The start of a new era: five things we learned from England’s win over Northern Ireland

Ellen White

Cynics will say it was just Northern Ireland, a team ranked 43 places below England in the current world rankings, who had players missing because they couldn’t get time off work.

But given England’s run of form in recent times — with a string of underwhelming, unsatisfying, and frankly unacceptable performances — this comprehensive 6-0 thrashing was far more than just a result: it was a statement for the future.

So what exactly can we infer from a friendly behind closed doors, where England’s opposition failed to register a shot all game? While this by no means marks a new period of invincibility, there were ostensibly nothing but positives to take from the game. Here are five key things we now know:

A new and improved style

Interim coach Hege Riise had stressed in the build-up to the game that she wanted her side to press hard, be more direct, and to switch the play more often.

England duly delivered with impressive efficacy, as Northern Ireland were consistently pressed and never given any opportunity to settle.

For a team which boasts such names that include Lucy Bronze, Leah Williamson and Nikita Paris to name just a few, it has been widely reported that this England team, like so many others of the past, has habitually underperformed in recent times.

But off this evidence alone, Riise will be happy with what she saw, with signs of improvement in terms of fitness, flair and finesse.

“The players did what we wanted them to,” Riise stated afterwards. “We were more successful in the second half than the first...but it’s good for us to have that problem going forward so we can organise and look at the game again.”

Despite the positives on show, Riise conceded that there is still work to be done when looking ahead to more troublesome tests against distinguished opposition.

“It’s a style I like to play, by keeping the ball… [but] against Germany we don’t create as much. We need to be [more] precise and find the pockets.”

Selfless Scott is not finished yet

After an agonising wait for her 150th cap, Jill Scott’s day could scarcely have gone much better. The 6-0 scoreline would likely have satisfied the 34-year-old enough, but her individual performance serves as proof that it’s not time to pass down the mantle just yet.

Scott was characteristically assured all match, dictating the tempo and finding runners in behind at will. Early into the second half, she assisted England’s fourth goal, threading a neat through-ball into the path of Ellen White, who ruthlessly finished to register her hat-trick. Indeed, when Chloe Kelly was brought down in the box later in the half, the England team saw only one viable taker...

Jill Scott

“Go on Jill,” were the words uttered by her teammates, according to Georgia Stanway. But the England veteran instead handed the ball to debutant Ella Toone with staggeringly selfless conviction.

“I think I would’ve missed it and probably ruined the day,” Scott jokingly admitted after.

It’s hard to believe that statement to be true, especially given Scott’s perpetual reliability in an England shirt, but nonetheless, if her performance yesterday was anything to go by, then Fara Williams’ appearances record yet be in jeopardy.

Brilliant Bronze is back

For someone who won the best FIFA women’s player award as recently as December 2020, Bronze has faced her fair share of criticism this season, with her performances for Manchester City in the Women’s Super League quite obviously below her capable best.

It later became clear that Bronze, who returned from injury at the start of the season, was not back to full-fitness, but in recent weeks there have been signs that the elegance and flair which has garnered the defender such acclaim is back and, hopefully, here to stay.

Lucy Bronze

This was more than evident against Northern Ireland as Bronze set up two goals and scored one of her own, having been allowed the freedom to roam as she pleased. Speaking of her influence on the team and her impact on the match, Riise was quick to complement the Manchester City defender.

“Obviously she had a good performance. Assists, a goal, running in her presence was good. And of course, she’s a leader by example on the field. She was excellent.”

The future's still bright for White

Considering Bethany England’s remarkable form in 2020 — which saw her collect the PFA’s Player of the Year award — one would be forgiven for assuming that Ellen White’s playing time for England may suffer as a result.

On the evidence of yesterday’s match, however, it’s clear that White, who is battling with Vivienne Miedema to become the WSL’s top scorer of all-time, is still a devastating finisher and a proven, reliable, world-class option for the Lionesses leading into next year’s European Championships.

Ellen White

Her hat-trick yesterday brought her to 39 England goals in total, just seven off Kelly Smith’s record, though her mind was far from this milestone in the post-match press conference.

“I’m just running around with a smile on my face, loving every minute,” White told reporters. “I’m not focusing on the record. I’m just focused on playing for England.”

Riise’s influence on White’s play was visibly apparent against Northern Ireland, with more forward pressing, more direct running, and more getting into the box. White, though, still credits her success to her teammates for fashioning opportunities to get the ball into her.

“For me as a [number] nine, getting into the box and the deliveries they [my teammates] put on a plate is a dream for me.”

The perfect blend of youth and experience

Hoping to create a sense of “togetherness” within the squad, Riise chose to start only two players with less than 10 caps, Ellie Roebuck and Lauren Hemp, but the dominance of the hosts allowed for multiple changes and four players were later handed their debuts by the Norwegian.

Leading into next year’s Euros, England now have a plethora of seasoned internationals, with a wealth of tournament football experience, in tandem with a conveyor belt of promising youngsters.

Striker Ellen White, speaking after the game, exemplified her optimism for the future: “Yeah it’s just exciting. We’ve got a lot of young talent and we’ve got very experienced players, a great kind of balance.”

Hege Riise echoed these same thoughts, praising the impact of debutants Sandy MacIver, Ebony Salmon and Charlotte Wubben-Moy, but in particular Ella Toone, who converted an England penalty to score her first international goal.

“I hadn’t seen Ella that much, but I’ve seen a few games with United. She covers the always looking to play...she impressed me.”

With superstar absentees such as Nikita Parris, Fran Kirby and Millie Bright all likely to feature at some point during this new regime, it appears as though the groundwork, the tactics, and most importantly, the personnel, are all coming together.

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