“I’ve done my knee.”
Keira Walsh knew it immediately, and then came the words to devastate the Lionesses and England’s chances of winning the World Cup as well. That’s how significant a blow losing Walsh is for any amount of time, let alone the tournament and potentially beyond. If England had one irreplaceable player, it would be Walsh. If Sarina Wiegman could have chosen any star to protect for the rest of the World Cup, it would have been their holding midfielder and pass master.
The Lionesses now face a terrible wait to discover the extent of Walsh’s injury. It overshadowed England’s win over Denmark, and threatens to hang over the rest of their tournament in Australia. After losing Leah Williamson and Beth Mead to ACL injuries, it looks like England have suffered another, a cruel twist that came after Wiegman made two changes to her team and the Lionesses, for the first time this World Cup, looked to have clicked into gear.
Walsh was at the heart of that at the anchor of England’s midfield - as she was during the Euros and in pretty much every England game since then, playing more minutes than any other member of Wiegman’s squad over the last year. She has qualities that no other player in the squad possesses, an ability to dictate the tempo of their play, to shoulder the responsibility of linking everything, a passing range that no one else has. She’s the player that in training her teammates can’t get the ball off.
It’s why Barcelona, the best team in Europe, broke their transfer record to sign her. Without her player of the match display at Wembley, or pass through to Ella Toone for England’s opening goal, the Lionesses may not have beaten Germany to win the Euros. Since then, England have lost their spine and after the joy of last summer those are the pictures that threaten to define England’s year as European champions: Mead hobbling off in tears at the Emirates; Williamson wincing as her knee buckled against Manchester United; now Walsh reaching, her studs catching the turf, before being stretchered off against Denmark.
It came as England looked to have steadied the ship and found their rhythm against Denmark, Lauren James scoring the goal that looked to have given the Lionesses lift off. There was a lot of noise England had to try and shut out, questions that weren’t answered in the win against Haiti, a clamour for Wiegman to do what she never does and change her starting line-up. That Wiegman did decide to twist indicated that something was not quite right - that England had gone almost six hours without scoring a goal made that perfectly clear as well.
Yet with James and Rachel Daly brought back into the side, England looked to have been recalibrated. In the opening half hour, England’s standout feature against Denmark was the time and calmness each player had on the ball - a presence of mind that radiated from James but was set by Walsh. The Lionesses found what they never managed could grasp against Haiti. They took control and dominated possession. Everyone looked more comfortable and England were finally able to take a breath.
Then Walsh went down and suddenly England were faced with another problem to solve: except this one doesn’t come with a quick-fix. Despite England’s goals drying up in recent months, Wiegman has had several attacking options in which to replace Mead - with James, Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly. The absence of Williamson has been felt off the pitch as much as on, but England have a ball-playing centre-back in Alex Greenwood.
There isn’t a like-for-like replacement for Walsh, for her scanning, positional sense in front of the back four, or her discipline and calmness on the ball and off it. There is now a lot of responsibility placed on the shoulders of Georgia Stanway, a key player in her own right, but a midfielder who has a natural tendency to burst forward. As the new pivot of England’s midfield, Stanway will now have to control those attacking instincts.
And in the second half in Sydney, while the devastating blow of losing Walsh subsided, England managed to see the game out. It wasn’t always pretty and the Lionesses certainly lost some of the fluidity they showed in the early stages, while Amalie Vangsgaard hitting the post with a late header was the let-off they needed. But that is tournament football and the victory puts England on the verge of the knockout stages - it could even be confirmed if China fail to beat Haiti later today.
In doing so, England may have entered a new phase of their World Cup. The game has changed. Wiegman would not admit it, but this Lionesses team is simply not going to be anywhere near what it was when they won the Euros last summer. Mead and Williamson, even Fran Kirby, Ellen White and Jill Scott, were cracks that could have been covered up. England can still go far but losing Walsh reveals a gaping hole that can’t be filled. The Lionesses, like they managed against Denmark, now need to hang on and survive it.
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