England's unsung defensive heroes: Why Millie Bright, Alex Greenwood and Jess Carter deserve massive praise for Lionesses' World Cup journey

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If Sarina Wiegman's side are to beat Spain and become champions of the world on Sunday, the back three will have played a huge role

How many teams have reached a major tournament final after switching to a completely new and never-before-seen formation midway through? Not many, if any at all. But England’s change of system, and the way the players have taken to it, is a huge, huge reason why the Lionesses have the chance to become champions of the world for the very first time on Sunday.

After starting the tournament in a 4-3-3 set-up, head coach Sarina Wiegman caught everyone on the outside off guard when she flipped it to a 3-5-2 for the final group game against China. The switch reaped immediate rewards, and at both ends of the field. After laboured 1-0 wins in their two previous group games, England routed China 6-1, with the only goal conceded coming from a penalty.

But while the partnership between Alessia Russo and Lauren Hemp in the front two has been crucial to England's improvement, the most important and significant improvements have been at the other end of the team where a back three of Jess Carter, Millie Bright and Alex Greenwood has made England look so much more secure and a lot better in their build-up play, too.

What did Sir Alex Ferguson once say? Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles. Going into Sunday’s Women’s World Cup final against Spain, the Lionesses will certainly hope that rings true because their back-line has been absolutely phenomenal on their historic journey.

  1. Covering flaws
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    Covering flaws

    It’s no secret that one of England’s biggest weaknesses is the lack of a natural left-back. It’s something that Spain themselves exploited well when these two met in the quarter-finals of the Euros last year, Athenea del Castillo getting at striker-turned-full-back Rachel Daly plenty to put La Roja ahead in the game, even if the Lionesses eventually came back to win in extra time.

    In the 12 months between that match and this World Cup starting, not much had changed. After a Golden Boot-winning season as a centre forward for Aston Villa, Daly had almost completely vacated the role by that point, but England still didn’t have a left-back.

    In the Lionesses’ first game of the tournament, Sarina Wiegman played Greenwood there. The Manchester City star was once a natural in the role but the last few years have seen her transform into one of the best centre-backs on the planet, with her faultless on-ball ability certainly limited out wide.

    For the team’s second game, Daly returned to left-back. As we saw in every England match during that triumphant Euros campaign, it’s a job she can do but she is understandably restricted in her defensive skillset and it doesn’t get the best out of her in attack, either.

    In the back three that Wiegman switched to for England’s third and final group game, however, this weakness is eased by the energetic performances of Daly at wing-back and the cover of a truly formidable back three.

  2. Bright stepping up as skipper

    Bright stepping up as skipper

    Of course, it’s not just the switch of system that is worth praising but also the performances of the three players that now make up that back-line.

    Coming into this tournament, Millie Bright had not kicked a ball in a competitive setting for almost four months. Knee surgery ended her season at Chelsea early and there were concerns about just how fit she would be when the World Cup kicked off.

    Those fears grew when the England skipper, taking the armband in Leah Williamson’s injury absence, started with a couple of rusty performances. Her judgement was off and there were errors in her game despite the Lionesses managing to keep clean sheets in both of their first two outings.

    But Bright has been much, much better since the change of shape. That’s partly due to the system and the support she now has around her, partly due to her shaking off that rust in those two games and partly due to the fact that she is an excellent, excellent defender.

    She’s stepped up massively as England have progressed through this tournament, with her performance against Colombia in the quarter-finals particularly colossal.

  3. Carter dependable on debut

    Carter dependable on debut

    To Bright’s right has been her Chelsea team-mate Carter. While both represent one of the biggest clubs in the world, their levels of experience are massively different.

    Bright is one of the first names on the team sheet for club and country. She’s played in the biggest games time and time again and has seen almost everything you can in this sport.

    Carter, meanwhile, made her World Cup debut when she lined up against Haiti in England’s first game of the tournament. She’s been at Chelsea for a long time now but it’s only in recent seasons that she’s become a fixture in the team and those appearances have come all over the park. She’s played right-back, left-back, centre-back and in midfield for the club.

    Yet, the way she has slotted into this back three for England has been brilliant. Often targeted by the opposition’s press as the weak link in possession, it’s not been easy for her at times but her contributions have been gigantic.

    If it were not for Carter, England might not even be in this final, as it was her intervention in the six-yard box that stopped Australia’s Emily van Egmond scoring a tap-in to level the scores in the semi-finals. It was a monumental moment that summed up just how good she's been in this tournament.

  4. Greenwood classy as ever
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    Greenwood classy as ever

    And then there is Greenwood. Has there been a better centre-back in this entire World Cup than her? Arguably not.

    After being deployed in the heart of defence several times by Lyon, she returned to England from France back in 2020 and has spent the three years since developing into one of the best central defenders in the women's game at Man City.

    Her ability on the ball is second-to-none, with no player in this tournament completing more passes, and her set-pieces are excellent, too. Those two qualities combined mean that only Spain’s Teresa Abelleira has created more chances at this World Cup than the England star.

    But Greenwood’s defensive skills shouldn’t be overlooked either. A player who is absolutely obsessed with the game, her understanding of football, her positioning and the way she thwarts attacks is superb.

    "She's a very, very technical player, unbelievable with the ball, and can read the game really well,” Bright said of her team-mate recently. “I think we've all seen the passes that she makes in really tight spaces. She can be that difference for us. She's a wonderful person, always bubbly, but also so calm and competitive and composed, so she brings that to the team as well."

    For her to be shining on this stage is a little bit of personal redemption, too. A surprising omission from Great Britain’s Olympic squad in 2021 despite being in splendid form, Greenwood was unlucky to be benched throughout last year’s Euros, too. She’s certainly showing the world her worth now, though.

  5. Toughest test yet

    Toughest test yet

    As well as putting in great individual performances, the understanding between Carter, Bright and Greenwood has only grown throughout the World Cup and their improved chemistry has really helped the team perform.

    “We’ve gelled really well throughout the tournament,” Carter said on Lionesses: Down Under after the semi-final win over Australia. “There have definitely been things we’ve needed to work on. We’ve had really good, honest communication about how we can improve things and I feel like we’re really well connected. We’re doing really well and hopefully that can continue.”

    But Sunday will be their biggest test yet. Spain will almost certainly control this final with their possession-heavy philosophy and it’ll be a huge challenge for England to sit back and be starved of the ball for the first time in the tournament. The focus it will take as a defence will be massive.

    The Lionesses have been adaptable throughout the World Cup, though. That’s why they are where they are right now. They’ve got one more challenge to overcome to be crowned champions.

    And if it is England that lift that trophy in Sydney on Sunday, this trio will have certainly played a huge role. After all, it’s your defence that wins you titles.