LONDON -- After a dominant first half, England sagged against Brazil in the inaugural Finalissima and ultimately needed four strong penalties to claim the title. But it could have all gone wrong for Sarina Wiegman's team at Wembley in a match which pitted Europe's and South America's reigning champions, and the result potentially served as a wakeup call ahead of the World Cup.
Attacking a Brazilian back-five, Wiegman's favoured front three of Lauren Hemp, Alessia Russo and Lauren James -- who was preferred over Chloe Kelly -- had little trouble causing all sorts of headaches for the visiting defence. Indeed, the first half was a tale of English dominance as the Lionesses had full control of the midfield, and could keep Brazil contained.
There was a deserved swagger to England, buoyed on by the 83,132 strong crowd who gotten used to watching the Lionesses put on a show, especially at Wembley. It was very much the staple of the Wiegman era, the calm dominance and ability to get numbers into the box without too much stress as to how the ball would end up in the onion bag -- just the knowledge and belief that it would.
And for England, it very much almost always did. With so much time and space to work with as well as being able to bring in almost all of their outfield Players into the attack and build-up, it was about picking their moments. Knowing when to look for Russo through the centre and when others should look to pull the trigger after working enough space.
The first real chance fell to marauding full-back Lucy Bronze who drove towards the Brazilian goal, only to be denied by Letícia Santos' meaty paw. But it was a warning of things to come for the Copa America champions, with a shot from behind the forward line their subsequent undoing.
A rare foray forward for Brazil, that was punctuated with scruffy passes and missed clearances, saw the South Americans carve out their first chance with Jess Carter's big toe enough to divert Geyse's effort out for a corner. It would end up being the visitors' only bright spot of the half as England's rapid attack saw the ball bounce from one pair of boots to the next without dwelling, which ended up with Santos picking the ball out of the back of her net.
From James to Bronze to Georgia Stanway and back to Bronze before the defender cut the ball through to Ella Toone who let fly, forcing Russo to jump out of the way of the shot, taking Santos by surprise as the path in front of her cleared for the ball.
One could have been two moments later when James brought the ball down with a silky touch before rifling it into the roof of the net only for a belated flag to go up against the entire forward line that had strayed offside.
During those heady summer nights on the way to the Euro 2022 title when England were going through the motions, defeating every opponent who crossed their paths, it was the utilisation of the bench that was so key for Wiegman. It was the ability to introduce Kelly, Russo and Toone into games to turn ties and find routes through to the next. Yet with the retirement of Ellen White (who was honoured at half-time), Russo has been preferred as a starter rather than an impact player and it's shifted the balance for England.
1️⃣1️⃣3️⃣ England appearances.
5️⃣2️⃣ England goals.
Our all-time leading goalscorer, @ellsbells89. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/iKwZpeXdF5— Lionesses (@Lionesses) April 6, 2023
Usually utilised as a full-back for her country despite playing as an attacker at her club(s) for over a decade, Rachel Daly's relentless goalscoring form since moving to Aston Villa over the summer has seen the utility woman come into this camp listed as an attacker. Favouring versatile Players, it's clear Wiegman is pleased with the dual-threat and usage of Daly. But with Bethany England digging out some fine form since her winter move to Tottenham, eyebrows were raised when she was left out of the team for the second time this calendar year. And now with Daly getting more minutes in attack, not only does the window seem closed for England (the player) but we may be at the end of seeing Daly utilised in defence.
The Lionesses' inability to kill the game off in the first half very nearly cost them the trophy when the Seleção found the margins in midfield to finally get some real purchase in the game and give England keeper Mary Earps something to think about. Much more a tug of war in the second half, both teams created openings and fashioned chances but it was Brazil, late late in the day who found a way through via Andressa Alves to push the game to penalties (with extra-time not in play). The goal, although a scrappy one, was just as deserved as Toone's in the first half with Brazil studiously working the home defence.
England were ultimately victorious after the shoot-out and once again had the joy of lofting silverware in front of a full house at Wembley -- which was always the goal of the day. Nonetheless, there was the overriding sense that things could have been that bit easier for England had it been Daly who was given the nod to start in attack, rather than being introduced with 16 minutes left on the clock.
When Daly has started over Russo, she has played the role of relentless tormentor better from the first whistle, and has made a habit of finding the back of the net for her country. And while Russo spent large swathes of the first half hounding and harassing the Brazilian backline, she once again looked muted. Even though Daly can also come on part-way through a match with fresh legs to find that extra je ne sais quoi and tip a frustrating tie in favour of the Lionesses, the 31-year-old would be better used from the whistle as the key to jiggle a stubborn defensive lock.
Daly herself has gone on record multiple times stating that she doesn't care when she plays as long as she is wearing an England shirt, being able to represent her country is what's paramount to her. And indeed, Wiegman may opt to revert and push the Yorkshirewoman back into the defence either as a plan heading into the World Cup or as availability dictates.
However, for all the options the manager has, from who to call up to where to play them, the eye-test is saying that Russo, for all her talent, is the player you want coming on in the tough moments, she's the impact off of the bench that is key to tournament success.
The problem isn't unique to Russo with Toone also making a string of uncharacteristic errors as well. Wiegman tends to stick to a set starting XI, which has seen her win back-to-back European Championships (with two different countries). The extra game and added travel of the upcoming World Cup will ask the Dutchwoman to be more willing to rotate and understand the nuances of her strongest starting line-up.