Brilliant and unreadable Fran Kirby locks herself into England team

As the old maxim goes, there are no easy games at this level of international football. And yet, and yet. Five years ago, Sarina Wiegman’s Dutch side scored 13 goals on their way to winning Euro 2017. Now Wiegman’s England side have matched that in their past two games, converting what looked and felt like a dangerously tight Group A into a sort of gleeful joyride.

Here Northern Ireland were the latest team to step into England’s headlights and palpably regret the experience. The scoreline certainly suggested a strong degree of comfort. The number of chances – 27 shots in total – suggested that with a little luck England might conceivably have surpassed their 8-0 demolition of Norway. But there was still plenty to be learned here, not least during an opening 40 minutes during which England fleetingly had a scrap on their hands.

For this Northern Ireland deserved a good deal of credit. Unlike the ephemeral Norwegians they arrived here a) actually expecting to defend, b) actually trying to defend and c) actually deploying players in the appropriate positions for defending. The result, for a while at least, was a well-drilled siege. Northern Ireland’s five defenders stretched across the pitch, vigorously closed down the spaces, clenched like a fist when England got within sight of goal. The game required someone to break it open, to pick it apart, to reimagine it from new and discomforting angles. What it required, above all, was Fran Kirby.

In a team rich in movement and energy, Kirby is perhaps the only England player who takes up consistently unpredictable positions. Lucy Bronze, you know she’s going to bomb forward and scythe inside at some point. You know Lauren Hemp and Beth Mead are going to swap wings. You know Georgia Stanway loves to drift into that inside-right channel. But these are established, almost rehearsed variations. As a defending team, you can anticipate or prepare for them.

The difference with Kirby is that her movement is basically unreadable. Sometimes she drops deep, sometimes she tacks left, sometimes she tacks right, sometimes she sits on the shoulder of the last defender. And of course, those are just the broad brushstrokes. What really stands out are the little feints and changes of speed: the big step towards the near post then the quick backstep into space, a heatmap that looks more like a 1970s dancefloor.

Partly, this is because so much of her game is based on pure instinct. Not so much an instinct for where the ball is going to be, but where it needs to be, which defenders she needs to move around to create that crucial little parcel of space. And so to attempt to mark Kirby is in many ways a metaphysically futile exercise. You can’t mark Kirby, because she already knows where you aren’t. Also, she’s faster and sharper than you. Also, she’s just better at this than you are.

But let’s say you somehow manage to track her down. This is where your problems really start. Kirby is 5ft 2in and blessed with ridiculous lower-body strength. You won’t muscle her off the ball. Because of her quick feet and low centre of gravity she can easily spin away from you if you get too close. So your best bet, short of fouling her, is simply to stand guard, close down her options, and hope that she passes it to someone else.

Instead, five minutes from half-time she knocked the ball right to Lauren Hemp, drifted into space and curled in England’s opening goal from 20 yards. It was a goal of pure Kirby – timing, composure, precision, invention – and in truth, it had been coming. From the very earliest stages she was running the game, drifting in and out of view, relishing the challenge of Northern Ireland’s deep-set defence as if it were a bank holiday jumbo crossword.

There are vanishingly few players in world football who can carry a 360-degree picture of the game around them like this. Alexia Putellas of Spain is one. Dzsenifer Maroszán of Germany another. Neither is here this summer.

And so Kirby stands alone as the tournament’s primary creative force, arguably English football’s only real genius on either the women’s or men’s side, still a little underrated for all she has achieved at club level. Perhaps this is a product of her relatively meagre international numbers. This was just her 16th goal in 60 caps spanning eight years, and yet you wondered if England – wedded for so much of that time to a conventional No 9 and a system based on conventional crosses and conventional patterns – really knew how to get the best out of her.

For Wiegman, forced to watch this game from her hotel room, there are plenty of puzzles ahead in the coming days. Spain or Denmark in the quarter-finals will be a different level of opponent entirely. Does the impressive Alex Greenwood come in to defence? Does Ellen White make way for Alessia Russo?

Kirby, by contrast, has locked herself into this team and this tournament: an architect of chaos whose golden summer may only just have begun.