How will England navigate Women’s World Cup with injuries?
It’s hard not to imagine England national team manager Sarina Wiegman cutting a frustrated figure in her offices at St Georges Park when trying to select her Women’s World Cup squad. Decimated by the injuries to crucial players, Wiegman will have to rethink her strategy extensively and make alternate selections to replace them.
In recent weeks, Wiegman has lost key players who fuelled England’s successful run in the 2022 Euros and who were expected to play integral roles at the World Cup. Last month, captain and centre-back Leah Williamson tore her ACL, an injury that takes at least six months to recover from. Then, attacking midfielder Fran Kirby joined the injury list earlier this month, announcing surgery to her knee. Forward Beth Mead tore her ACL late last year, and despite hopes she’d be back before the World Cup, Wiegman recently suggested it would take “a miracle” for her to make it.
These are three high-profile players who Wiegman relied on heavily in previous tournaments, and the retirements of Ellen White and Jill Scott after the Euros won’t help either, eliminating two potential alternatives.
But Wiegman has options: she can opt for straight player-for-player swaps, or she can adjust the Lionesses’ tactics to account for these losses. Whatever Wiegman chooses, it may decide England’s fate this summer.
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Toone and Kelly as new starters, and how it would change England’s attack
The England forward line was the pinnacle of their success at the 2022 European Championship. Kirby, Mead, White, and Lauren Hemp led a fearsome quartet of creativity and power, with gamechangers on the bench including Ella Toone and Chloe Kelly. However, major injuries to Kirby and Mead after White’s retirement have forced Wiegman to shuffle her team going into the 2023 World Cup. Yes, Wiegman does have replacements available in the squad, but how will this change England’s attacking system from the one that dominated the Euros?
Since Wiegman took the helm in September 2021, Kirby and Mead have both been integral to the setup. Kirby has been England’s maestro as the No. 10, while Mead was a talismanic figure on the right wing. At the Euros, Kirby was essential to everything they did on and off the ball, being the creative force for much of their attack. Kirby, a Chelsea veteran, was given the license to be less restricted in her position in order to find dangerous chances for her teammates in conjunction with Mead’s more advanced role coming towards the box from the right.
There is an argument that Mead will be a bigger miss than Kirby simply because of her goal contributions — over 2022 and 2023, Mead has led England in goals with 21; Kirby scored twice in that timeframe. Either way, England are fortunate to have two tailor-made replacements: Manchester City winger Kelly replacing Mead and Manchester United forward Toone in for Kirby.
England’s main focal points are the wingers. The goal is to get the ball to them and allow space to attack the box and their opposing defender, combining with players in their vicinity. At the Euros, Mead’s relationship with Kirby was effortless with their silky passing and space creation — time and time again we saw Mead take advantage of the chances Kirby created for her. Ultimately, the question now is how those two replacements will work in this regard for the World Cup.
What made Kirby different in her role was the timing of her runs and good decision-making — her ability to know what the right weight and choice of pass is, or what kind of run is best in the moment. Though a lot of statistics may not rank Kirby high offensively — her 0.44 attempted take-ons per 90 minutes at the Euros, per stats company FBref, puts her in the lower end of the scale — her contributions were much more off the ball than on it. Her style of play is better gauged by passing the eye test than any specific metric, and in order to replace Kirby, Wiegman needs to find someone as influential off the ball as she is.
Wiegman has primarily started Kirby in the past, but she has always brought on Toone as a direct replacement. Toone, an attacking midfielder for Man United, has slowly grown in her ability to influence games, and as she’s settled in Wiegman’s system she’s become much more reliable in executing the game plan and following tactical instructions. You would believe Wiegman’s choice of No. 10 will be Toone, but the worry is whether she can really execute the game plan as well and as consistently as Kirby.
Toone is a hybrid of a withdrawn striker and playmaker playing from a central position, affecting both the final and middle thirds of the pitch. Simply put, she’s able to play as a second striker that combines her impressive playmaking abilities with goal scoring to interchange between both roles at will.
Compared to Kirby, Toone is a lot more aggressive in her movements and wants to see more of the ball. In this case, Toone’s role under Wiegman is centred around maximising the spaces left between the lines, mainly as a substitute. So far in the Women’s Super League, Toone is ranked seventh in assists per 90 minutes, which proves how effective she is in creating for her team.
Toone’s progression statistics outline her effectiveness in moving the ball forward with progressive passes and progressive carries, which measure when a player moves the ball closer to the goal or into the opponents’ penalty area. Toone has outperformed Kirby — she averages 6.91 progressive passes per 90 minutes, ranking her in the 97th percentile in the WSL. In comparison, Kirby’s numbers are 6.30, putting her just outside in the 95th percentile. While both of their progressive carry numbers only rank them in the 13th (Toone) and 5th (Kirby) percentile, Toone is still the more aggressive option.
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Sarina Wiegman speaks about Beth Mead’s World Cup hopes and previews England’s games against Brazil and Australia.
This leads to a marked difference, as Toone’s style is that of an attacking ball carrier who makes a lot more blatant runs in the channels between the centre-back and full-back. The protection from the England midfield also means Toone can play this more aggressive role without the fear of being exposed defensively. Any team will suffer from Kirby’s absence, but Toone brings an X-factor that should benefit England this summer, especially against the more aggressive teams, including Spain, United States and Sweden, who could await England in the knockout rounds.
