The obstacles on the road to Paris had appeared to be little more than potential problems. The Netherlands would always undoubtedly be the toughest task but after defeat by Belgium and an early World Cup exit their status became increasingly tenuous. England Women needed to make a statement and the circumstances would rarely be more favourable.
After all, the Lionesses impressed against Scotland, they brushed off the oft-levied concerns about fatigue. There were a handful of worrying instances in their Nations League opener but they had been fleeting at best. They weren’t supposed to follow it up like this.
A 2-1 defeat away from home presents more questions than answers for Sarina Wiegman. There’s no doubt this team are capable of great moments but they can’t afford to allow getting caught out to become a more regular occurrence.
“The result is tough to take,” Wiegman said. “I think it’s hard to take because it was so unnecessary, in the last minutes we just really gave it away. That’s the most disappointing thing.”
Within a matter of minutes in Utrecht it became apparent this was going to be a tiresome night for the Lionesses. Their passing was wayward, their possession uneasy, their defending inattentive. England lacked any semblance of composure and they were made to pay.
The Netherlands’ pressure was unwavering, their attacking intent notably creative. England stuck to their shape but that matters little when the opponent takes any opportunity to force you to unwind, bring out your worst tendencies and carve out the gaps.
Whipped up by a boisterous home support – a sea of luminous orange wanting to get the better of Wiegman on her return – the Netherlands toyed and made sure to torment the travelling team. Caitlin Dijkstra had an effort batted away by Mary Earps, the England goalkeeper leaped highest to collect the resting corner, but the predominant feeling when she dropped to the ground in a vain attempt to slow the tempo was one of exasperation.
England rode their luck but playing in such a manner is always unsustainable: the Dutch opener was long overdue when it finally arrived.
Georgia Stanway dawdled at the back and took too long to play the ball forward, Jackie Groenen noticed the opportunity. She pounced and dispossessed the England midfielder, Danielle van de Donk – offside on the replay but handed a reprieve by the lack of VAR – collected and spotted Lieke Martens, prowling the edge of the box waiting for her chance to come. Her precision finish, curled into the top right corner, forced the Lionesses into an uphill battle.
There was, at least, some marginal improvement which followed. First Rachel Daly scooped a volley towards Daphne van Domselaar’s goal and was denied by the post, then Van Domselaar was made to showcase her abilities to keep out Lauren Hemp and Lucy Bronze with a fine double save.
But Wiegman knew something was still amiss – even if her customary stoic body language refused to admit any concerns. Something needed to change and it’s certainly helpful for England in moments like this to have a master tactician at the helm.
Daly made way for Chloe Kelly, the back three was abandoned in favour of a more secure back four, and from the opening moments of the second half it seemed that despite England’s uphill battle having looked increasingly like a mountain they had the perfect sherpa for the task.
“The first-half was very poor,” said England midfielder Stanway. “You can see that we weren’t up to our standard. We made many mistakes in all areas. We were much better in the second-half when we changed formation and we are able to press their back-three, and they ended up changing formation to obviously counter-attack that. But I think in the second-half there were some real positives, even in the first-half there were some positives. We hit the post.
“It’s football - the first-half was poor, second-half was good, and then just mistakes for the goals.”
Hemp began bombing towards the defence in a manner she hadn’t been able to achieve while Kelly replicated such intent on the opposite flank. The game tilted back into balance and Alessia Russo, back in the team after overcoming an issue which kept her out against Scotland, came to the rescue – or at least that’s what the Lionesses would have hoped.
Stanway was played in by substitute Kelly, she cut the ball across the face of goal, and, with a slight deflection off Dominique Janssen playing it into the air, found Russo. Those opportunities are her bread and butter and she was at hand, rifling into the same corner where Martens drew first blood.
England found their way back into it but little more than that was able to materialise. They couldn’t capitalise and were made to pay. Andries Jonker rejigged his Netherlands team and, when England began to tire, got the better of his country’s former manager.
Carelessness was the enemy again, Alex Greenwood sloppily handing off the ball to Martens. She fed Renate Jensen and Earps was beaten at her near post. On the stroke of 90 minutes England became the architects of their own downfall.
“We watched the game against Scotland, we could already see this was not an easy win for England,” added Netherlands manager Andries Jonker. “We knew England didn’t look that strong and we were convinced at least that we should play a good match and be very close to a good result. We think we can beat everybody.”
England are level on points with the Netherlands in their Nations League group after their first two matches. They mustn’t slip into their increasingly regularly seen error-strewn ways when they welcome Belgium to Leicester next month.
There were warning signs at the World Cup when England were sloppy but the Lionesses managed to mostly ride their luck on the big stage. Issues were laid to rest by reaching the final, but it’s becoming clear those tendencies remain present.
Experimenting with a back three has been a double-edged sword and the formation question remains mostly unanswered: both have their merits, both have their downfalls.
The particular way in which Wiegman sorts this side’s problems is less important than sorting them quickly. They managed to stop the rot which had been setting in before the World Cup; Team GB’s Olympic hopes rest on it being stopped from seeping in once more.