England’s defense is the backbone of success

  • Tom Hamilton, Senior WriterAug 14, 2023, 06:45 AM ET

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      • Joined ESPN in 2011
      • Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
      • Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018

SYDNEY, Australia — The headlines when England won Euro 2022 revolved around the goal scorers. Beth Mead won the Golden Boot; Alessia Russo’s incredible backheel against Sweden was played on repeat alongside Georgia Stanway’s stunner against Sweden; then, of course, there was Chloe Kelly’s historic extra-time winner against Germany in the final.

But this summer at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, it’s very different. The highlight reels should intersperse forward Lauren James’ wonder goals with examples of defensive superiority. Bar the 6-1 demolition of China, England’s wins have been built from the back, achieved through clinical finishing but anchored by their new-look back three. The switch to playing three at the back against China was prompted by an injury to midfielder Keira Walsh, but despite having played with a defensive trio just once before under coach Sarina Wiegman, even when Walsh returned, England have retained that same familiar grouping of Jess Carter, Millie Bright and Alex Greenwood.

The England team that have reached the semifinals of yet another major tournament is very different to one that won the Euros last summer. Mead, Leah Williamson, Fran Kirby — all ever-presents last summer — missed out through injury, while Ellen White and Jill Scott have retired. When England beat Colombia in the quarterfinals on Saturday, Scott and injured captain Williamson were in the stands, cheering on the Lionesses.

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Anchoring it all have been the back three, but each player had different experiences at the Euros. Bright was a towering presence at the back and an ever-present alongside Williamson; Greenwood was set to be her partner but was benched in favour of Williamson and played 91 minutes across five matches; Carter played just 16 minutes against Northern Ireland, in their final group-stage match, when England were already 4-0 up.

The trio are now front and centre in a major tournament. As a result, England have conceded only two goals in this World Cup — one a penalty against China; the other Leicy Santos’ lob against Colombia. Their collective effort has seen them placed fifth for shots on target faced per game (2.4) and fourth for expected goals (xG) against (0.8).

Greenwood has been exceptional for England, arguably their best player, and versatile too. She started at left-back against Haiti, at centre-back against Denmark, and then left of the back three against China, Nigeria and Colombia. Her importance is showcased by her having the most touches of the ball out of any player in the competition (596), the most interceptions (13), and the most completed passes (436.) She also has the most progressive passes at this tournament in the England team (40.)

When Greenwood’s stats were put to teammate Bright, she wasn’t surprised at all. “She’s a very, very technical player, unbelievable with the ball, and can read the game really well, and I think we’ve all seen her display on the ball, and the passes that she makes, in really tight spaces,” she said. “She can be that difference for us. She’s a wonderful person, always bubbly, but also so calm and competitive, and composed, and she brings that to the team as well.”

Having sustained a knee injury back in March while on Chelsea duty, Bright was a doubt heading into this tournament. Her first competitive match was in their opener against Haiti, but she dusted off any rustiness as the competition progressed and has made the most ball carries (118) and carried the ball further (1190.34 metres) than anyone else in the tournament.

Her aerial ability has been key. The space in between the back three and the wing-backs has allowed opponents to stay wide and lob crosses into the box, but Bright’s dominance in the air has snuffed out any danger. “Today we saw that when Millie Bright was in the centre for the crosses and also at their set plays she had a very important role to head the ball out of the box,” Wiegman said after the win over Colombia.

Also important in that game was Bright’s Chelsea teammate Carter, who cemented her place and dovetailed well with Lucy Bronze on the right. They played superbly, managing to nullify the threat of star midfielder Linda Caicedo, while Carter’s pace and ability to win duels has been key to maintaining stability at the back. “I’ve always been a player that’s played multiple positions, but having such strong depth at Chelsea has helped me because we go weeks without playing a game and then you have to play the next three in three different positions,” she said earlier in the tournament. “It’s something I’ve learnt to deal with and adapt to.”

England’s defence has coped well so far, but Wednesday will give them their biggest challenge yet, against Australia’s Caitlin Foord, Hayley Raso, Mary Fowler and Sam Kerr.

Wing-backs Rachel Daly and Bronze will help combat the two wide players, while it will be up to Carter, Bright and Greenwood to marshal the other threats — Kerr chief among them. Flexibility is key. “Of course, we hope we can be quick in a three-build but if we have to defend, sometimes when we push back, then we go with a five,” Wiegman said after the Colombia game.

What’s most important is that all the players complement each other, each with different strengths that contribute to a cocktail of defensive stability. “They all understand the game very well regardless,” Walsh said. “They all have passing ranges and can defend as well. It gives us a great base to play off, we’ve got a strong structure to start from. And I think that is where the goals came from against Colombia it was them building up from the back and understanding the spaces to play.”

A back three wasn’t a combination we thought we’d see when England took their first tentative steps of the tournament against Haiti. But it’s the group that they hope is going to get them over the line on Wednesday against the Matildas. If Euro 2022 was won by virtue of England’s attack, the successes of this World Cup so far have been anchored by their defence.