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Sarina Wiegman is one of the best coaches in the world at figuring out a tactical problem, but even she has now wondered whether she got it right against Nigeria. After hours of analysis following the last-16 tie, the thinking has been England should have gone to a back four.
It has influenced some of the approach ahead of the quarter-final against Colombia. Wiegman and her staff are expecting a similar game, and another battle. The latter, like with Nigeria, is not to just reductively describe Colombia as a “physical” team – although that is precisely how England have been preparing. Wiegman has also been planning for the fine side the South Americans are, with special attention paid to star forward Linda Caicedo.
It is more how England are now into classic tournament football, even if it is far from the historic surge through Euro 2022. While that almost became free-wheeling at times, this has been a slog.
Much of that has been down to injuries. Some of it has been down to the ultra-competitive nature of this World Cup, as best illustrated by Colombia’s group-stage defeat of Germany.
Wiegman has felt at times that every aspect of this tournament has been a fight, with a new problem seeming to follow every one that is solved. How else to describe Lauren James’ inexplicable decision that got her sent off against Nigeria, when it had seemed like she could seize the entire World Cup. She is considered fortunate to have got off with just two games, although the England squad obviously won’t consider that any kind of reprieve unless they actually make the final.
For now, it’s just something else for Wiegman and her staff to figure out; more work. That’s been the theme, especially on the pitch in every match except the win over China.
“A lot of it is mentality and a lot of it is resilience,” Beth England said this week. “That’s tournament football. There’s a lot of experienced players in this group and they are used to having to do that. It’s a lot of girls who it’s their first tournament and it’s a fine balance.”
“Balance” has been the theme of this week’s work. Wiegman has been trying to figure out the system that retains England’s brilliant defence, but allows them to start creating chances again. That is tough to strike, especially with so many key absences and so many forwards off form.
It is potentially putting what got them this far against what might be necessary to go and win the tournament.
Wiegman may have to sacrifice defence to unlock England’s attack
That such a crunch decision comes at the quarter-final is itself symbolic, since this is generally known in international football as the real dividing line of a tournament. It is when the actual challengers are separated from the surprises, the overachievers and the pretenders.
This game encapsulates much of that. England are European champions and clearly one of the most talented squads in the World Cup, with that undercut by a variety of problems as well as, perhaps, questions over whether they could have a more overarching identity.
Colombia have meanwhile been tournament revelations. While they should and always have been respected, beating Germany and finishing top of Group H took them to another level. The question – as with Nigeria, and even now in the quarter-finals with the eliminated Japan – is whether they have expended most of their energy or if they actually have more to give. They should be invigorated by how this is an open tournament.
The fact they played a day later might be key, mind, because energy is a huge part of this. That’s something else that tournament football comes down to – getting through it.
The England players felt exhausted after the Nigeria win, which was “emotionally draining” as much as physically draining.
That extra day was seen as vital, though. The players got proper rest, with the tranquil seaside setting of Terrigal greatly helping players to relax and reset.
England train at the Central Coast stadium
(The FA via Getty Images)
That’s been especially true of the defence, where Alex Greenwood and captain Millie Bright have excelled. The latter has so far put in one of those vintage centre-half campaigns, where it looks like the more immersive nature of a tournament has brought her to deeper levels. She is not just winning everything but giving everything as she does so. This has been key.
It has also played on Wiegman’s mind as he seeks that balance. While there has been so much focus on the attack, and the make-up of it, the defence has been rock-solid. The Lionesses have yet to concede a goal form open play.
“Some of our defensive work has been fantastic as a whole team,” goalkeeper Mary Earps said.
That carries a side an awful long way. While England obviously want to win this in normal time with a properly attacking performance – Earps spoke of how “you’ve seen glimpses of what we’re capable of” – they are ready to go to penalties.
Mary Earps vowed that ‘the best is yet to come’
That was something that became clear in the Nigeria game, in what has been another theme of England’s campaign. Unable to do what made the Euro 2022 victory, they have so far overcome that with diligence and pragmatism.
Some might say too pragmatic. There is an increasing argument that England might be left short because, like the USA, they don’t have the overarching playing identity that Spain, France or Australia have.
That feels like it is a discussion that can only really take place if they get to meet any of those sides, though.
“The most important thing to note is that we’re winning games,” Earps added. “We’re in a results-business so we’ve earned the right to be here.”
They now have to show they can go even further. It might not even be about getting it right. It might be about getting through it.