What does England captain Leah Williamson's ACL injury mean for the Lionesses' Women's World Cup dream?

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Leah Williamson Sarina Wiegman Millie Bright England Women composite
How will the European champions fare this summer after losing their skipper just three months before the tournament begins?

When England captain and Arsenal star Leah Williamson went down with a knee injury on Wednesday night, one could be forgiven for fearing the worst.

Women’s football has been suffering an ACL crisis for a long, long time now and, on Friday afternoon, Williamson’s name was added to its ever-growing list of casualties.

The 26-year-old will miss the rest of Arsenal’s season, which includes a Women’s Champions League semi-final tie against Wolfsburg, and then, crucially, this summer’s 2023 Women’s World Cup.

After leading the Lionesses to Euro 2022 glory last year, she’ll be forced to watch on from afar for this major tournament.

It’s cruel, cruel news for a player who had been enjoying an incredible moment in her career, with so much to look forward to. It’s devastating for her club, too, with the Gunners already bogged down by a long injury list.

And what about England? To lose your captain and one of your star players as you prepare for a World Cup that you genuinely have the ability to win is a massive blow.

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What impact could it have on the Lionesses' chances of becoming world champions?

  1. The Lionesses' leader

    The Lionesses' leader

    One impact Williamson’s absence will have on this team is obvious, evidenced by the armband that she sports every time she steps on the pitch for her country.

    She’s the captain, she’s this team’s leader, and now they will be without her for the biggest tournament of them all.

    When the Arsenal star was officially made England’s new skipper last year, it was something that her team-mates commented on as being a “natural” thing, such are the leadership qualities she possesses.

    It’s something Wiegman clearly saw, too, as when Williamson had asked her if she wanted her to do anything more in the new role, the coach simply said: “No, I've given it to you. I'm happy with what you're doing.”

    She showed throughout Euro 2022 that Wiegman made the correct decision, too. When Williamson sat with her to talk to the media ahead of the final at Wembley in late July, she oozes calmness and composure. She was laser-focused on the task ahead and, a day later, she went out and led her team to glory.

    To go to a World Cup without a player that has traits like that, a player that so many of her team-mates look to in big moments, is huge.

  2. The formidable duo of Bright and Williamson

    The formidable duo of Bright and Williamson

    One of the most difficult things for England about Williamson's absence is that they lose the fantastic partnership she and Millie Bright have forged in the heart of the defence.

    The duo started every game at Euro 2022 and were a big reason why the Lionesses only conceded twice throughout the entire tournament, both exceptional in their own ways and able to complement the other.

    Recently, when that pair has been broken up, England haven’t looked as assured. During the April international break, Bright was injured and so Williamson partnered with Alex Greenwood for the Women’s Finalissima and then Esme Morgan for the Australia friendly.

    The Lionesses weren’t at their best at the back in that first game, conceding late on before beating Brazil on penalties, and the second match resulted in England’s first defeat of Wiegman’s tenure.

    Before the Euros, until it was changed at the last minute, Williamson was actually playing in midfield and it was Bright and Greenwood that had come together to form a great centre-back duo.

    If Bright is fit for the tournament, as she's still sidelined with a knee injury at present, Wiegman will hope those two can reproduce that quality and rekindle their fruitful partnership in the pre-World Cup friendlies.

  3. Reshuffle needed

    Reshuffle needed

    One of Wiegman’s big selection headaches during her tenure has been the left-back spot. In February, it seemed she had found a solution: Greenwood.

    The Manchester City defender used to play in that position week in, week out before moving into a central role in recent years. Yet, the coach played her on the left during the Arnold Clark Cup and she fared well, seemingly relieving the headache.

    In Bright’s absence, Greenwood played at centre-back in April and now Williamson’s injury is likely to see her play there at the World Cup, too. Wiegman needs to shuffle things around again.

    Rachel Daly played at left-back during the Euros but she’s naturally a forward, second in the scoring charts in the Women’s Super League this season. As a result of that form, she’s been given more minutes in the front line for her country lately and has done well there.

    The injury to Williamson could see Wiegman move Daly back into defence, though, and bring in another forward to bolster the attacking pool. Alternatively, Jess Carter, who started both games in the position in April, could play there. Neither are naturals in the role, though, and therefore cannot really perform to their full potential there.

    Could Greenwood stay on the left and another centre-back option be brought in alongside Bright? It is now probably the biggest question Wiegman has to ponder going into the World Cup.

  4. A loss in more than one position

    A loss in more than one position

    England don’t only lose a top quality centre-back in Williamson, though. The Arsenal star is a versatile player who has also excelled in a midfield role for club and country.

    It’s in that area that the Lionesses are thinnest on the ground and simply by being in squads, their captain has been able to add a little bit of depth to the middle of the park should she be needed.

    There is one player in the England team that is almost irreplaceable and that is Keira Walsh. The Barcelona midfielder is one of a kind and plays an incredibly important role for her country.

    But the player best suited to replacing her, should she pick up a knock at the World Cup or miss a game through suspension, was probably Williamson.

  5. How will England cope without Williamson?
    Getty Images

    How will England cope without Williamson?

    England have a lot of quality in their squad. In Bright and Greenwood, they have another very solid centre-back duo ready to go, with ample amounts of talent also in the mix if Wiegman chooses to go down a different route and stick with Greenwood out on the left.

    There are a lot of leaders who will be candidates to take the armband at the World Cup, too, including the aforementioned pair who have both captained the Lionesses during this current season.

    England have had to play with Williamson already this year because of an ankle injury in the first half of the campaign, but they adapted well, most notably beating the world champions, the United States, at Wembley in October.

    They’ve had to deal with another long-term loss, too, with Beth Mead ruled out late last year after also rupturing her ACL. Winner of the Golden Boot and Player of the Tournament awards at Euro 2022, she was at the peak of her powers when she suffered the devastating injury.

    However, while Wiegman would love to have her available, the coach and her team have had to, again, adapt and overcome. That’s exactly what they will have to do with this Williamson news, too, if they want to become world champions this summer.

    There is still tons of talent and plenty of leaders in this squad, all of whom will want to lift that trophy for those whose chance to do so has been taken from them.