arina Wiegman is entering uncharted territory. The Lionesses face China tomorrow needing a point from their final Group D game to guarantee progress to the knockout stage of the World Cup, but they must find a way to do so without Keira Walsh.
The midfielder injured her knee during Friday’s 1-0 win over Denmark and is out of tomorrow’s game here in Adelaide.
The chances of Walsh playing again at this tournament appear slim and her absence leaves Wiegman with a huge problem to solve.
Walsh has been a virtual ever-present since Wiegman’s appointment in August 2020, missing just three of her 34 matches in charge of England. Of the 31 games Walsh has played under Wiegman, she has started all but two of them and the midfield has been built around her.
She is the player who makes England tick and Wiegman has been left with little time to find a solution to life without her.
On the rare occasions when Walsh has not started or been available, Wiegman has played captain Leah Williamson or Jill Scott at the base of midfield. Neither of those options are available, of course, with Scott retired and Williamson out injured.
Had Williamson been fit, it is almost certain Wiegman would have pushed her forward from centre-back into midfield, as she did against South Korea in February when Walsh was ill.
Wiegman now has the added pressure of coming up with a new plan in the middle of a World Cup.
When Walsh went off against Denmark, it was Laura Coombs who was thrown on. Georgia Stanway dropped deeper to play at the base of midfield, replicating Walsh’s role.
That is the plan Wiegman will most likely favour tomorrow, with Stanway the most natural replacement for Walsh. Coombs is also a steady performer, combining work-rate with sensible play in possession.
Other than Walsh, Manchester United captain Katie Zelem is the other out-and-out No6 in the England squad but she is not as dynamic as Stanway.
Wiegman’s problems are further complicated by Stanway being one yellow card away from a suspension. Ideally, England would be able to rest her tomorrow, but the group is still live.
England are top with six points and in pole position to reach the last-16, but if they lose against China and Denmark beat Haiti, qualification will come down to goal difference.
For that reason, Wiegman must go strong tomorrow and Stanway will start. It is just a question of who partners her, and Coombs is favourite. For Manchester City, Coombs plays as a box-to-box midfielder, but given Stanway’s precarious yellow card situation, she will likely sit deep and play alongside her.
Jordan Nobbs is another option and, given the 30-year-old’s wealth of experience, she should have a part to play tomorrow even if only off the bench.
In England’s new-look midfield, Lauren James could play as the No10. She finished Friday’s game there and, given her brilliant form, getting her on the ball more would be sensible.
The squad have rallied together since Walsh suffered her injury, and have been buoyed by the fact she is doing her recovery at their training base in Australia. It has also served as a reminder that any of them could be called upon to step up at a moment’s notice.
“Keira is an amazing player,” said defender Niamh Charles. “But she’s one player of 23. You’re ready for any opportunity, because like we see anything can happen.”