AAfter months of build-up, England took to the World Cup stage in Brisbane with a poor defensive display that raised more questions than it provided answers. For a team whose success depended so much on their defensive prowess last summer, a quick and tenacious Haitian side that took the European champions to the game made them look vulnerable, and at times chaotic.
The Lionesses’ backline was always going to be a focal point when Sarina Wiegman announced Millie Bright was fit just over 24 hours before kick-off. The England captain played her first 90 minutes of competitive football since injuring her knee in March and, although she got some minutes in last week’s behind-closed-doors game against Canada, the eyebrows were clearly visible. Known for her combative nature and distribution across the field, she was a second or two off the pace especially in the first half. A series of way passes and missed challenges allowed Haiti to enjoy the pace of their counter-attacking game.
It won’t help that Bright’s best partner in that defensive area is also under discussion and will still go into the next game against Denmark. When the team was announced, the biggest uncertainty was whether Jess Carter or Alex Greenwood would fill the centre-back and left-back roles. Carter, Bright’s team-mate at Chelsea, stepped into the middle, performing strongly on his World Cup debut, often recovering quickly when Haiti turned the ball over.
When asked about England’s transfer matters, Wiegman said: “That started [with needing to be] a little harder on the ball and a little better connected. But that also had to do with Haiti’s defense, where, if we were a bit too far on the ball, they really affected us. We lost the ball a few times while still playing our possession game, and then it becomes difficult because a lot of players are running forward … I think a few times in defense, because they play the long ball so quickly, we should have been a little bit closer.”
He will scare England as often and as easily as Haiti pressured them as they found the long ball in front. Melchie Dumornay, his prolific young star, took advantage of that weakness with glee. The manager of Haiti, Nicolas Délepine, was keen to praise his player despite drawing attention to room for improvement. “She’s extraordinary. We are never surprised to see what she is capable of. Maybe she was disappointed today, she is capable of doing more.”
With Lucy Bronze regularly caught too far forward, Dumornay broke into space in behind with ease and troubled her consistency and quality of delivery. The 19-year-old was influential in the first half, showing off her acrobatic skills, and in the second she forced a brilliant save from Mary Earps with a powerful effort.
The England keeper had another great game at the back, with perhaps a little more worry than expected. Together with her number one, Kerly Théus, she produced a series of excellent saves that underlined her position as the world’s leading goalkeeper. “That’s why she’s number one,” goal scorer Georgia Stanway said. “That’s why she’s the Fifa Best. Coming up with saves like that keeps us in the game and keeps those three points. You are the best for a reason and moments like that explain why.”
In such weather conditions, a mistake or an inch was always going to decide the outcome. In a first half marred by chaos and delayed by three VAR checks, it was England who found the lead with a 29th minute penalty. Stanway stepped up to provide a moment of calm, despite having to take it twice.
England’s next opponent on Friday is Denmark and, although they are another threat, there is clearly work to be done in all areas on the training ground. They will provide a tougher test with more attacking weapons at their disposal and the Lionesses cannot repeat their defensive errors in Brisbane.