A volley from Rachel Daly and two own goals ensured England eventually eased past Belgium in the first of their three pre-Euros friendlies.
Their manager, Sarina Wiegman, has demanded ruthlessness from the Lionesses since taking charge last summer but at Molineux she was forced to rely on her substitutes to inject some cutting edge after a frustrating first half.
Chloe Kelly’s deflected strike and Daly’s impressive goal were the difference in the second half, before Leah Williamson’s shot ricocheted down off the crossbar and in off the back of the goalkeeper, Nicky Evrard.
“I think when you win 3-0 it’s enough,” said Wiegman. “I think when you go into a Euros you need a little bit more ruthlessness.”
Where does the ruthlessness come from? “You want to make it better so you train, talk about it, watch video clips,” she said. “The final third is the most difficult part. It’s a mental thing, it’s an execution thing.”
There were few surprises in Wiegman’s starting XI. The Arsenal centre-back Lotte Wubben-Moy lined up alongside Millie Bright in defence, with Alex Greenwood still being eased back in after having Covid and Jess Carter working her way to full fitness after a heavy season. Georgia Stanway, who recently joined Bayern Munich from Manchester City, was given the nod ahead of Fran Kirby and Ella Toone at No 10.
With that position providing the only real question mark before England’s opening game of the Euros at Old Trafford on 6 July, it was interesting to see Williamson striding forward to swap places with Stanway or play alongside her, with the manager exploring her options beyond the expected trio of Stanway, Kirby and Toone.
“Yeah, that’s nice,” said Wiegman of the potential interactions between the three. “It’s about teamwork, when someone takes action another player takes another action, when the movement hasn’t been done much it needs a bit of work.”
Wiegman had warned that Belgium would be tough opponents, despite the 12 places separating them in the Fifa rankings. “Belgium has developed a lot and is also going to the Euros,” she said. “They can play a little opportune, but they also want to play a possession game.”
Belgium open Group D of the Euros against Iceland at the Manchester City Academy Stadium, with Italy and France completing their group.
In the previous meeting between England and Belgium, in August 2019, Phil Neville’s team threw away a two-goal lead and were reliant on a 75th-minute Nikita Parris penalty to salvage a 3-3 draw in the team’s first game after the third place play-off defeat to Sweden at the World Cup. Nevertheless, for a team hopeful of winning a major tournament, Belgium, a side they have not lost to in 10 games since 1980, should be small fry.
At half-time the stats told a story of dominance. The Lionesses had enjoyed 66% possession and 14 shots on goal. Yet they struggled to find the ruthlessness that had led them to score 72 goals in 11 games under Wiegman prior to kick-off.
Evrard did well to tip away Ellen White’s header from close range after Beth Mead’s cross. The 27-year-old also pushed aside a near-post effort from Lauren Hemp after a mazy run on the left, and was then saved by the defender Sari Kees, who denied England’s captain, Williamson, a first goal with the armband on by clearing off the line after she had clipped the ball over the keeper.
On the captain’s other arm, and every England player’s, was a black band worn in tribute to Wiegman’s sister after her recent passing.
“They have supported me so much,” said Wiegman. “The captains came to me and asked if we could wear them. They are such good human beings and it shows the togetherness of the team. It was a great gesture. My sister would be proud.”
Clearly frustrated with the slightly stale first half, both managers switched things up at the break. Daly came on for Demi Stokes at left-back, Greenwood replaced Wubben-Moy and Kelly took the place of Mead. The Belgium defenders Kees and Laura De Neve made way for Amber Tysiak and the midfielder Charlotte Tison.
Unfortunately for Belgium, England’s key would be the foot of the substitute Tysiak, who deflected Kelly’s strike in at the near post after the winger had collected Bronze’s pass and skated into the box.
The crowd of 9,598 – underwhelming for a friendly building up to a home tournament – breathed a collective sigh of relief as the ball hit the back of the net. England were rewarded for their patience with a cleaner goal not long after: a corner pinballed around the box before falling to Daly near the penalty spot, and the versatile Houston Dash forward volleyed in to extend her side’s lead.
Williamson did not get on the scoresheet herself but played a big part in England’s final goal. The ball rebounded to her feet after Evrard had pushed away the substitute Parris’s header from a corner, and the midfielder powered a shot down off the crossbar which deflected off the back of the keeper and in.