Midfield options, defensive absences and room for some of the old-guard? Assesses the choices facing England manager Sarina Wiegman ahead of Wednesday’s Lionesses squad announcement
Sarina Wiegman has several options to ponder before she picks the 23 who will attempt to back up last summer’s Euros triumph with global glory – so where do the key decisions lie?
Has England done enough?
There’s always one in-form striker knocking down the door ahead of a big squad announcement and this year’s player is Bethany England.
Twelve goals in as many Women’s Super League games to keep Tottenham in the top flight – form doesn’t get much better than that.
But England hasn’t played for her country since September when she scored twice against Luxembourg.
Alessia Russo and Rachel Daly are fighting it out for the No 9 jersey with Lauren Hemp lined up to be the third-choice striker but can you have too many goalscorers?
As far as I’m concerned England should be a shoo-in. It’s in the name.
It’s clear she has the desire to represent her country again – the move from high-flying Chelsea to struggling Spurs in January was evidence of such inclination.
England does not necessarily start – based on the Sarina Wiegman’s style, Russo and Daly are better equipped – but tournament football requires plans A, B and sometimes C.
Under pressure, England delivers. Her firepower is what has kept Spurs in the WSL this term. She is no stranger to carrying teams over the finish line, sometimes single-handedly – presuming of course the Lionesses will, at some point, need similar amounts of drive and resolve to conquer the world stage this summer.
Her 14 league goals, averaging a goal every 90 minutes, and a conversion rate of 45 per cent (better than both Russo and Daly), means she should go. Oh, her shot accuracy (61 per cent) is far superior too.
Are Bronze, Bright fit?
Millie Bright and Lucy Bronze offer 170 England caps, Olympic experience, multiple Champions League and WSL titles and a FIFA Best Player of the Year award.
Both are expected to be named in Weigman’s squad but neither have played since April and only have a couple of pre-tournament friendlies to get back to full match sharpness.
England will have seven games in less than a month if they get to the final and their quality will be needed, especially as the competition gets stronger as the tournament goes on.
Clearly, England’s lengthy injury list is less than ideal. There are players who have been ruled out completely – we are all still heavy-hearted about Leah Williamson’s absense – and players who are on the cusp.
Bright and Bronze are the latter. Both nursing troublesome knees, neither with a competitive minute of football under their belts in over two months.
“No update, still in the same place, I’m confident she will make the World Cup,” Hayes said of Bright ahead of Chelsea’s final game of the season. The answer felt coy. Bright was in attendance at Reading to lift the WSL trophy alongside fellow defender Magda Eriksson, but there was no indication of her fitness. Question marks remain.
The Lionesses are a relatively young squad – there are not too many experienced heads in the dressing room. It’s vital Bright and Bronze are there, but not half fit. England don’t need martyrs.
Out from the cold?
Beth England isn’t the only experienced player that’s been on the outside looking in over the last few months.
Fellow Euros winners Nikita Parris and Demi Stokes have been dropped from recent squads, while Lucy Staniforth has been overlooked despite a perceived lack of midfield depth.
And there’s always Steph Houghton, who would not only offer centre-back cover but also leadership experience.
If Houghton is brought back from the cold it’ll be a huge shock given she hasn’t been named in an England squad since Wiegman’s first back in September 2021.
The Dutchwoman has a choice now she’s lost Williamson, Beth Mead and Fran Kirby. Stick with the younger, less experienced players like Jess Park, Esme Morgan and Maya Le Tissier or bring back some of the old guard now times have got tougher.
These decisions rest on whether there is clarity over some of the players racing against time to be fit. The aforementioned Bright and Bronze situations are key here.
If both are forced to sit out, I would be inclined to bring Houghton back into the fold. I understand Wiegman’s vision; she has ushered in a new era, one less tarnished by the failures of previous regimes. Her new-look squad is young, fresh, exciting and invigorating.
But a complete squad must strike the correct balance. I like both Morgan and Le Tissier but could not confidently say either would deputise for Bright better than Houghton.
Consideration must also be given to club dynamics here. Alex Greenwood and Houghton’s partnership at the heart of Manchester City’s defence is solid, dependable.
As for midfield options, I don’t believe Parris has done enough, but Manchester United captain Katie Zelem should be in with a serious shout.
England’s defensive headache
England’s defence is not what it was without the injured Williamson and now Daly is seen as a forward. They have talented options but not much international experience.
Le Tissier, Morgan Niamh Charles and Lotte Wubben-Moy are all expected to be called up by Wiegman but their lack of caps will be seen as a weakness by opponents.
It’s a coin toss to decide England’s first choice backline, which no head coach likes going into a tournament. If Greenwood replaces Williamson at centre-back, who plays on the left? Is it a battle between Chelsea’s Jess Carter and Charles or is there a masterplan we aren’t aware of yet?
This is a problem spot. Take Williamson and Daly, then possibly Bright and Bronze out of the equation and you are left with precisely none of the defenders who started England’s Euros final against Germany in 2022. The entire back four wiped clean.
We know Williamson will be missing, and we know there is an asterisk against the names of Bright and Bronze. Charles has to be included based on her natural ability at full-back – I don’t believe shoehorning players into unfamiliar positions is wise.
Greenwood will be tasked with playing centre-half, presumably, so I would take Carter as cover. Wubben-Moy has also been enjoying a lot more game time at Arsenal of late, thanks to the Gunners’ ongoing injury crisis, and has coped with a series of high pressure games admirably.
Is the midfield engine room equipped?
England haven’t just lost their leader in Williamson, they’ve also lost their backup to Keira Walsh at the heart of the midfield.
No one can do what Walsh does but expected reinforcements Jordan Nobbs and Laura Coombs are not natural holding midfielders.
Does this mean a late call-up for Manchester United’s Zelem, who was dropped for April’s friendlies?
Or will England bank on Walsh being what she’s been for England over the last few years – consistently in form and available?
Zelem gets my vote. She has been the backbone of a wonderful season for United and acts as the sounding board for both Russo and Ella Toone.
Her structure and solidity allows the latter two to flourish at club level – why not for England? She can play the deep-lying midfield role, or further forward if required, and is comfortable with the possession-based style Wiegman favours.
Tough-tackling, unafraid of the hard yards, wonderful technique over a set-piece – what’s not to like? Clearly Nobbs and Coombs are also options, but neither offer the complete package Zelem does, in my opinion.
I agree with Anton, no one gets near the craft of Walsh, but you can’t do better than Zelem as a creative support act.