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England doesn’t care what the score is, it always wants one more goal

In praise of the World Cup’s most ambitious team.

England had a two-goal lead on Norway at halftime of its World Cup quarterfinal, but the Three Lionesses’ defense looked under threat on the counter-attack throughout much of the game. In this situation, a lot of managers would start thinking about how to improve their team’s defensive shape, or get more possession to kill off the match. England boss Phil Neville opted to do the opposite.

In the 57th minute, Neville removed Toni Duggan, an experienced player who’s excellent at helping her team keep the ball in the final third. She is ostensibly the exact type of player that most coaches would want in the game with a 2-0 lead. Her replacement was Beth Mead, a young, direct attacking threat who almost always picks the ambitious option in front of the safe one.

“Bravery is one of our five values,” Neville told The Guardian before the tournament started. “I’ll only criticise my players if they don’t make the pass, if they try to take the safe option. For 16 months we’ve talked about risk, about gambling in the final third, being brave.”

Neville coached to his stated values, and Norway immediately struggled to cope with the added pressure that England put them under. Three minutes after Mead stepped onto the field, she assisted Lucy Bronze’s spectacular goal.

England’s second sub, up 3-0 in the 74th minute, was just like the first. Fran Kirby, the type of experienced attacking midfielder that most managers would want on the pitch to hold onto a good result, was removed. Youngster Georgia Stanway, an entertainer who’s always trying to score a spectacular goal, replaced her. And that move resulted in one of the best moments of the match.

After a Norway shot was blocked, Bronze – perhaps the best player in the tournament so far – picked the ball up in her own penalty area. She was under some pressure, but didn’t whack a clearance into the stands. Instead, she took an extra second, looked for an attacking outlet, and played a perfect chipped pass into space for Nikita Parris. She took off running and played a one-two combination with Stanway. With nowhere to go, up three goals in the 85th minute, Stanway probably should have put her foot on the ball and looked for a safe pass back to Bronze or a central midfielder. Instead, she nutmegged Ingrid Engen, because she could.

This has been England’s M.O. throughout the tournament, and its players have gotten much more confident with this aggressive playing style as the World Cup has progressed. At no point during the 3-0 wins over Cameroon and Norway did the England players make any attempt at managing the game and just trying to hold the lead. If they had two goals, they wanted three. If they had three, they wanted four. They had a one-track mindset: Go forward, fast.

The World Cup semifinal is not going to be as easy for England, and the Three Lionesses will need to improve in possession and defense to make their first ever final. The winner of the match between France and the United States will likely punish England for turnovers and score off chances that Norway and Cameroon wasted.

But there’s no indication that England intends to do anything but attack its semifinal opponent aggressively or lose trying. For that, they’re the most enjoyable team to watch at this World Cup.

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