Riise-ing to the challenge: How England beat NI’s intelligent tactical plan
For the first time in around a year, England’s women’s football team were in action, hosting Northern Ireland in an international friendly at St. George’s Park. Both teams looked to use this game for different reasons; new interim Lionesses manager and Norwegian footballing legend Hege Riise was using it to assess her squad and try things out, as well as handing debuts to some of the country’s brightest young players, whilst Northern Ireland manager Kenny Shiels was looking for his side to learn from their opponents, ahead of their Euro 2022 play-off double-header later this year.
This tactical analysis will look at how England played with plenty of character, overwhelming a Northern Ireland side expected to lose this game. We will look at the tactics they used, as well as how Northern Ireland set up to play the game. The analysis will also look at where Northern Ireland made mistakes and can improve before their play-off matches.
England’s new interim manager named a strong side, with plenty of attacking talent on show. First choice goalkeeper Ellie Roebuck, of Manchester City Women, was selected, with a back four made up of Roebuck’s club teammates Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton and Alex Greenwood, as well as Arsenal Women’s Leah Williamson. Ahead of them, another Manchester City player, Georgia Stanway, was given a deeper midfield role than she is perhaps used to. Her clubmate Lauren Hemp and on-loan Everton Women midfielder Jill Scott operated behind the front line of Rachel Daly, who plays for NWSL side Houston Dash, Arsenal’s Jordan Nobbs and another Manchester City player in Ellen White, who led the line. Scott captained the side on the occasion of her 150th appearance for her country.
The majority of Northern Ireland’s players, meanwhile, feature in the Northern Irish Women’s Premiership. Notable names were teenage Linfield Ladies right-back Abbie Magee, who is one of their up-and-coming players, as well as the country’s most-capped player, centre-back Julie Nelson, who plays for Crusaders Strikers. Cliftonville midfielder Marissa Callaghan captained the side from the left wing. There were a few players in the team who feature in the English game, with goalkeeper Becky Flaherty plying her trade at Women’s Championship side Sheffield United Women, whilst Birmingham City Women left-back Rebecca Holloway and midfielder Chloe McCarron also started. The front two came from Merseyside, with Liverpool Women’s Rachel Furness partnering Everton striker Simone Magill.
England’s attacking tactics
We were expecting to see a different England on the pitch, with Phil Neville’s reign over after his move to MLS side Inter Miami, and there were several tactical points of note in this game from them.
Firstly, they looked to play with attacking full-backs, using them to control the wings as much as possible. This freed up their wide attackers to move infield much more, increasing their attacking presence. Manchester City duo Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood started as the full-backs, and both naturally get forward as much as possible for their club side, so it was easy for them to do the same in this game. Here, we see how Greenwood has taken up a position on the left side of the pitch, supporting the attack, showing how much this tactic helps England in getting more players into the central areas.
The other thing that came from this is that the full-backs linked up with the wide attackers, often creating 2-v-1 situations against the Northern Ireland players. This again increased the chances of England getting balls into the box, so having attacking full-backs is definitely something that can help England play a more attacking style of football, as Hege Riise says she wants them to do.
Here, we see how England also looked to stretch the Northern Ireland defence as much as possible. The wingers are in the yellow circles, and we can see how close they are to the side lines. By keeping this wide, they force the Northern Irish players to stay wide too, preventing them narrowing up. This means there is always space for the central attackers to run into, and, with the players England had on the pitch, this was a constant sight. Here, Jill Scott, in the red circle, is making the run, but all of England’s midfielders and forwards were taking their turn in getting behind the defence. This is the result of Hege Riise naming so many attack-minded players in the side, and getting more players into the final third is clearly something she wants to see more of during her time in charge.
Scott was everywhere for England in this game, and we see here how she has made a run behind the Northern Ireland defence, which has come up the pitch to try and close down the space. However, England’s attacking players are all able to play pinpoint passes, such as the one shown by the yellow arrow here. This means that England always pose a threat when the ball is in their opponents’ half.
Here, she is the provider instead, passing the ball forwards to striker Ellen White. We can see again how White, in the yellow circle, is in plenty of space, meaning that the pass has a big target area to travel into. Scott constantly found herself in little pockets of space like this one, and her first thought was always to move the ball forwards when she could. The captain for the day was one of the best players on the pitch, providing the link between teammates and helping to transfer the ball into areas where her team could cause problems for Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s tactical ideas
The visitors were never expected to get much out of this game in terms of the scoreline, but they came into it with a few tactical ideas to frustrate England as much as possible.
