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June 4, 2019

Honing in on the Home Nations' World Cup squads

By Mark Thompson
Image Courtesy of Press Association
England women's national team players lining up to sing the national anthem

The World Cup is fast approaching and excitement is mounting. In the United Kingdom, neighbouring can, for once, share in this. Not only have both England and Scotland qualified (for the Scots, their first women’s World Cup outing ever, and the first for either senior national team in over 20 years), but they’ve been drawn in the same group.

This ancient neighbouring rivalry gives even newcomers to the women’s game something to get their teeth into. And with Group D also including Argentina and Japan, the team who dramatically halted England’s march to the final in 2015, FIFA couldn’t have drawn a better pool for a wider, casual English audience who might need an easy narrative to latch onto.

Happily, we can go a little deeper than that on these StatsBomb pages. For the most part, the stars of the two Home Nation teams play their domestic football in England’s FA Women’s Super League. Handily, this is a league that StatsBomb collects data for.

To Scotland first.

Central midfielder Kim Little missed 2017’s European Championship with a ruptured ACL, but is back fit for this summer’s tournament. The list of honours she’s earned shows how big a miss she was two years ago and how glad the Scots will be to have her around now. Trophy-winner in Scotland, England, the United States, and Australia, she was voted Player of the Year by her peers in England in 2013 and then won the NWSL MVP award the next year. In 2016 she was named the BBC’s Women’s Footballer of the Year. Little by name but not by talent or reputation, she is a driving midfielder who dribbles the ball up the middle of the field and gets goals.

Kim Little radar chart, particularly strong on successful dribbles

Factoring in her goals and assists, Little’s averaged better than a goal every two games in her second stint at Arsenal (where she had also played from 2008-2013).

Little may well play alongside club teammate Lisa Evans in the national team too. Evans predominantly played as a right-back in the WSL but also played time on the wing and would be taking up that latter position in the World Cup.

A trio of Scottish forwards have Manchester City connections, although two have now left the club in successive summers. Out-and-out striker Jane Ross joined West Ham from City last summer to become the Hammers’ leading forward and 2018/19 league top scorer with seven goals and one assist.

Meanwhile, City’s two main left-wingers this season were both Scots, Caroline Weir and Claire Emslie. Emslie has since announced a move to the Orlando Pride, but both were incredibly effective in City’s side as the team won both domestic cups and finished second in the league.

Pride’s general manager Erik Ustruck was spot on when he said of Emslie: “Claire is a very dynamic forward that can provide the final ball that we’ve been looking for, with both feet. She loves to attack fullbacks for the full 90 minutes, she recovers well and she defends on the front foot.”

‘Provide the final ball that we’ve been looking for’ – tick, Emslie set up chances worth 0.43 expected goals per game last season, the highest rate in the league. ‘She recovers well and she defends on the front foot’ – tick, an average of 5.33 pressure regains (when the team wins the ball back after a player pressures an opponent) per game.

Weir may not excel in any one stat in the way that Emslie does, partly through having split her 2018/19 between wide and more central roles, but she still managed five league goals and six assists in the equivalent 14.97 full games (1347 minutes across 18 appearances). Although both mainly played on the left for City, Scotland manager Shelley Kerr started both players in the two most-recent warm-up matches against Brazil and Jamaica, Emslie out wide and Weir as a left-sided central midfielder.

Speaking of that Jamaica game, which the Scots won 3-2 at Hampden Park, Chelsea’s Erin Cuthbert scored a screamer for Scotland’s first.

As her shot map this season for Chelsea shows, the 20-year-old isn’t averse to shots from distance.

Erin Curthbert shot map, with a number of shots from distance.

Usually one would discourage players from firing shots in from this far out, but when you can hit them like Cuthbert did (and when goalkeepers struggle to cover the entirety of the goal), it doesn’t look as bad a strategy. But then you notice the fact that, of the Chelsea player’s shots from a similar area to the Jamaica goal this league season, she scored precisely zero.

Attackers usually get the focus because goals are important and, on the statistical side, it’s easier to find meaning in their numbers than for defenders.

However, the forward line is also a point that needs to be focused on regarding England. ‘Which of the assortment of talented attackers will Phil Neville play’ is a serious question coming into the tournament.

The big names, and those who played the final warm-up game against New Zealand, are Jodie Taylor (Reign FC), Toni Duggan (Barcelona), Nikita Parris (recently announced move to Lyon from Manchester City), and Fran Kirby (Chelsea). Duggan and Parris played the wide roles in a 4-2-3-1. England lost 1-0.

The problem with this particular line-up is pithily summarised by Sophie Lawson:

And the point expanded on by Rich Laverty (both of whom are must-follows on Twitter):

It’s a crowbarring of three – very talented – strikers into one team, but it hasn’t yet seemed to click. And England have two talented and exciting wide forwards on the sideline too, in Manchester City’s Georgia Stanway and Arsenal’s Beth Mead (the latter of the famous cross-shot goal against Brazil earlier this year).

Both are relatively young (20 and 24 respectively) and both have something to prove. For Stanway, a good World Cup could force City manager Nick Cushing to make her a central cog in a post-Nikita Parris attack. For Mead, recent interviews with her and England manager Phil Neville revealed an accusation and admittance of complacency of motivation which is now, it seems, behind the winger.

If there’s one statistical quirk in the two players, it’s in shot choice.

Stanway is more than partial to a punt from distance, such that her average shot from open-play this season had an expected goals value of 0.08 (or just a one in 12 chance of going in). Meanwhile Mead has something of a knack for scoring from weird angles, her famous goal against Brazil matched by two league goals for Arsenal from similar positions on that right edge of the box.

England, the nation will hope, should manage to muddle through it in attack. Talent is talent, and individual moments of brilliance have lit up some otherwise stale warm-up games.

Further back in the team, Laverty has also highlighted a chopping and changing in defence under Neville.

If StatsBomb’s numbers can offer some nuggets of potential wisdom, Karen Bardsley averaged the most goals saved above expectation (per game) in her limited game-time this season. Carly Telford, the other main choice in goal, conceded marginally more than expected. Shot-stopping isn’t the entirety of a goalkeeper’s duties, but it will be interesting to see who Neville goes with.

At centre-back, captain Steph Houghton is likely to be paired with either Chelsea’s Millie Bright or former-City teammate Abbie McManus (who has left as of the end of the season). Domestically, McManus largely played at full-back this season, but it’s interesting to compare the radar charts of the three.

Houghton and Bright look very similar: defenders who clear the lines and play the ball long going forwards. Very English. McManus’ radar is mapping stats earned at full-back onto a template for centre-backs here, but she could offer something a little different if Neville doesn’t want two relatively similar players together at the back.

And there we have it, a run-through of some of the key players for the Home Nations, who will face each other when England play Scotland on Sunday June 9.

StatsBomb will have coverage throughout the tournament, hoping to be a nice balance of entertaining and interesting. We’re glad to have you aboard.

Article by Mark Thompson