During the World Cup, despite the historic run to the final and the strength of character they showed in Australia, there was still a strong sense throughout the campaign they were winning games without being at their best.
An exception to that was their semi-final triumph over the Matildas, but England were sloppy in possession Down Under. Defensive vulnerabilities in wide areas were evident, and these were exposed again in Utrecht on Tuesday, faced with the Dutch’s impressive high press.
Last Friday’s narrow win over Scotland came with a hint of good fortune as they hit the bar in a second half where they applied plenty of pressure. Scotland winger Kirsty Hanson caused all sorts of problems and, with hindsight, perhaps winning that game merely temporarily papered over a few small cracks.
Losing away against a Netherlands side stacked with world-class players is no reason to panic, nor cause for a major inquest, but the manner of the goals England conceded, and how easily the were beaten in midfield areas in the first half, is a concern.
England’s Bayern Munich midfielder Georgia Stanway said: “The first half was very poor. 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 were 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. But it’s football - the first half was poor, second half was good, and then just mistakes for the goals. That’s football.
“It’s still all to play for [in the group], still in our hands. [We have] four more games, so four more times we’ve got to show up.”
Sarina Wiegman, the head coach, changed her formation at half-time, ditching the back three and reverting to a 4-2-3-1 and the switch helped England enjoy a much better second half, before they lost concentration in the 90th minute.
Wiegman said of the winning goal: “It’s just a silly moment where we made a wrong decision and they counter-attack. Those are silly moments. We just need to manage the game and those moments better.”
It is clear some England players look shattered, not only physically but perhaps mentally, after a summer where they started training for the World Cup on June 19, just two weeks after the Women’s Champions League final, reached the World Cup final and then - in some cases - went straight back into club training a week later.
They have not had an off-season. Again. The schedule was similar last year for their Euros triumph, and for many of the squad who were picked for Team GB for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
Those issues with the calendar are not unique to England and there is a global conversation ongoing regarding the entire international women’s football schedule. But for players based in England’s top flight, the international break came before the start of the new league campaign, which begins on Sunday.
And it will not be long before the European champions are back in Nations League action, as they face back-to-back games against early Group A1 leaders Belgium on Oct 27 and 31.
Millie Bright, the England captain, said: “I do worry that the standards may slip if we keep going the way we’re going and there’s bound to be more injuries along with that.
“It is extremely hard to try to recover [from a World Cup] whilst trying to get into gear. Then, knowing now that we’re heading into a ridiculous season with very limited time off is crazy, but that seems to be becoming the way of the game.
“I hope in the future that better scheduling is done so that everyone can keep performing at a high level for club and country and ultimately, we can get the best rest possible to allow us to push to higher levels. I’m not using anything as an excuse, we could have put the ball in the back of the net tonight, it just wasn’t our day.
“I had 13 days [off] as a block and then I went on pre-season tour and then I was in with Chelsea, obviously you have some days off in between as well, and then into camp and then a few days off and straight back in.
“As players it’s really hard at the moment because nothing’s changing and we just have to get on with it, we have to do the best we can do, prepare in the best way, perform at the highest levels, get as much rest as possible where possible and just be smart in decision-making. I do hope it’s a subject that is talked about and it’s talked about with players so we can express our views.”