England’s comfortable World Cup qualifying campaign leaves Sarina Wiegman in the dark on key issue

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Millie Bright is an excellent defender, possessing all things you need to be a top class centre back, not that you would have had cause to question that against Austria because she did not have to be any of those things.

This was a proud day for the Chelsea player. Her first game as England captain in the absence of the injured Steph Houghton and Leah Williamson. It is a day she and her family will cherish.

But no England captain has had an easier first game in charge, since, well, Williamson made her first appearance as skipper against North Macedonia just two months ago. 

It has all been too easy and while that should not be a reason to attack anyone, it is a concern as the European Championship loom on the horizon.

England’s defence is simply not being asked to do the things defenders have to do in crucial games. They have not been put under pressure, they have not been examined in the air and they have not been stretched on the ground. 

England’s centre backs have been so underworked in this World Cup qualifying campaign they could have taken turns to sit on the sidelines and nobody would have noticed.

Austria did at least manage a shot on target, the first England have allowed since North Macedonia managed one in their first game under new manager Sarina Wiegman. It took them until the second half, a shot that was well saved by Hannah Hampton. From the resulting corner, Austria had another effort on target. 

But just as you cannot say how good a goalkeeper is if they do not have a save to make, you cannot assess a defender if they do not have any defending to do.

Austria’s corner was their second of the game and two more than England had conceded in the four previous lopsided victories over North Macedonia, Northern Ireland, Luxembourg and Latvia.

Austria were, as expected, better than that. They are England’s opening fixture at the Euros next summer, but even a side which has qualified for a tournament could only ask a few basic questions and only for a few minutes after half time.

It is a problem. England are not being pushed and a defence which had begun to disintegrate under Wiegman’s predecessor Phil Neville is not being put under stress or strain. 

It is impossible to know whether a weakness is being addressed or just hidden. An issue that can be ignored now, will not be so easily brushed aside when they come up against stronger opponents in the knockout rounds of the Euros. 

If England project the same air of vulnerability and are still too easy to score against from crosses and set pieces as they were during their post World Cup slump, they will not progress into the latter rounds. Teams like France, Spain, Sweden, Holland and Germany will expose them and a five-year plan designed to culminate in England winning the Euros on home soil will have failed to deliver what it was supposed to.

No clearer to knowing England’s best centre-back pairing 

Bright has been an integral part of the England backline for all of that time. She is a better player, comfortable on the ball, more experienced. But if she has improved, the defence as a unit has gone backwards and even at the World Cup in 2019 it was not the same source of strength and confidence it had been when reaching the semi finals of the World Cup in 2015 and the Euros in 2017.

Certainly, Bright’s once formidable partnership with captain Houghton no longer looks unbreakable. In Houghton’s lengthy absence with an Achilles injury, Arsenal’s Williamson not only took her spot in the team but the armband too. The 24-year-old is younger, has better range of passing and has probably been the best domestic centre back in the WSL this season until a hamstring injury also ruled her out for this round of international games. 

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