England is on the verge of greatness. The European champions are just one win away from being the best team in the world. But it was not an easy tournament for Sarina Wiegman and her players.
While the European Championship saw emphatic victories – the best being 8-0 wins over Norway and 4-0 wins over Sweden in the semi-finals – and jubilant home support, England’s pace in this tournament has been slower and more controlled (which they have been). defeated Sunday’s opponents Spain 2-1 in extra time. In their toughest game of 2022 (except for the final in case anyone forgot, but that was a very different Spanish side).
Sarina is known for her consistency, which borders on stubbornness among her critics, but in this tournament she had to change things: switching to a 3-5-2 against China was a brilliant shot after some pretty monotonous things against Haiti and Denmark . The England boss is also without the extremely talented Lauren James, who brought her into the starting XI against the Danes, following the red card against Nigeria. James was the best player in the group stage for England, scoring three goals and providing three assists.
But two things happened in her absence. First, the back three has improved, with Alex Greenwood claiming to be the tournament’s best player and one of the most ball-loving centre-backs in the world. According to this, no one has made more than Greenwood’s 563 passes at the World Cup WhoScored.comEven more impressive is that she created them with an accuracy of 90 percent. Against Australia, her sharp pass to set up Georgia Stanway’s shot after nine minutes was world class and shows just how important she was to England’s ability to create chances.
But the bottom line is that the first two have started clicking, too. The last goal against Australia was great: Russo’s pressure caused an Australian error which Lauren Hemp took advantage of. Hemp pushed into the center of Australia’s defense while Russo used a skillful drift run to lead them away from a retreating Steph Catley. Hemp’s angle-changing pass was just brilliant and Russo’s cool, purposeful finish was a fitting conclusion to an incisive attack.
Hemp was the best player on the pitch against Australia and the combination of movement, work pace and technical ability of the two top players shone against a superbly stubborn and well organized Aussie side.
At times, Russo seemed to play in isolation when playing for England and being asked to go deep on the defensive doesn’t suit her game. She is an excellent passer but her real danger is in and around the box. In too many games, she’s had limited opportunities to connect.
However, alongside Hemp, who wanders left and right and drops deep, Russo always has at least one quick option down the middle and often also has one or both full-backs and a midfielder charging beyond. She also has support when playing higher. One of the reasons England scored that third goal was that Hemp could push it further and release it later, giving Russo less time to hit players and focus on the goal.
And when she has to concentrate on her work in and around the area, Russo is lethal. She’s one of the purest ballplayers in the camp and her finishing performance under pressure is as good as anyone at the tournament.
England’s top two can both score and both want to find space wide or deep and both can act in different ways: Russo’s touch in tight areas, ambush play and through balls are superb, while Hemp can still show why At club level, she is one of the most effective wingers in the world, with her skillful ball transport and ability to execute technical passes at high speed. It’s also worth noting that only Ellen White and Fara Williams have now scored more goals for the Lionesses than Russo in major tournaments (10 and eight to Russo’s seven).
And in front of a midfield that included Ella Toone, they put on their best performance. Toone may be less creative and puts more emphasis on linking play than James, but England do well with her as the more advanced midfielder of the three. Sarina will not keep Toone because she scored a world goal, but because she held the ball well, found good spaces and worked hard in defence. And then, when the game becomes more open and choppy, as finals tend to be, James could come on the pitch and power a stretched defence, drive the ball deep and – although I hope England don’t need that – that change game.
While the focus may be on whether Toone or James starts, Sarina has already made the most important decision of the tournament: switching to a back three has underscored Greenwood’s excellent passing game and freed up the two front twos of Hemp and Russo. If they can reunite, England will have what it takes to claim victory.