England must rediscover cutting edge to retain Euro title

LONDON — This was meant to be the night where England started their European Championship defense with a statement performance. But instead, it was a frustrating evening as the Lionesses and Sweden battled out a 1-1 draw in a match littered with errors.

In the end, the draw in this first match of the qualifiers for Euro 2025 was about the right result. Sweden had two clear cut chances to score in either half, but despite those flashpoints, England looked relatively comfortable. Up until a final flourish from England, the only two shots on target in the match were the two goals.

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That paints an accurate picture of this match: the atmosphere felt flat at times, and England were left looked frustrated, Sweden far happier with the point.

But a slow start isn’t what England needed. This is the most brutal of groups with England and Sweden paired with the Republic of Ireland and France. Though whoever falls outside the top two spots will get a chance at Euros qualification through the playoffs, to avoid an unnecessary headache, England needed a quick start and they didn’t find that.

Analyzing England’s performance, manager Sarina Wiegman said “As a team we had to make quicker decisions, pass the ball quicker and we were struggling with that. They defended really well. The second half we had more depth in the game.”

This group knows they have a target on their backs. That’s the status you get as reigning champions but all week Wiegman has distanced the group from memories of the past. That generation-inspiring summer will remain one of the finest moments in English sporting history, but that Alessia Russo backheel goal was then, and this is now. After the disappointment of missing out on Olympics qualification, this was their reset, their moment to recalibrate and look to next summer’s Euros where they’ll head in as champions.

But the reminders of the Lionesses’ 2022 Euros triumph were always going to be unavoidable at Wembley. There were familiar sights and sounds, like the rendition of “Sweet, Caroline”- – the anthem of 2022 — just after the break which brought the crowd together as one on a rare occasion. Even the match itself, England’s first meeting with Sweden since the semifinals of that tournament, was wrapped in that warm coat of nostalgia.

Russo’s backheel — one of the iconic moments from that tournament in England’s 4-0 win at Bramall Lane in that semifinal has been replayed all week. Leah Williamson was back in the England squad for the first time in a year after she’d recovered from her ACL injury. But this isn’t a group living off past glories — it’s not their mantra.

“This group is really tough. If you look at the end of the game we were close at scoring, but the game overall was pretty equal,” said Wiegman.

On Friday evening in front of an impressive crowd of 63,248, they saw a team navigating their way through a transitional period complete with fresh faces and a group seeking to re-discover the cohesion and understanding that has made them one of the dominant forces in the women’s game.

England made just one change from the side that swiped aside Italy 5-1 last time out, with Lotte Wubben-Moy starting in defense alongside Alex Greenwood. That meant Grace Clinton won her third cap as a hybrid No.8/10 in a midfield three alongside captain Keira Walsh and Georgia Stanway. Russo was spearheading the attack, flanked by Lauren Hemp and Lauren James. Hemp started on the right, James on the left — but it was only when they switched wings that England found some incision.

England’s goal came after 24 minutes. James danced through the Swedish defense and her pinpoint cross was stuck home by Russo with a diving header — a brilliant bit of movement from the Arsenal striker as she snuck in between Linda Sembrant and Hanna Lundkvist to nod home from the deck.

But until the final throes of the match, that was England’s best chance. Their next shot on target came in the 87th minute as Hemp had a close-range effort well-saved by Jennifer Falk with her follow-up effort cleared off the line. Beth Mead — a second-half substitute for James — then had a shot saved at the near post. It needed the urgency of time ticking towards the 90th minute to trigger the type of intensity we’ve come to expect.

Up to that point, Sweden had the best chances. They had a great opportunity in the first half to go 1-0 up before Russo’s goal when Fridolina Rolfö shot wide after a slack pass from Walsh left England scrambling at the back.

One main concern for England is how they can help Walsh when she’s a marked player. “It’s something we have to deal with every game,” Wiegman said. Sweden targeted her and managed to nullify her influence on the match.

Sweden grabbed a deserved equalizer in the 64th minute when Rolfö snuck in at the back post, lost her marker Lucy Bronze, and nodded home past Mary Earps. They should’ve gone 2-1 up a moment later when Stina Blackstenius managed to finally escape the clutches of Arsenal teammate Wubbon-Moy, only to fire wide when clear through on goal.

England piled on that late spell of pressure, but failed to find the cutting edge. They struggled at times to escape the player-to-player marking Sweden imposed on them, and were left to reflect on a performance that wasn’t necessarily poor, but neither was it the exceptional night they hoped for.

From here England head to Dublin on Tuesday to face the Republic of Ireland in front of a packed-out Aviva Stadium. They will look for an improved performance, but to do that, they need to find that cutting edge in the final third and re-find the precision which has served them so well.