Replacing the irreplaceable: How do England's Lionesses cover for Keira Walsh's injury and keep Women's World Cup bid on track?

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Keira Walsh Sarina Wiegman Georgia Stanway composite
The Barcelona star was stretchered off in Friday's win over Denmark, so how will Sarina Wiegman opt to fill her incredibly valuable boots?

When England star Keira Walsh awkwardly crumpled to the ground in Sydney on Friday, the concern on her face was instant. Clutching her knee with one hand, she immediately signalled to the bench that her night was over. As the physios ran on the pitch, her words to them were as clear as day: “I’ve done my knee.”

The midfielder had stretched to win the ball but seemed to get her foot stuck in the ground and the result was that she couldn’t walk off the pitch. The stretcher came on and carried off the Lionesses’ most influential player and the game against Denmark fell flat from there, petering out into a 1-0 win for the European champions despite the odd scare.

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England are now facing the possibility of trying to compete for the Women’s World Cup title without Walsh - one of the best footballers on the planet. How on earth do they go about replacing the one irreplaceable player in their squad?

  1. England’s most important player

    England’s most important player

    It’s hard to put into words just how significant a blow this is to England. Already without captain Leah Williamson, Ballon d’Or runner-up Beth Mead and the always-creative Fran Kirby, Walsh’s absence is a huge, huge hit to their hopes of winning the World Cup.

    Ellen White, the Lionesses’ No.9 during last year’s triumphant Euros campaign, outlined as much on the BBC’s coverage of the match, explaining how “everything came through Keira” in that tournament.

    “There wasn't a Plan B,” she said. “I dreaded to think of the idea of us ever losing her because she was one of our best players. Beth Mead was scoring all the goals but all of our play came through Keira. She was the key cog, everything moved through her. I just don't know who England are going to have now in that No.6, or even potential double six, role.”

    When the quotes were put to Wiegman in her post-match press conference, her response was cagey, though that was understandable given the events that had just unfolded.

    “You’re talking about the Euros. We’re now in a World Cup,” she said, adding that everyone “saw the plan B” after Walsh had gone off in the game, with Georgia Stanway moving back into the deeper role and Laura Coombs coming off the bench to play box-to-box.

  2. Weaker immediately

    Weaker immediately

    The impact of losing Walsh was evident immediately on Friday. While England adapted to being without a player who has only missed a single match of Wiegman’s tenure, Denmark worked on exploiting her absence.

    “That could also be a reason why we came back into the game because she was not there,” head coach Lars Sondergaard pondered afterwards, with his team certainly threatening a lot more in the second half.

    “We changed our pressing a little bit immediately afterwards and changed to a 4-3-3 where we didn’t have the focus on the defensive midfielder. Then we decided at half-time we could play with two strikers that could have different roles and go on pressing on Georgia Stanway.

    “We were fortunate that England also got a bit insecure in their passing from behind. In the beginning they made us run a lot and we had to always close down spaces.”

    There was certainly emotion involved as well, with the shock of what happened understandably unsettling the team as they adjusted to new personnel, but it’s clear that England are weaker in midfield without Walsh - and their opponents know it.

  3. The plan B
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    The plan B

    So, are the in-game tweaks from Friday Wiegman’s official plan B? It’d make sense if they were, simply because the coach is not one to tinker too much and it’d limit the number of changes England would need to make for the third group game against China. She likes the rhythm that comes with a consistent line-up.

    Stanway is an entirely different profile of player to Walsh and the deeper position doesn’t maximise her strengths like the box-to-box role does, but she’s been deployed there a handful of times before and her ability on the ball makes her good at it.

    If Coombs does then pick up Stanway’s usual position, there are differences there, too. The Manchester City midfielder is good at making those late runs into the box and getting herself into scoring positions, but she’s not as creative as her former club-mate.

    There will certainly be more emphasis on Ella Toone to improve her performances in that No.10 role, then, in order to carve out chances for the forwards. The Manchester United star has been nowhere near her best in recent games and it’s really important for players to step up now that England have lost Walsh.

  4. Alternatives


    But if Wiegman does opt for more changes, there might be better solutions.

    Man Utd captain Katie Zelem sits in the deeper role for her club every week, for example. She’s a very different player to Walsh but if the coach wanted to keep Stanway in a more advanced position where she can be more of an asset in the attack, Zelem could help.

    There’s also Jordan Nobbs. The Aston Villa star can play in any position in midfield and put in a particularly impressive performance in a holding role for former club Arsenal, against Leicester, towards the beginning of the season just gone.

    Nobbs is great on the ball, she’s confident in demanding it and she has a wonderful eye for a pass that is matched by her execution and range. She could be an option in Walsh’s position or elsewhere in midfield.

    Another thing to factor in is the fact that Stanway received a booking in England’s first game against Haiti. If she picks up another against China, she will miss the Lionesses’ round of 16 game. Had Walsh not picked up her injury, Wiegman might’ve opted to rest the Bayern Munich star for this match. It’s unlikely that will be the case now but it could still be in her thinking.

    "It's about the 23 players we have here and utilising every single one of us on and off the pitch,” winger Chloe Kelly said on Friday. “As we go through the tournament, it was always going to be really important we had the 23 players. It's important we are all ready to play. [If Walsh cannot play against China], it would be an opportunity for someone else.”

    The Man City winger hits the nail on that head with that assessment. The squad and how Wiegman uses it is going to be very significant from here.

  5. Good testing ground
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    Good testing ground

    What is a positive for England is that the match against China is a good opportunity to test out solutions. The Lionesses are all-but-qualified for the knockout rounds, with them only needing to avoid defeat to the Asian champions to secure their spot. Even with Walsh out, it’d be a remarkable shock if they were to lose this match.

    This squad should have enough quality to see off the challenges that the Steel Roses will present them with, all while Wiegman assesses her options in midfield.

    Even if England top the group, which they are in pole position to do, their last 16 game will not be easy whatsoever. The Lionesses will draw either co-hosts Australia, Olympic champions Canada or a very, very impressive Nigeria side.

    It’s up to Wiegman to use this China game wisely, then, to figure out what her best plan B is, because once England step into the knockout stages, there will be no room for error.