England 5-0 Northern Ireland
Sarina Wiegman believes in rhythm. So much so, that England were unchanged for the third game running.
Wiegman wasn’t actually at the game as she has tested positive for COVID. Not ideal, but Wiegman and assistant manager Arjan Veurink have worked very closely for a long time, so hopefully it won’t cause too many issues going forward.
Northern Ireland had nothing to lose. The gulf between the teams is huge. With the long-term investment and professionalism of women’s football in England compared that in Northern Ireland, with all due respect to Northern Ireland, this was a game that England should win.
Northern Ireland didn’t make it easy.
After the bizarre affair of everyone having a nice singalong to the shared national anthem, the game was underway.
It was always going to be different game for England than against Norway. Northern Ireland were playing in a low block, not allowing England the spaces to exploit like Norway did. It required a lot more work.
5 minutes in, England had a penalty, until they didn’t when it was eventually (correctly) overturned by VAR, after about 40 days and 40 nights. That’s a way to drain the life out of a game.
Northern Ireland were going more direct, which was a good move since playing out from the back was one of their main downfalls against Norway and Austria. Lauren Wade got in behind for Northern Ireland a few times early in the game. Mary Earps had to make a save within a minute of kick off, then Leah Williamson got in the way just in time after a wonderful through ball from Rebecca Holloway.
England had most of the ball, they weren’t doing an awful lot with it, but did create three good chances in the space of 15 minutes, all of which they squandered.
First Beth Mead had an acrobatic effort blocked by Julie Nelson. Half brilliance and half luck. Then Ellen White dragged a shot wide before Lucy Bronze made a right hash of a header.
The first goal finally came for England at the 40 minute mark. Fran Kirby provided just what England needed to break Northern Ireland’s resistance, calming sweeping into the top right corner after a shot by Lauren Hemp was blocked.
Through that goal, Kirby perhaps demonstrated why Wiegman has put so much trust in her, despite her tribulations towards the end of the season.
Beth Mead’s revenge tour made arrived in Southampton, as she got her fifth goal in three games. The ball fell to her after a corner was recycled. She showed great composure to shift the ball to her left foot, her shot took a fortituous deflection off Rachel Furness’s foot and found its way into the bottom corner.
Substitutions change the game again for England.
A slightly earlier than usual triple substitution took place at half time. Alex Greenwood, Ella Toone and Alessia Russo all on for, Bright, Stanway and White.
Greenwood didn’t do anything wrong, but Toone and Russo both really brought the game to life.
Russo in particular didn’t wait around to have an impact on the game, scoring two goals in 5 minutes to all but seal the game for England.
Her first was her sixth headed goal for England, after Toone and Mead combined on the right-hand side.
Toone was involved again firing the ball into Russo, who received it on the turn beautifully before firing into the bottom corner, for her second.
There was a couple more near misses for England, before Kelsie Burrows inadvertently chipped Jackie Burns from a Beth Mead cross, giving England their fifth. It’s not like it changed the fabric of the game or anything, but it was avoidable with better positioning.
Russo could’ve had a hat trick in the last couple of minutes, but somehow sent a shot from about 8 yards out halfway to row Z.
The win never looked in doubt for England really, despite the leisurely start.
Hopefully just the beginning for Northern Ireland.
A quick word on Northern Ireland, who gave it their best. Special mention to Sarah McFadden, who at 35 is only about to go professional with Durham next season, she was a colossus, a proper defender.
Julie Nelson’s goal against Norway will live long in Northern Irish memories. It’s not going to get any easier from this point in, it’s well documented that improvements need to be made, but hopefully it’s the first of many major tournament highlights for them.
England look the part, but questions remain.
It’s gone swimmingly for England thus far. It’s important for them to keep their feet on the ground though. They were expected to win the group, which they did. Granted they weren’t expected to do it so emphatically, over Norway in particular, who had a nightmare.
Speaking of Norway, who are now out, they were that shambolic the other day that Hegerberg and Graham Hansen barely touched the ball, meaning that England haven't really been tested against ‘top’ forwards yet.
So among all of the rightful excitement and positivity, questions do still remain. How will they cope under pressure defensively? Will they be able to use their strengths to blow teams away?
All may be revealed when they play Spain or Denmark in Brighton on Wednesday night.