LONDON -- There's something about the Lionesses at Wembley and super subs saving the day. At half-time England were 2-0 down to the Netherlands and looked like they had frozen on an ice-cold winter's night. But after the restart, England woke up, Beth Mead gave them life, Ella Toone and Alessia Russo came on just after the hour mark, and Toone scored a late winner to guide England home 3-2.
It was like Euro 2022 all over again, except this time it all played out on a frigid night and it was an England team looking to regain pride and hope in front of a nearly sold-out Wembley.
England were poor in the first half against the Dutch, lacking any intensity in midfield, and conceded two sloppy, preventable goals to Lineth Beerensteyn. Both strikes had question marks over them, but the 2-0 deficit meant England were on the verge of seeing their chances of topping their Nations League group over, and with it, Team GB's chances of going to the Olympics (England are the elected team to qualify Team GB, and to do that, they need to reach the Nations League final to take one of the two Europe spots).
But then came the tidal shift. Mead came on for Chloe Kelly and helped re-address the balance in midfield. Georgia Stanway was given license to push further forward, and England took fewer touches on the ball, upped the tempo, and scored two quickfire goals in the 58th minute through a Stanway header and then a Lauren Hemp strike on the hour mark.
They kept the pressure up and Toone forced home a 91st-minute winner off a Lauren James cross. England pressed again, looking for another goal, one that would have been so essential in their hopes of topping the pool. But they couldn't manage it.
Sarina Wiegman reflects on Beth Mead's return to the England squad after recovering from an ACL injury.
The crowd greeted the full-time whistle with eager celebrations. But perhaps they misunderstood England's mission on Friday evening. After two defeats in four matches in the Nations League, England needed to win by a two-goal margin to keep matters in their own hands of topping the group, heading into the final group stage match against Scotland on Tuesday. But Belgium's draw with Scotland elsewhere tonight, and England's 3-2 win, means England's chances of topping the group are reliant on Belgium preventing a Netherlands win on Tuesday, or England racking up a huge win over Scotland.
Reflecting on the changes needed for the second half, England manager Sarina Wiegman told ITV: "I don't think we played poor in the first half but we had to score a goal and we thought at half-time that we had to change something so we brought Beth Mead on and then made a few more changes because we felt we needed better connections and more energy."
That explained England's nonexistent celebrations at full time after a memorable comeback. Instead Mary Earps was in tears, Toone fell to the ground head in hands, while others walked around as if they'd been defeated. The teams fell to the floor exhausted, England wondering why there was this hollowness in victory. They can still qualify top of the group, but this isn't an England team used to having matters taken out of their own hands.
After Earps said she felt like she'd let the team down, Weigman said, "I spoke to her very shortly and I don't want her to talk like that because you win as a team and you lose as a team. When something at the back happens, it's very quickly a goal. That is part of the game. Of course she didn't let the team down. Everyone does their best and gives everything. You only let your team down when you don't put effort in the game."
England came into this match off the back of a poor run of form since their journey to the World Cup final. The defeats away to both Netherlands and Belgium were jarring, given we have become so used to seeing England triumph under Wiegman. But on Friday in front of 71,632 supporters at Wembley, there was a feeling the Lionesses might yet produce another astonishing performance to keep the ship steered in the right direction.
But the first half quickly ended any pre-match optimism. England were outplayed in every facet of the pitch. The first goal will make grim watching for England's defence as they missed the stability of injured Millie Bright there, and the new-look partnership of Jess Carter and Alex Greenwood lacked familiarity. Beerensteyn profited from it, exploiting disorganisation from Bronze and Carter for the opener, and then pouncing on a series of mishaps for the second.
HT: England 0-2 Netherlands— ESPN UK (@ESPNUK) December 1, 2023
FT: England 3-2 Netherlands
The Lionesses pull off a remarkable comeback against the Netherlands in front of 71,000 fans at Wembley 👏 pic.twitter.com/bKmLixsu0P
First Carter missed a header, then Greenwood failed to cut out Beerensteyn's shot and Earps saw the shot slip by at the near post. But both goals were lucky to have stood, or existed. England should've had a corner previous to the Netherlands scoring their opener, but after Hemp's effort was saved, the referee awarded a goal kick. A few seconds later and the Dutch scored. Beerensteyn then looked offside for the second. But with no VAR, both stood. England were down and out and looked out of sorts.
But then came Mead at half-time. She was back in the England shirt for the first time in over a year after recovering from an ACL injury. Her presence on the right wing saw her help England rebalance midfield having been outnumbered and out-passed in the first half. She offered more in the middle of the pitch than the replaced Kelly and England played with more urgency.
Stanway's header after 58 minutes came off a brilliant James cross, while Hemp's effort from the outside of the box two minutes later capped off a wonderful move of quick passing and shifting the point of attack. Russo and Toone were ready to come on at this stage, but Wiegman sat them back down again. Seven minutes later they were introduced and England found another gear. But it was only in the 91st minute where they broke the Dutch resolve for a third time as James' cross found Toone at the far post to hammer home.
But try as they might, they couldn't force a fourth. So they are reliant on the kindness of Belgium, or to find their free-scoring selves which -- apart from the China win -- we haven't seen since last year's comfortable Arnold Clark Cup campaign.
Wiegman is now looking forward to the next match. "We need to win in Scotland, and now we really need to win. We are dependent on the other game, but if we want to progress we need a really good win by four goals I would say. We can control is playing well and winning that game. That is what we need to do first. We can't control what the others do," she said.
England aren't yet out of things, but this is an unfamiliar scenario after such a period of dominance under Wiegman. They may yet end up in a relegation playoff if they finish third in the pool, or they could be planning for a semifinal. The super subs saving the day brought back more than a hint of the Euro 2022 feeling, but England haven't yet managed to save their Nations League campaign.