Football matches are shaped by flow, and they’re decided by moments. You can argue that England only lost the Women’s World Cup final to Spain because of one moment, but ultimately they were second-best throughout the game.
Sarina Wiegman’s England started brightly, and this could have been a very different game had Lauren Hemp’s delicate curler against the bar been a few inches lower. But as the game continued, England found themselves under an increasing amount of pressure. That can be the case against a side like Spain, so adept at receiving the ball in tight spaces, and keeping it for long periods.
This 3-5-2 formation Wiegman turned to midway through the tournament was the right approach here considering England’s improvement throughout the competition. There were few suggesting she should revert to four at the back.
But that system does have an obvious weakness — the lack of numbers down the flanks, and that caused problems in two respects. The first was when the wing-back went pressing high, and the wide centre-back got dragged out towards Spain’s winger. There was a good example of this after 22 minutes, when Rachel Daly pressed, Alex Greenwood followed, and Aitana Bonmati waltzed into a huge amount of space running in behind. The pass towards her was overhit and England got away with it.
Less than 10 minutes later, a good example of the other problem resulted in Spain’s first goal. A notable feature of their 2-1 semi-final victory over Sweden was how direct and aggressive left-back Olga Carmona was when she received the ball. She had two good long-range efforts in the first half of that game, before later winning the match with a spectacular goal from a corner worked to the edge of the box.
Carmona doesn’t need a second invitation to attack — and particularly when not playing against a direct opponent. So, when Mariona Caldentey received the ball, with Carmona on the overlap, Lucy Bronze out of position and Alessia Russo desperately trying to make up enough ground on the outside, England were in trouble. Initially, you suspected Carmona might flash a low ball across the face in the hope a team-mate would turn it in at the far post.
But Spain’s captain, just as she did in the semi, went for goal herself. She angled it perfectly to complete a classic full-back goal, almost a reverse Carlos Alberto. Strange though it might seem for an unheralded left-back, there’s now a good argument for saying Carmona has been the tournament’s most decisive player; she’s scored the winner in the semi-final and final, and in a World Cup without standout individuals, few can rival that.
England needed more attacking spark. It wasn’t a surprise Wiegman turned to Lauren James at half-time and not much of a shock that Chloe Kelly was introduced too.
But it was a major surprise that the manager chose to sacrifice both Russo and Rachel Daly, two natural strikers, and players adept at getting on the end of crosses. It seemed a big risk considering England would, at some stage, surely be forced to go direct, putting high balls into the box.
In her post-match press conference, Wiegman explained that the dramatic half-time changes were largely based around pressing high up, and creating a front three with lots of energy.
“We wanted to press high, but they got out of the press all the time,” she said. “Also their full-backs, they came up and we couldn’t press that, and it became one-versus-one a lot of times in defence.
“When we had the ball, we couldn’t push up quick enough and we wanted to challenge them too. So we thought we needed to go back to 4-3-3. And we really wanted to keep Lauren Hemp in the centre with her speed. I think in the second half, we played better.”
It was still a curious decision to leave herself without her two biggest goal threats, but Wiegman insisted it wasn’t an issue. “There are enough players that can score goals on the pitch, and you have to make choices,” she said. “Lauren James can score goals, Chloe Kelly can score goals, Lauren Hemp can score goals. So no, we didn’t have doubts that we could score goals.”
The team were, at least, more energetic after the break, with Kelly stretching the play down the right, James attracting several Spain defenders every time she collected the ball, and Hemp offering speed in behind the defence, now as a lone striker in a 4-3-3. But Spain weren’t overly troubled, with England offering no penalty-box threat. At one point, Bronze pushed forward on the overlap and played a first-time volleyed cross into the middle. England had no one even vaguely looking to convert.
England’s Plan B — or, Plan C, really — was always likely to involve Millie Bright going up front, as she did effectively to help England turn the game around against Spain in last year’s Euro 2022 quarter-final. Peculiarly, though, Wiegman made this shift at the same time as bringing on Bethany England, effectively going from no penalty box threat to two penalty box threats instantly. Maybe the idea was for England to get on the end of Bright’s knock-downs, but the tactical switch felt sudden and England were understaffed elsewhere, failing to keep the ball and put Spain under pressure, or work the ball into crossing positions. In the second half, you were left wondering quite why Wiegman discarded both Russo and Daly so early.
Overall, this has been another impressive tournament for England. They started slowly and were a little fortunate to squeeze past Nigeria in the round of 16. But the 6-1 victory against China in the group stage was genuinely thrilling, their win over Colombia was calm and controlled, and they produced under serious pressure against Australia in the semi-final. They very rarely allowed the opposition serious chances, conceding only to three excellent strikes from range in the knockout stage.
Equally, England weren’t able to match Spain’s technical quality in the final. With Keira Walsh largely marked out of the contest and England playing primarily on the break, they didn’t have the invention of Caldentey or Bonmati. They did offer lots of speed in behind, but then with Spain’s use of Salma Paralluelo, named the young player of the tournament shortly after the final, their opponents did too.
There is no great inquest needed, no need to harangue the manager, no need to find a scapegoat. England just weren’t quite good enough on the night. With an astute coach and a young, tactically intelligent side, lessons will be learned, improvements will be made, and England will continue to thrive.
(Top photo: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)