Neville to play more within the width of the penalty area. This unlocked her goalscoring potential ahead of the 2019 World Cup and perhaps someone should tell Russo to do the same. She is almost too unselfish, too much of a team player who works across the width of the pitch, but England need goals from the No. 9.

Alessia Russo vs FranceAlessia Russo vs France

Alessia Russo needs to be more selfish if she wants to find the back of the net more – Getty Images/Naomi Baker

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