Great Britain’s women’s football team considered

Far be it for me to dwell on the negatives in life, but to be honest many of the sports featured at the Olympics leave me completely cold and my attention has been elsewhere.

Aside from the road cycling events the only sport I’ve really made the effort to follow is the football, which I suppose is a little tragic considering I can watch the game all year but I really can’t help myself. To be blunt, I find two fairly insignificant football competitions more interesting than archery and judo.

So while everyone else is euphoric about Britain’s huge medal haul in the other sports, I have instead been ruminating over the dreadful performance of Great Britain’s women’s team in their Friday night quarter-final defeat against Canada.

It was as disappointing as it was shocking. Not for the first time in my life I fell for the propaganda that the game was going to be a walkover for Team GB.

It wasn’t an unwarranted assumption to be fair. Canada had finished third in their group (which in most tournaments means elimination) and Team GB had won their group without conceding a goal, managing a pretty impressive win against Brazil in the process.

The match was indeed a horrible mismatch, but not in the way that the respective teams results would have hitherto suggested. Canada totally out-played Great Britain without even breaking a sweat. It was embarrassing. It was obvious within a minute or two of kick-off that there was only one team in it. Team GB huffed and puffed and created one or two half chances, but apart from one first-half miss by the otherwise anonymous Karen Carney virtually nothing of note was created. Steph Houghton, the Arsenal full-back in such devastating form in the group stage, did nothing. The ball was given away constantly and the Canadians brushed the British women off the ball with at times comical ease. Indeed, the Canadians bossed the game tactically and physically (although without looking altogether convincing themselves; their semi-final against the far more capable Americans will be a far sterner test than the one offered by the British and their two goals both came from set pieces) and their main player, Christine Sinclair, at times had the freedom of the pitch. I lost count of the number of occasions that she ran 30 or 40 yards without a single British player putting a challenge in. At any level of the game that is a recipe for disaster, and so it turned out.

Three things stood out and need to be worked on, and quickly, for any progress to be made I think:

1) Passing: as I mentioned earlier the ball was given away constantly. Against a team with a height and physical advantage all over the pitch short, quick and simple passing is the order of the day (well actually it’s the order of the day whoever one is playing, but you get my point). Instead there were endless hopeful punts and innumerable basic errors. Simply inexcusable.

2)Tactics: Hope Powell has been managing England and Team GB for a long time but it was quickly apparent, even for a non-expert like me, that the team was not set out properly. Team GB were overrun in midfield, the players were simply not compact enough, the forwards in particular were completely isolated (and consequently contributed virtually nothing) and Canada were never closed down and deprived of space when they had the ball.

More damningly, this was immediately obvious and yet Powell appeared to have no plan to combat it. There was no plan B. No tactical re-shuffle made at any point. No half-time changes and the substitutions, which came far too late, made little difference (although in fairness Farah Williams had a few good touches when she came on, which of course begs the question: why was she thrown on so late?)

I’m also puzzled that Kelly Smith, clearly Britain’s most skilful and inventive player, did not feature. There may have been good cause not to play her for the whole ninety minutes (although there seemed to be an element of hubris at leaving her out, as I got the impression from the soundings coming from British camp before the game that she was not required for them to triumph over the Canadians and was being held back for the semi-final) but to not bring her on at 2-0 down struck me as crazy. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to argue that she is the one player in the squad in possession of real guile and capable of moments of genuine quality so leaving her out completely was always going to make the task a virtually impossible one.

Powell’s Canadian opposite number on the other hand, John Herdman, clearly had a gameplan and it was executed to perfection (not that it was ever seriously put to the test of course……)

3) Physically: It is not normally the practice of the Mambo to argue that fitness and physical prowess are virtues to be cultivated and celebrated but there was a feeling that the Canadian women’s team were a group of professional athletes, with their British counterparts nothing of the kind. The Canadians were fitter, stronger and certainly much quicker than the Brits.

The much-vaunted pace of Eniola Aluko, for example, was not evident (which is unfortunate as there appears not a lot else to her game at international level). Karen Carney, on the few occasions she had the ball, was unceremoniously hustled off the ball by her Canadian marker.

I lost count of the number of occasions that Melissa Tancredi, the Canadian centre-forward, brushed off the challenges of the British central defenders with frightening ease (just to be clear I’m certainly not accusing any of the Canadians of playing dirty or over-physical football. They were just robust and strong on and off the ball).

The British players did not appear to have the fitness levels to close their opponents down when they had the ball and the midfield was incredibly static, largely because they didn’t appear to have the energy to do the running surely required at this standard. Jill Scott appeared to be the only one with the courage and athleticism to challenge the Canadian’s physical dominance.

•••

I have no desire to be savagely critical of GB’s women’s team as I’m aware that they are essentially semi-professional (by necessity) and don’t have anything like the financial and human resources of their male counterparts (who were little better in their respective quarter final, it mustn’t be forgotten……) but the errors made were so basic and glaringly obvious that they have to be called out. It was incredibly infuriating watching them, especially when hopes were so high.

Complacency had clearly been allowed to set in due to playing in a much weaker group than the Canadians had to navigate and up until Friday night not facing a team in the tournament capable of really challenging them.

Hope Powell has a lot of explaining to do and if there appears to be no evidence of a plan to take the team forward and compete with the North American and North European powerhouses of the game she should probably consider stepping aside.

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