Tom Hamilton, Senior WriterAug 16, 2023, 10:00 AM ET
Close• Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018
SYDNEY — It was sheer pragmatic, controlled aggression from England that ended Australia’s fairy tale. Not even Sam Kerr scoring one of the greatest goals in Women’s World Cup history could keep the music playing for the team that has led Australian football to new heights. The Lionesses had no interest in playing their role in the miracle of the Matildas, that’s just not how they do things under coach Sarina Wiegman.
There’s something truly remarkable about this England team, and their manager. They are big-tournament monsters. Whenever they’re faced with adversity, they charge straight through it, rather than find a way around any challenges.
This is Wiegman’s fourth major tournament final in a row. Back in 2017 she led Netherlands to a win in the Euros on home soil. In 2019 her Netherlands team fell in the World Cup final to the United States. In 2022, she steered England to their own home Euros triumph and now, a year on, England are in the World Cup final. It’s an astonishing record.
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“The chance that as a coach you make it to two finals is really special, we made it to four already — it’s like I’m living a fairy tale or something.” Wiegman said to the BBC soon after full-time. She later added: “When you make the first final, you think this is really special, it might not happen again. Then you make a second, a third, a fourth, but you think it might not happen again because it’s so hard.”
This was yet another masterful execution of Wiegman’s plan by her team. England took the pace out of the occasion when they needed, and then counter-punched just as Australia thought they were getting a foothold. It’s a lesson in concentrated intensity and strangling the life out of opponents. They frequently recall Billie Jean King’s mantra that pressure is a privilege, but it appears to be more than mere platitudes for the media. They don’t just shrug off pressure but instead channel it into winning performances, time after time.
Only Wiegman knows whether this new-look formation with a back three was always the plan for this tournament, or if Keira Walsh’s absence in midfied for the China match really did necessitate this change. What it’s given England is a mid-tournament shift which has surprised other teams. England, predictable? Not a bit of it. Did you think they were going to play like they did to win the Euros, with their 4-2-3-1? Think again, here’s a Wiegman curveball. Welcome to Sarina-ball.
At the heart of this performance was clinical finishing. They rode their luck at times — that Kerr miss from four yards out in the 85th minute is the sort she’d usually slot home without so much as a second thought — but for every scare, England found a way to tighten their vice-like grip. England controlled the play in the first half, dictating the tempo and taking the pace out of it when they needed. In the second half they played more on the counter-attack as Australia threatened to wrestle the game back in their favour. But when England had their chances, they scored.
Their three goals were all examples of making the most of opportunities when they arise. Their finishing has been questioned in this tournament — bar the 6-1 hammering of China — but this victory saw them take chances when offered and all off the back of unrelenting graft led by their two forwards, Alessia Russo and Lauren Hemp.
Russo’s role was key in the first goal as she managed to twist and turn Australia’s defence before teeing up Ella Toone who hit a stunning strike into the far corner of Mackenzie Arnold’s goal. In the second half it was the relentlessness of Hemp to force an error from Ellie Carpenter which allowed her half a chance to score past Arnold, just eight minutes after Kerr had scored her wondergoal. That swung the balance back in England’s favour.
And then in the closing stages, just two minutes after Kerr’s miss, Hemp ran at the heart of the Australia defence and then put in a no-look switch to Russo who hit it back across Arnold’s goal to give England a 3-1 win. “It was an incredible pass, and the finish was great too,” said Wiegman.
England coach Sarina Wiegman has guided the Lionesses to a second final in as many years — and her fourth tournament final in a row. Alex Pantling – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
It was unrelenting pressure which forced the opportunities, and the strikers took their chances. But alongside it are the street smarts. The way England wind the clock down is masterful. The Stadium Australia crowd got restless as England took their time on throw-ins, forced corners and used the same tactics that saw them close the match out against Germany in last year’s Euros final. On the ground where England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup final against Australia, these Lionesses played the length and width of the pitch like Jonny Wilkinson did two decades ago, picking out the corners, moving the ball into the areas of the pitch where there were acres of space and then kept the ball close to wind the clock down. “I thought that we weren’t going to give this away again,” Wiegman said. Australia only fashioned one half-chance after Russo’s 81st-minute goal, and England saw themselves safely home.
“There was no fear in the squad, we weren’t nervous, we just wanted to play our football,” said Hemp, who was named Player of the Match. “Even when we were in the backfoot in the last few minutes, we showed calmness and composure.”
And then there’s the physicality. England made their presence felt in just the first minute as Walsh tripped Kerr long after the ball had gone. Alex Greenwood would earn a yellow card for a late tackle on Kerr after 10 minutes. England weren’t there to pay respect to their hosts, but instead to stamp their authority on the occasion.
It was an incredible occasion inside Stadium Australia. The noise was the sort that makes the chest involuntarily thump and vibrate, all whipped up in the green-and-gold fervour that’s gripped this nation, and far further afield. Kerr’s goal will be replayed time after time. After all those nervous waits on her fitness, she delivered a moment that will eventually surpass and replace the immediate feelings of disappointment at falling at the penultimate hurdle.
But Wiegman and England will see it differently. They’ll look at the space they allowed Kerr and how the move was allowed to start. They’ll analyse the cause rather than the effect, no room for individual brilliance, this is about collective accountability and problem solving.
“We scored three goals, in this team there is ruthlessness, up front and defence,” Wiegman said. “We really want to win. We stick together and we stick to the plan and it worked again.”
Up next is Spain, the team England needed extra time to beat in the quarterfinals of the Euros last summer. They won’t fear Jorge Vilda’s side but, like always, they’ll have a plan and they’ll be resolute in their trust in the system that they’ll get the job done. Pressure be damned, England have learnt to cope with expectation and external noise, and instead have an unwavering self-belief in their own ability, pragmatism and to find a way through these generation-defining matches. As Wiegman said after: “We came through, and found a way to win again.”