England made a successful start to their Euro 2022 campaign with a 1-0 win over Austria, as Beth Mead scored the lone goal in an important, albeit not entirely convincing, win for the Lionesses.
Signs of the immense pressure England are under on home soil were evident in the display, as was Austria’s formidable defensive strength, but ultimately Sarina Wiegman’s side exerted too much control and possessed too much quality for their opponents to handle.
Austria set up in their standard 4-3-3 formation which moved into a 4-4-1-1 in defense. The energetic and creative Laura Feiersinger supported Nicole Billa up front, harrying and closing down England’s center halves as Austria maintained a solid two banks of four behind them. England played in a 4-1-4-1, with captain Leah Williamson starting at center back rather than midfield and Keira Walsh playing as a lone pivot.
Walsh is central to England’s build-up play. While they struggled to move the ball into Austria’s half in the opening five minutes or so, Walsh soon began orchestrating their possession play in front of the back two.
She excels at evading opposition pressure and is canny in finding space ahead of the center backs to pick up the ball. Walsh also enables her midfield partners Fran Kirby and Georgia Stanway to push higher due to her proficiency in possession and ability to penetrate opposition lines with seemingly simple yet incredibly effective five to ten-yard line-breaking passes.
Much of England’s attacking, though, came from out wide. Partly, this is due to the sheer talent they possess on either flank. Lauren Hemp is among the most exciting young players in world football, and her acceleration and ability to create with both feet means that England try as much as possible to find her in situations where she can isolate an opposition defender to either rush to the byline or deliver from deep.
Mead, who has scored a remarkable 15 goals in 15 appearances for England, is another pacy player whose movement makes her a formidable attacking threat. Behind her, Lucy Bronze is a sensational attacking fullback who can combine well in the final third and provide driving runs from deep to push England up the pitch.
However, Austria’s defense posture also forced England to funnel their attacks down the flanks. They sat deep in a 4-4-1-1 mid to low block, congesting the central space and denying time for Stanway and Kirby to pick up the ball in the middle.
As such, England’s prime aim in possession was to target Hemp, Mead, and Bronze with direct diagonal balls from Walsh and the center-backs. Williamson and Millie Bright are both excellent at such passes, and because Austria dropped quite deep to defend, they constantly had time and space on the ball to pick out their targets.
Once getting the ball wide, England would either try to create overloads with one central midfielder,a fullback, and a winger to create space for a cross near the byline or deliver from deep to try to find Ellen White in the box. Austria were sound in their box defending, denying England clear opportunities from such crosses.
As the match progressed and Austria pushed for an equalizer, the Lionesses were more effective in isolating Hemp and Mead against defenders and putting them in positions to create better chances. Their final ball disappointed at times, but their acceleration and quickness of delivery made them difficult to defend against.
Out of possession, England pressed intelligently and situationally throughout the game. Ellen White, despite not having a plethora of chances to feed off of, tirelessly led the England press and sought to disrupt Austria’s attempts to build from the back.
The Lionesses retrieved several balls from goal-kicks that were attempting to pick out Austria’s midfielders. They spent little time in their own defensive third, but were impressive from defensive corners and lateral free kicks.
The periods in which Austria enjoyed the most success was utilizing their physicality to win second balls and attacking the space behind Bronze. In future matches, they may benefit from playing more directly rather than trying to build out from the back, inviting opposition pressure that their defenders don’t seem comfortable playing through.
As for England, Weigmann will want her side to create higher quality chances in future rounds and be more varied in their attacking play. Their reliance on wide play and crosses, while partly a function of Austria’s defensive solidity, was also a result of Kirby’s inability to impose herself on the game.
A doubt for the tournament squad, Kirby will understandably need time to work her way into full match sharpness. She produced a moment of sublime quality to create the first goal, and if she can impose herself on matches more and find pockets of space in-between the lines to receive possession, England will be a far more potent attacking threat.
Despite their loss, Norway and Northern Ireland will not relish their games versus Austria. They lack a true avenue for goals and seem oddly committed to a build-up style that doesn’t play to their strengths, but their defensive astuteness, physicality, and threat in transition will make them a tough out.
England will be happy with a positive start to the tournament and will hope that they can build on their performance to cement themselves as the clear favorites for the Euros.
By: Vishnu Anandraj / @vishnua711
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / DeFodi Images