1. Going Out With a Bang
The feel-good factor around the Lionesses has been so palpable that even your slightly deranged (and utterly old-fashioned) uncle has been waxing lyrical about everything from Nikita Parris’ ball-control to Ellen White’s infallible finishing.
Yes, the good times have had us feeling higher than a kite and perhaps we’re all guilty of feeling that England could do no wrong. Until we were thrown into the pantheon to do battle with a genuine giant, USA, and that same kite came crashing back down to earth with a thud. Confidence can breed complacency and that’s why it hurt so much to be thoroughly outdone in yet another semi-final.
While the harshest critics will pick holes in anything and complain that a second consecutive third-place finish signifies stagnation, there has been no end to the positives. Phil Neville is excelling in his new(ish) role and will take reaching a semi-final at his first major tournament as evidence of that. He knows better than anyone you’re only as good as your last performance, so the pressure’s on to leave a lasting impression in hearts and minds of everybody who’s been infected by World Cup fever.
2. (Dame?) Jill Scott
At 32 years old, this Saturday could be the last time we see the legendary midfielder at a World Cup, and possibly in a competitive England game full stop. Scotty has been an unmitigated servant to her country, making her 20th appearance at a World Cup against USA to break Peter Shilton’s record and become the most capped England player at the World Cup.
She’s made history more than once at the tournament. Her goal against Norway after 124 seconds was the fastest ever at a Women’s World Cup. It also meant she joined Fara Williams to become just the second England player to score at three separate World Cups. Not a bad campaign to bow out to then, eh?
How it feels to score at a third World Cup.
It’s a glaring banana skin for Millie Bright and Steph Houghton at centre half. Bright in particular is overly reliant on positioning and reading the game, but Sweden have a knack of nullifying these skills with their through balls.
3. Clean Sheet Feat
Although the cat is officially out the bag and England’s World Cup dream has been extinguished, there is still plenty to play for. A second successive third-place finish is nothing to be sniffed at – it’s cemented their qualification for the Tokyo Olympics next summer.
But they also have a chance to make actual history too. Another clean sheet against Sweden would be their fifth of the tournament and would, therefore, represent their most defensively dashing World Cup ever.
After going more than six hours without conceding a goal it was a little discombobulating to see them ship two inside 20 minutes against USA. England have been a tough unit to break down in France – reaching the semi-finals having conceded just a single goal is an achievement in itself. It’s no surprise that it took two precision crosses met by pin-point headers to get the upper hand.
Their defending has been, on the whole, unflappable. But the half-arsed habit of chucking the ball away was bound to cost them sooner or later and punishing predators USA must’ve been licking their lips. A strict dressing down from Uncle Phil, in his best Fergie-like huff, should be enough to focus minds and get the job done against a Sweden side not exactly loaded with dynamite.
Three players have started every game for the Lionesses at this tournament – Jill Scott, Lucy Bronze and Steph Houghton. Now would be an opportune time to give them a rest and blood some of the youngsters.
It’s no secret that Neville has ripped up the old playbook and going about implementing a new method. The emphasis is on a young squad built on a philosophy of fitness and maintaining possession. It’s not revolutionary anymore but it’s working.
The FA are seemingly ahead of progress, having stated they’d be hopeful of being competitive from the 2023 World Cup onwards. If that’s the case then now is the time to get players like Leah Williamson, Georgia Stanway and Abbie McManus prepared for life at the top.
Neville will no doubt be concerned with protecting the short-term legacy of their achievement in France and prioritise going out on a high. However, the adventurer in him will be tempted to tinker and get the wheels in motion for the future.
By anybody’s logic, the Scandi’s should be completely creamed by this point of the tournament. They’ve just endured 120 minutes against the dogged Dutch, a game in which they looked barely capable of summoning the energy to make a cup of tea let alone win a game of football.
Although England were gutted to miss out on a place in the final, it must have hurt the Swedes even more so. After getting their own back on Germany in the quarters, whom they lost in the 2003 final to, they’d hoped that this could be their year. Arguably, finishing third place is even more of a disappointment for Sweden.
Try telling that to Uncle Phil though. He’ll be well aware (if he isn’t he ought to be reading this blog) of where the danger lies –incisive through balls is seemingly their weapon of choice. Whether the ball comes from all the way back in defence or skimmed through from midfield, it’s old but downright effective.
If they've done their homework, they shouldn't be getting caught out by the through ball.