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Day 24: Crying Geese
You can’t spell Spain without pain
Hi everybody, I took some days post World Cup to reflect on the final (and drink some beers) before wrapping up the last game of the month. Here are some thoughts about the match and where it leaves England going forward. A huge thanks for all your support over the past month or so - it’s been an absolute blast. Oh, here’s me and a goose that I met in Australia
Sarina Wiegman’s wait for a World Cup trophy goes on. Despite taking two separate countries to the 2019 and 2023 World Cup final, she has been unable to overcome that final hurdle. It would be ridiculous to say that the failure of Wiegman to win one-off matches in tough conditions should change radically our perception of her as a manager, in the same way that Pep Guardiola taking seven attempts to win the Champions League at Manchester City did not make him a bad manager. But there will undoubtedly be question marks as to how England approached the final against Spain.
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Wiegman stuck with the same 3-5-2 shape that she has used for the majority of this tournament with Ella Toone maintaining her starting spot despite Lauren James being available again, having served a two match suspension. Spain also did not return their previously suspended player to the starting line up as Olga Carmona, who had scored the winner against Sweden in the semi-final, kept hold of her place. Alexia did drop out though with Jenni Hermoso playing in midfield to allow Salma Paralluelo to start as the number 9.
England had a lot of good early possession but despite that they could not create much with it. As the game went on Spain began to limit England’s time on the ball as that midfield began to turn the screw with England recording their fewest completed passes of the competition. A turnover from Lucy Bronze helped Spain to get in front and despite Wiegman switching up the shape at half-time, England never really looked like getting back into this game. Mary Earps did save Jenni Hermoso’s penalty, awarded for a handball by Keira Walsh, but not even the old fail-safe of putting Millie Bright up front could save England’s night.
For Wiegman, the match highlighted a couple of issues that were apparent throughout the tournament. The first one seems to be confidence in who and how she actually wants to play. England have famously picked up a lot of injuries in the run up to this tournament, and any international coach has only limited time to put adjustments into practice. Part of England’s success at the World Cup had come from how well they seemed to adapt to different challenges, whether in terms of Keira Walsh’s injury or Lauren James’ red card. Yet this final seemed like a step too far up against a Spain team who, despite the notable absentees, are playing in a style that is typical of Spanish football and how they have been developed as professionals.
The second is the ‘Keira Walsh’ problem. It is no surprise that Walsh was targeted a lot more at this World Cup than she was at the Euros, given her performances and subsequent world record move to Barcelona. But without Leah Williamson, Walsh was also missing a decoy player, someone who might have been able to take advantage of the extra resources being deployed against Walsh. On paper, Alex Greenwood should have been able to do that but playing the left-footed Greenwood alongside the right-footed Rachel Daly felt limiting. The back three also stopped Walsh from stepping in a bit deeper to create more space in the midfield.
Maybe the most fascinating element of Wiegman’s tenure moving forward (assuming she does continue as England manager for the Olympics and/or Euro 2025) will be how she does evolve this side. At points, it felt like the unity of the whole team was sacrificed in order to cover up for the deficiencies of Bronze and Daly in those defensive wide roles. Both are 31 years old now and the development of younger fullbacks looks set to be crucial for England as they look towards the future.
Given the reality that England found themselves having to replace four Euros starters in twelve months heading into this World Cup, a place in the final is certainly not a bad finish. For the younger players in the squad, the experience will have been instructive. Lauren Hemp, Alessia Russo and Lauren James all had their moments of magic, even if they could not quite be consistent enough to impact in each and every match. The result hurts, particularly given the context of Spain, but they went further than any England team had done before. It says a lot about how expectations of this side have changed that failing to win the World Cup feels like a disappointment. The women’s international calendar leaves little time for reflection though; they will be back in Nation’s League action to attempt to qualify for the Olympics before the WSL season even starts. Then the process starts all over again.