The case of Mead’s absence, on the other hand, allows for a more straightforward swap. Kelly is much more of a proven commodity in the WSL this season after her impressive Euros performances, and she has slotted into Wiegman’s system well. Kelly and Mead are very similar in play style. Both are wingers that prefer to drift into central areas using their preferred foot to shoot at goal. Equally, both are capable of dazzling defenders by also going on the outside, whipping in dangerous crosses for the centre-forward.
So what does Kelly bring that could make a difference in Mead’s absence? Kelly, a Man City winger, is a ball-hungry player constantly looking to make something happen for her team, while Mead is a bit more of a mazy winger preferring to roam the flanks and take more precise touches and movements. Kelly is much more direct with her movements and pressures the opposition full-back to constantly defend, which wins the team fouls and in turn creates set-piece opportunities if she doesn’t glide past them.
While Wiegman has mostly used Kelly as a back-up option, Kelly’s statistics in the WSL are off the charts, offering a glimpse of what she could bring. She registers 4.24 progressive carries per 90 minutes, behind her teammate Hemp with 6.11. Outperforming the majority of the WSL dribblers is extremely impressive considering the quality in the competition. By comparison, Mead averages 2.13, albeit in a curtailed season. This sort of style worked well in role as a “super substitute” at the Euros, where Kelly was brought on the later stages of games to battle tired legs.
With the potential new combination of Kelly and Toone at the World Cup, England’s attack could become even more direct. But here’s the big question: would that be a good thing for the Lionesses’ offensive output heading into the tournament?
With Toone, although she has been around the England team for a while, the complication is her relative inexperience as she may be asked to slot into such an integral role. Coming off a relatively successful season with Manchester United, however, such doubts can be assuaged as Toone now seems more than ready to step into the void left by Kirby. As for Kelly, it’s easy to see why she is so highly regarded by Wiegman and there will be less anxiety about using her as the first-choice winger at the World Cup.
Why Le Tissier could fill England’s Williamson-sized hole in defence
Arguably Wiegman’s biggest tactical dilemma will be replacing Arsenal centre-back Williamson. Wiegman likes to use Williamson as the team’s main ball carrier and progressor from the backline, more than is asked of a typical centre-back. Williamson is also a very competent defender who reads opposition attacks well and occasionally takes up defensive midfield positions to play her signature swashbuckling passes. The quandary is whether to replace Williamson directly, or find an alternative by moving other players around.
The most obvious candidate would be Maya Le Tissier of Manchester United. The centre-back has been in fine form this season, helping her club challenge for the WSL title and reach the FA Cup final, where they lost to Chelsea. Despite her relatively young age, at just 21, Le Tissier has so far shown glimpses of her intelligent defending and playmaking ability.
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Wiegman’s style is to play direct and efficiently but it will also be adaptable, depending on the on-pitch situation. She wants her team to play out from the back as quickly as possible by taking the shortest route, whether that be through long passes or vertical ball-carrying. The central defenders are very important in choosing the first action out from the back — their aim is to find the wide players, be it the full-backs or wingers.
Given this context, Le Tissier’s selection makes sense. Her main attribute is her ability to drive her team forward with the ball, finding passing lanes. Progressing the ball in the middle and final third would be a plus for England when facing teams with compact defences, as well as highly aggressive ones. The Lionesses’ three group stage opponents — China, Haiti, and Denmark — all offer different levels of pressing structures.
Le Tissier has registered a high number of progressive passes with 3.66 per 90 minutes, highlighting her forward-thinking style of play. She outperforms her fellow centre-backs in the WSL like Alex Greenwood, Williamson, and Magdalena Eriksson, who are all known as elite ball-playing defenders.
Playing with a high line and dominant full-backs marauding into offensive positions as England does requires your centre-backs to be positionally switched on and quick in recovery. Le Tissier has improved in this aspect, but she is still honing her craft and as such has shown an improvement in recoveries and frequently makes up for any missed tackles higher up the pitch.
Depending on Millie Bright’s fitness — Bright is also injured, but expected back for the World Cup — Le Tissier could be playing alongside another centre-back, either Greenwood or Steph Houghton (despite Wiegman’s reluctance to pick the Manchester City captain) as her partner, both of whom are good at covering space, which could allow Le Tissier to become the more aggressive centre-back. Along with Lucy Bronze and possibly Niamh Charles or Jess Carter, the new England back line could see an injection of pace that could help them play a high line without being overly exposed in transition.
While there is optimism in selecting Le Tissier as Williamson’s replacement, Wiegman may also err on the side of caution, by picking Greenwood and one of Houghton or Bright (fitness permitting). Le Tissier’s first England call-up was in November 2022 for their friendlies against Norway and Japan and so far she’s been used as a full-back despite her season as a central defender.
Wiegman could have reservations about throwing a young defender into the heart of England’s defence, but given Le Tissier’s success in going up against some of the world’s best striker’s in the WSL such as Sam Kerr, Khadija “Bunny” Shaw, and Rachel Daly, there is a case to give Le Tissier a chance in the middle. There’s no doubt that she’ll be a mainstay of the team for years to come, so ultimately it’s better to bed in new talent on merit sooner rather than later. Wiegman’s track record suggests she may prefer to lean towards experience, however, and pick Greenwood and Houghton, should Bright be unavailable.
Either way, England’s chances might be slightly diminished because of the injuries to their key players, but it doesn’t make them any less formidable as would-be world champions. The replacements and backups alike have proven their pedigree for their respective clubs, so now the task for Wiegman is to once more weave all that together. Wiegman will most certainly need to pull out something new from the playbook and adapt if she’s to succeed against the world’s best in Australia and New Zealand this summer, but she has the players to do it.