England’s defeat in Belgium leaves qualification for the 2024 Olympic Games on behalf of Team GB in doubt after another frustrating performance – and their weaknesses are now being exposed far too regularly.
The Lionesses, who reached the Women’s World Cup final in August, lost 3-2 in Leuven and sit third in their Women’s Nations League table with just two matches remaining.
It was a third defeat in five games for the European champions and concerns are increasing over their lack of ruthlessness in front of goal and the mounting number of defensive errors.
Olympic qualification is also hanging in the balance. England, as the nominated nation to qualify on behalf of Team GB, must win their Women’s Nations League group to stand a chance of reaching Paris in 2024.
Asked about their hopes of qualifying, manager Sarina Wiegman said on ITV: “First of all we have to beat the Netherlands by more than one goal at Wembley [in December] so we know we have work to do.
“We have put ourselves in a hard position.”
Wiegman could not have enjoyed a smoother start to her England tenure as they went 30 games unbeaten before April’s shock defeat by Australia in a pre-World Cup friendly.
However, she posed a frustrated figure on Tuesday as since that night in Brentford, England have struggled to consistently reach the high performances they produced on their way to winning Euro 2022.
Their World Cup campaign was clearly a successful one given they reached the final, but they received criticism for several underwhelming displays in Australia.
Aside from two standout performances – against China in the group stages and Australia in the semi-finals -England struggled to impose themselves and often lacked creativity.
Given a clean slate in the new Women’s Nations League competition this September, it was a chance for the Lionesses to showcase their true potential once again.
Injuries to key players – captain Leah Williamson and forward Beth Mead – have no doubt contributed but England’s faults were largely of their own making once again in Leuven on Tuesday night.
“This was a game [where] I think we should have been tighter on the ball,” said Wiegman. “The tempo wasn’t great but we did create lots of chances and we dominated the game totally.
“We lost the ball and we knew they were dangerous on the counter-attack. It was us that made it hard for ourselves. It’s something we have to get out of our game. We have to do better in the final third.
“We were sloppy on the ball and they were ready for that. They play their long ball and they are gone [on the counter-attack].”
England have kept just one clean sheet in seven matches and have conceded six goals in their four Women’s Nations League games.
Centre-backs Millie Bright and Jess Carter were caught out for Tessa Wullaert’s first goal in Leuven, before a handball from Georgia Stanway was penalised, and Wullaert scored Belgium’s winner with a penalty in the 85th minute.
Those errors, compounded by missed chances from Alessia Russo, Rachel Daly, Fran Kirby and Lucy Bronze all contributed to England’s defeat.
They had 73% possession in the match and 18 shots, but only five were on target and Belgium scored from three of their five total attempts.
And despite the boost of playmaker Kirby’s return to the starting XI for the first time in over a year, England were still wasteful in possession, with Wiegman saying they were dealt a “hard lesson” for their mistakes.
It is important not to get carried away – England have still lost just four matches in total under Wiegman – but the fact two have now come in this competition against lower-ranked European opposition is a warning that issues must be addressed.
But given England’s previous success under the Dutchwoman, defender Bronze remains confident they can dig themselves out of the group stages and into the Nations League semi-finals, keeping alive their Olympic hopes.
“We’ve still got a good chance, we play our next game against the Netherlands at Wembley – a stadium where we like to step up and against a team that we played quite recently,” said Bronze.
“We’ll put this game to bed and look forward to playing the Netherlands and Scotland. They are two really tough games. We’ve left ourselves with a little bit more to do – but it’s not impossible.”