After the thrill of England’s World Cup campaign this summer, the hangover has been far from comfortable for Phil Neville’s Lionesses. Following their semi-final exit at the hands of the US, England have failed to win a game, losing to Sweden and Norway with a 3-3 draw against Belgium sandwiched in-between.
On Saturday, they host Brazil at Riverside before facing Portugal on Tuesday. Neville has tried to keep his tried and trusted centre-back partnership of Steph Houghton and Millie Bright together. However, after conceding five goals in their last two games – and with Abbie McManus withdrawing from the squad – Leah Williamson is primed to make her stand.
The 22-year-old Arsenal centre-back was part of Neville’s World Cup squad but remained behind the aforementioned trio in the pecking order and only made one substitute appearance during the quarter-final victory over Cameroon. Williamson has had two cameos since, but her standout performances at the start of the Women’s Super League season have made her case for a starting opportunity on the international stage.
In the Gunners’ title-winning 2018/19 campaign, Williamson formed a sturdy partnership with Louise Quinn which saw them concede just 13 goals in 20 games. But, possibly even more important to Neville, is Williamson’s prowess on the ball.
Under Joe Montemurro at Arsenal, Williamson has even excelled as a creative fulcrum at the base of Arsenal’s midfield. In the opening two WSL fixtures of the season, she boasts an 86% completion rate from her 152 attempted passes, casting a greater influence over the game without sacrificing any of her tenacity as a defender.
Take her inch-perfect slide tackle against Fiorentina which sent the ball flying straight to the feet of Beth Mead as the Italians looked to break forward.
Or her sharp turn in the centre circle as she received the ball against Brighton, evading two challenges before sparking an attack.
“She does it so well as a centre back we felt, by doing in as a midfielder, is she gets her positioning right she can find passes anywhere.” Montemurro told Arsenal’s official website last week.
Williamson’s ability on the ball in more high-pressure areas is a quality that will force Phil Neville to take notice. Since his appointment in 2018, the manager has implemented a possession-based style of play, keeping the ball on the floor and playing out of the back in triangles to varying degrees of success.
This was evident against Norway, where after taking the lead England succumbed to a 2-1 defeat and Bright’s pass out from the back was intercepted in the build-up to the Norwegian’s winner.
Having Williamson, who has become drilled in playing forward with the ball at her feet can only be an asset to Neville. Not only will she allow England to progress forward more easily, but she can also sniff out danger when needed.
The Brazil game itself may come too early after Montemurro admitted Williamson picked up a little knock against Brighton last week, but Portugal on Tuesday could be a great opportunity for one of England’s brightest young talents to cement her place in the starting eleven for years to come.
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