Here, we see how they all got behind the ball, meaning England had to work really hard to break them down. There were passages of play when the home side had to move the ball from side to side, but not forwards, which is what Northern Ireland were comfortable with. As far as their positioning goes, the defensive line has narrowed up. We mentioned previously how they were being forced apart by England’s wide attack, but here they can ensure those spaces aren’t left open. They are protected by the midfield line, who have a wider structure, ensuring England can’t get into the space behind and take up a position either side of the defence. There are England players in between the lines, but they can’t be found with anything other than an aerial pass, where Northern Ireland would have a good chance of clearing it. Therefore, England have to keep the ball on the ground.
When the ball is in England’s half, the two Northern Ireland forwards attacked and pushed up the field, putting pressure on the two England centre-backs. This was made easier by the England full-backs moving up the pitch to join the attack, as we have already seen, so it becomes a 2-v-2 in these moments. By getting into these areas, Northern Ireland looked to force England goalkeeper Ellie Roebuck to play long balls up the pitch, rather than short passes to the centre-backs. This would make it easier for the visitors to win the ball and attack again.
In the second half, with England in control of the game, Northern Ireland’s focus turned more towards stopping the ball reaching the likes of Ellen White in the middle of the pitch. Here, we see how the ball has come in from wide, but experienced centre-back Julie Nelson has moved to cut the pass out and end the threat. This happened a few times in the second half, and meant England had to work harder to create opportunities to score.
Therefore, this section has shown that, despite being the clear underdogs in this game, Northern Ireland had a plan to make England work for their victory.
Northern Ireland’s areas to improve
However, they still have areas to work on before their next game, as we will see in this section of the analysis.
One thing that manager Kenny Shiels has been encouraging his side to do is to play out from the back, and this was clear whenever the ball was in their own third; they preferred to move the ball along the ground rather than clearing it aerially. However, as we see in this image, this got them into trouble at times, with England’s forwards looking to make interceptions at every opportunity.
Here, the intended pass is marked by the blue arrow, but it doesn’t have enough weight on it. Ellen White moves to win it, as the red arrow shows, and the first goal for England comes from this chance. Therefore, whilst we have mentioned how Northern Ireland made England work for their win at times, England’s anticipation always gave them the advantage, and it led to them having easy chances and goals. This is something the visitors need to work on and prevent, particularly if they persevere with playing out from the back, otherwise other teams will continually score these types of goals against them.
Another thing they did was to leave too much space open for England to move into. We know how right-back Lucy Bronze, in the red circle, likes to get into positions such as this where she can shoot at goal, and she does that here. England had plenty of attacking talent on the pitch, able to put pressure on Northern Ireland’s defence, but this image shows another way that they were given easy opportunities to attack and score at times, making the win easier.
The amount of space left open by Northern Ireland was a constant feature of the game. This image comes from the second half, but it is a different situation. This time, whilst the Northern Ireland defenders are positioned more compactly in the middle, the space is open on the wing, as the yellow box indicates. Bronze has again got forward, as was a key part of England’s tactics to create opportunities, and she can now set up a chance for her team in the middle. When Bronze makes her run, none of the visiting players go with her, which means England have a better chance of scoring. Instead, the defenders all switch off, which they can’t afford to do here. Therefore, this is another area they can improve on.
When it came to the attack, we have seen how Northern Ireland set up with a front two, looking to push forward as much as possible. However, they lacked quality with the final ball whenever they did have a good opportunity to get behind England’s defence. Here, Furness is looking to transfer the ball into that space, but her pass doesn’t have enough weight or direction on it, and England make the interception and clear it. Furness’ attacking teammate, Simone Magill, who is in the yellow circle, has made the run to offer the passing option, but the poor pass means it is futile. Therefore, whilst Northern Ireland have the players to create good attacking situations, they lack quality with the final pass, which is what will hold them back.
It should be remembered that Northern Ireland were the underdogs in this game, and, as such, these are not criticisms, but just suggestions for how they can become a better footballing side.
In conclusion, we have seen in this tactical analysis how England started their new era positively, looking to get on the front foot as much as possible, and the starting lineup chosen by Hege Riise reflected that. We have also shown how Northern Ireland had some good tactical ideas coming into this game, and looked to set up in a way that would force England to work hard to create spaces and goalscoring chances. However, there are still a few areas where they need to improve, which England saw and looked to exploit as often as possible.
Overall, England will be happy to have won comfortably, and to have put on a good performance, but will know that they can still improve, especially with the level of younger players coming into the team to challenge the established players for their places in the team. Their next planned game is against Canada later this year, whereas Northern Ireland will find out who they will face in their play-off games on 5 March.