IAN HERBERT: England's Lionesses are overhyped and not good enough

IAN HERBERT: England are overhyped and not good enough… Sarina Wiegman’s team aren’t nearly as great as they think they are

  • Lauren James was sent off in England’s knockout clash with Nigeria on Monday
  • Excuses were made for the Lionesses star after stamping on her opponent
  • England edged through on penalties but the performance was inadequate

A protective shield was thrown around Lauren James on Monday night after an act of recklessness in the full glare of England’s big moment on football’s greatest stage.

Plenty of grounds for mitigation were thrown out by her manager and team-mates. Most of them nonsense.

‘She’s still young’ and ‘she’s under relentless scrutiny’, they said of a highly paid professional who is 21, not a 16-year-old. Even that old one about the media being a contributory factor was trotted out, in defence of James deliberately standing on an opponent’s back.

‘They put a lot of pressure on her from the outside — the media. She’s a kid,’ said Rachel Daly.

Of course, no player ever walks out of a dressing room to say a team-mate’s conduct has been reprehensible — and David Beckham and Wayne Rooney can testify to the fact that acts of madness occur on this stage.

England star Lauren James (top) was sent off for stamping on Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie (bottom)

The Lionesses celebrated their victory emphatically but their performance was not good enough

But James is owed no more cover than a 23-year-old Beckham found after bringing back his leg to kick Diego Simeone 25 years ago.

They say James’s managers have always tried to protect her because of her particular talent, though the problem for her and every other England player on this occasion was a lack of familiarity with an unrelenting physical threat like Nigeria’s.

They froze, unable to compute a way around the green shirts which pressed the life out of them, challenging with a muscularity which bounced them off the ball.

As the attacking link play dried up and ambitious passes were cut out, England were reduced to stasis — in retreat, constantly playing the ball back and not once producing what a World Cup requires: world-class football, imagination, something dynamic and unexpected.

Those England players who stopped in the aftermath to discuss the near two hours of torture, against a side who also brought organisational discipline to the occasion, showed little willingness to admit that the performance was inadequate.

England prevailed — and that’s what ultimately counts — but to hear the players speak of ‘pride’ in the display was to wonder which field they had occupied.

The inconvenient truth is that the performance reinforced what the group stage had hinted at: that they are overhyped and nowhere near as good as they would have us think.

In the absence of any meaningful explanation, all you could do was take a stab at a rationale. Expectation brings a burden and England wear a target on their backs now they are tournament favourites.

James is owed no more cover than a 23-year-old Beckham (left) found after bringing back his leg to kick Diego Simeone 25 years ago

England manager Sarina Wiegman saw her side struggle to break down an energetic Nigeria team

The Australians in the streets outside wore Nigerian face paint, and the players they were rooting for danced their way into this stadium, singing, laughing, liberated by the sense there was no great expectation.

The mystery of where that warm breeze of Euro 2022 confidence had gone was compounded by the mystery of Sarina Wiegman’s response to what played out.

You can generally set the clock by the substitutions she makes on the hour mark, but here there was nothing until the dying minutes of regular time. That meant 120 minutes for Keira Walsh, who limped to the team bus with the remnants of an ice pack on her knee.

‘I’ve never known so many problems,’ Wiegman reflected, though the most significant was the pure footballing excellence of Nigeria, who are in another world financially to England.

As Wiegman’s players provided their baffling self-justification, US-based Nigeria forward Ifeoma Onumonu was explaining the differences between the training camps in the Nigerian capital of Abuja and, as she imagined it, St George’s Park.

James will miss one-match but her ban is likely to be increased to three games under a review

‘Our training fields aren’t great,’ she related. ‘Where we sleep isn’t great. Sometimes we share beds. The grass is rocky, bumps everywhere. The stadium we play in for qualifying — you’d be surprised. I was surprised. You don’t even know where the ball is going to jump at you.’

But as in many of the emerging nations, the players who show promise leave to play competitive football elsewhere.

‘We are very good individually and collectively. It’s a mindset,’ Onumonu said. ‘We can talk about what we don’t have but we’ve got to get the job done either way.’

There were saving graces for England. Millie Bright, the captain, was a beacon, anchoring a defence which was tested. Alex Greenwood and Jess Carter were steadfast either side of her.

But it is in attack that you worry for this team. There has been no prolific striker to replace the retired Ellen White. Alessia Russo seems a pale imitation. 

A FIFA disciplinary panel are yet to rule on whether James’ one-game ban will be escalated to three, but a decision to do so has already been applied at this tournament for a far less serious misdemeanour.

Neither Colombia nor Jamaica, in the quarter-finals, are likely to present as tough a test and the best hope is that this performance provokes this team into something considerably better, to propel them into a possible semi-final against hosts Australia.

‘I don’t know what my heart rate is, I just know I’m 10 years older,’ Wiegman reflected last night. She wasn’t the only one feeling that way.

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