D3D4 Walsall Correspondent Darren Young offers a view on the women’s game in his weekly column…
What Can We Learn from the Women’s Game?
My friend sent me a text during last Sunday’s Euro 2017 quarter final between England and France. What was the equivalent standard of men’s football, he asked and before I could say ‘impossible to say because of the physical side of the game’ he sent another text saying ‘ignore the physical side of the game’.
So a question that required thought. I watched for ten minutes or so before I committed a response – of sorts – of somewhere between League Two and the National League. He concurred so I maybe wasn’t that far off and of course, it’s not only a hypothetical question but also a really difficult one to gauge because you have to base it on the skills, tactics and other factors you see whilst remembering that you can’t factor in a tackle that would send a League Two winger into Row G. Although in the semi-final versus The Netherlands (in which England were deservedly beaten), Lucy Bronze made me question the physical side too when she nearly knocked a Dutch girl’s head off.
Because of course there is physicality in the women’s game, just as the tackle that puts the winger into the crowd no longer happens in the men’s game because of the clampdown on tackling and strong arm play in general. In fact, some of the players who took The Netherlands to the final on their home soil could probably hold their own in League Two I think, both with the ball and when it comes to looking after themselves.
And while I started the week comparing England’s elite women footballers with League Two, by the end of the semi-final I was beginning to compare them with the men’s elite team. Out thought and out fought when it came to the crunch. But it would be unfair to judge them on that performance, despite them displaying some of the traits that seem to dog English Teams that don’t have the word ‘UNDER’ and then a number between 17 and 23 after them.
It also got me thinking about the similarities and differences that the men’s and women’s games have, and the lessons they could take from each other, rather than thoughts of pitting one against the other.
And like the question of whether Serena Williams would beat John McEnroe (now; not in his pomp), it is fun but not something we will be able to ever see for real, or not in my lifetime I would imagine. But, as the women’s game grows (on and off the pitch) and continues to improve, there are things that teams in the lower leagues of the EFL, as well as the National League, could learn from them.
Here’s five straight away….
Mark Sampson has been the England Women team manager since 2013. He wasn’t an ex-player (not of note, anyway) but rather a specialist coach who had learnt his trade at a tender age at the University of Wales and the Football Institute of Wales, before a stint at Bristol Academy in the Women’s Premier League.
He has built a relatively settled squad for the last four years, reaching a World Cup semi-final in 2015 and well as the Euro one this week. His record, and that of the team in his tenure, has been solid and consistent. And while I know that league football is very different to International football, there has to be something to say for continuity. I say this because, as a Walsall fan, I lament the days under Dean Smith when he built a team capable of promotion with a relegation-fodder budget over a similar period. When that is compared to the ‘hire ‘em and fire ‘em’ attitudes we see in the lower leagues all too often these days, with clubs appointing managers on the strength of their playing career or simply their star name and then getting rid after five defeats on the bounce, there has to be a lesson here somewhere.
In a similar vein, with many managerial changes and pressures to win every game, so comes the constant turnover of players and rebuilding of teams every season. Some lower league clubs sign a whole new team or more in one summer. There is not enough space for younger players to grow and develop, let alone for the manager to nurture certain players and take risks. You get a year’s contract and you either perform or you’re gone; bouncing around the lower or non-league looking for the next pay packet. This England team knew they were in the Euro 17 squad months ago and have been able to develop a style together, finding ways to win games (the victory over France was the first since 1974) and getting to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Some might scoff that it still only got them as far as a semi- final but that’s a lot further then the men’s senior team has been for more than twenty years.
This is more about what we can learn from The Netherlands than England after last night as our over-reliance on the long ball and a lone striker was horribly exposed. The team in Orange had three strikers who were quick, technically superior to their opponents and who made or scored goals. Their tactics were clever, utilising their strengths and limiting England so they couldn’t use theirs.
I think a lot of League One and Two clubs have seen the light already, playing more fast-flowing football based on counter-attacking and pace rather than hopeful hoof ball. But they could all benefit from watching a video of the match and pay particular attention to the way The Netherlands set themselves up. Yes, three-nil flattered them, but they were the lower ranked underdog and yet dominated their opponents by outsmarting them tactically and out passing them on the grass. They also excited the crowd and went for it right until the very last kick (which ended up in the net), and were an example to any team – male or female – on how to win attractively.
There were plenty of clashes and yellow cards in the Euro 17 clash, so don’t for one second be fooled into thinking there is a gulf between the genders when it comes to putting the boot in. But there is a difference when it comes to conduct on the field that compares favourably to the men’s game.
There is very little arguing with the referee, and less trying to con them too (although to be fair, it does happen). Players don’t surround officials or hurl four letter abuse their way and it’s a nicer game for it, with more tuned in attention to positioning and roles rather than long running arguments with opponents and whistle-blowers.
There’s also far less animosity between team mates too. When England’s Farah Williams dropped the clanger that handed the home side a two goal advantage, she wasn’t screamed at by a wild, wide-eyed goalkeeper while the centre half also gesticulated and fans joined in by getting on her back. She was encouraged by other players who knew that one day it might be them in her place.
Family involvement in football in the EFL is up by incredibly high numbers. More children and women are attending that level of football the ever. Attendances in the women’s league is also on the increase but the cross over is very noticeable although the difference in atmosphere and ambience couldn’t be more different.
The Dutch fans have been sensational at Euro 17, showing how a buoyant home crowd can lift a team to greater heights than their ability might suggest they can reach. They encouraged every pass, even the poorer ones, and above all, had belief.
I tire and despair at times when a home crowd in the lower leagues begins to grumble and groan at the conceding of the first corner or when a defender tries to play out from the back and misplaces a pass. Is it any wonder the next time, they hit high and aim for the channels? By contrast, the crowd in Enschede pretty much backed their players – for better or worse – from the off.
Of course it helps that the referee is not a w*****r but they don’t have to be in the men’s game either.