It may not have been a thrilling performance, but England did what they needed to do in their opening Women’s World Cup game against Haiti – win.
The European champions were lacklustre and wasteful in their 1-0 victory , struggling to put away the chances they created while looking occasionally sloppy in defence.
Meanwhile Haiti, who are ranked 49 places below the Lionesses, proved why they are in Australia among the 32 best teams in the world with a fearless performance that tested Sarina Wiegman’s side.
But a penalty from Georgia Stanway was enough to give England a crucial three points – and it was just the third time in six World Cup appearances they have won their opening match.
“It’s so important to win your first game in a tournament,” said Stanway. “It’s been a long build-up to today and we’re kind of happy to just get over the line.
“Haiti caused us problems, were a threat on the counter-attack, were fast, physical, and they challenged us in areas that we probably didn’t expect.”
Goalkeeper Mary Earps was called into action twice, tipping Melchie Dumornay’s strike over the bar before pushing away Roseline Eloissaint’s goal-bound effort.
“[The win] puts us in a good place,” said Earps. “But for sure there’s plenty we need to review and reflect on because we have set ourselves a higher standard than that.”
A lengthy build-up to the tournament – which kicked off eight weeks after the Women’s Super League ended – as well as uncertainty from Wiegman on her best XI and injuries to key players, were all contributing factors in England’s underwhelming performance.
Alessia Russo, given the nod ahead of Rachel Daly in attack, worked tirelessly but was often isolated.
Captain Millie Bright played the full 90 minutes despite not having featured since March after having knee surgery, and looked understandably rusty.
And England were sloppy in possession, allowing Haiti to capitalise on the counter-attack with the dangerous pace of Dumornay and Batcheba Louis.
“I think it takes a little bit to find your feet,” said Stanway. “Coming into a major tournament the pressure is high and the build-up is so long. It’s been a long process.”
Former England goalkeeper Karen Bardsley told BBC Radio 5 Live: “It was really poor from England. [They were] sloppy in possession, taking too long to play the pass and then getting caught.
“I didn’t expect it to be that close. I thought it would be competitive but certainly not for that long. I was really impressed with Haiti.”
Wiegman said Haiti’s counter-attack made it “pretty hard for us” but she saw improvements in the second half.
“We wanted to be on the ball all the time and we were a lot. We created chances but also lost balls,” the manager added.
England had 11 shots on target against Haiti – their most on record at the World Cup – but have now failed to score in 337 minutes of open play.
Ex-England forward Eniola Aluko told ITV there was “predictability” to their attacking play, which consisted of “a lot of crosses” from wingers Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly.
“In the first half Russo was playing, but if that is the approach and the pattern of play, should it be Rachel Daly up there instead? She is stronger in the air,” added Aluko.
“If you want to be less predictable, you need more creativity, especially in the number 10 role. Ella Toone looked a bit disconnected. Lauren James is a bit more creative, offers more movement and interchanging of positions.”
Wiegman introduced James and Daly later in the second half and England could have extended their lead with Kelly, Stanway and Daly all having attempts, but Haiti also grew in confidence and tested Earps.
England’s back four of Lucy Bronze, Bright, Alex Greenwood and Jess Carter have not played together often and it was clear they need time to become better connected.
But despite clear teething problems and a growing concern for England’s lack of ruthlessness in front of goal, they have still lost just once under Wiegman in 33 games.
It is also worth remembering they underwhelmed in their opening match of Euro 2022 before responding with an 8-0 thrashing of Norway in their second group game and going on to win the tournament.
“England have got a clean sheet. Mary Earps made some fantastic saves and dealt with the transitions and they managed to come through it,” former England midfielder Karen Carney told ITV.
“Tournament football is about building momentum, getting points on the board and moving forward. There are definitely some positives to take from today.”
Wiegman’s demeanour remained cool as she acknowledged a dry period in goalscoring but highlighted clearly which areas England need to improve before their second group game against Denmark, who began with a win over China .
“Ruthlessness… what does that mean?” said Wiegman. “Sometimes it means the connections with the cross, the timing of the cross, where the cross ends in the penalty box and little things like that.
“We were very close to scoring a goal but their defence was tough too. We will keep trying and working on it, starting again tomorrow.”