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How England has put on a masterclass in World Cup adjustments

England's Ella Toone, who replaced Lauren James, celebrates her goal against Australia in the World Cup semifinal. (Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

If England win their first Women’s World Cup this weekend, it might be easy to look back on their road to the trophy lift as something of an inevitability. They’re the reigning European champions who came into the tournament with one of the deepest squads in the world and a sharp mentality that has seen them through low moments in the knockout stages.

But in 2023, the Lionesses needed a certain amount of tactical dexterity to weather adversity. Head coach Sarina Wiegman, who has reached a second straight World Cup final with a new team after England’s 3-1 win over Australia on Wednesday, has shown a willingness to adjust rather than overly commit to her starting XI, and it could make all the difference.

The England team competing for the World Cup trophy is building off their Euros performance, but rather than steamrolling teams with their clear starting talent, they’ve rolled with the punches to become a team very difficult to beat even when they are not at their best.

Forced absences

As many know, England’s squad going into the World Cup was hit with a wave of injuries, most notably to forward Beth Mead (ACL), defender Leah Williamson (ACL) and forward Fran Kirby (knee). The loss of Mead, Williamson and Kirby not only introduced an experience gap into multiple key positions, it also briefly threw off the balance of the squad’s attack.

England struggled to score at times in the lead-up to the World Cup and gave up soft results on the other end, going into the tournament having scored just one goal in their three friendly matches. They lost to Australia 2-0 and tied Portugal 0-0 in their tune-up matches, raising the question of whether the team had run out of gas after a taxing year of international play.

The Lionesses faced even more absences at the World Cup. Defensive midfielder Keira Walsh injured her knee in the team’s second group stage match against Denmark, though she was able to return to anchor the midfield for the knockout rounds. England also lost the services of playmaker Lauren James, who served a two-game red-card suspension after she appeared to intentionally step on Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie in the final ten minutes of their Round of 16 game.

Depth and experience

Many other teams would have been sunk by the unexpected loss of that much firepower, but England found their way through those hurdles with a mixture of depth and experience. Their cool-headed penalty shootout in the Round of 16 is perhaps the best example of their quiet belief in themselves, even when they had been outplayed in between the whistles.

The return of center-back Millie Bright from injury this spring had a huge effect on the defense’s confidence after the loss of Williamson. And the team’s extensive attacking depth allowed players like Ella Toone and Alessia Russo, who featured more off the bench in the Euros, to step confidently into starting roles. James also provided England with a boost in the group stage until her suspension, and she will likely return for the World Cup final.

The Lionesses have at times looked vulnerable on the wings, but Lucy Bronze and Rachel Daly have done just enough to keep their opponents at bay. Reinserting Walsh into the midfield (after the capable work of Georgia Stanway in her absence) has also helped England hold the ball better than their opponents.

Deft coaching flexibility

Individual excellence and focused mentality, however, can’t overcome coaching deficits, and Wiegman recognized early in the World Cup that England needed a change to fit their available personnel.

After a tepid performance in the tournament opener against Haiti, England switched to a three-back defensive formation, giving Bronze and Daly more freedom to engage in the attack. This approach has also suited the team’s center-backs, with Bright, Alex Greenwood and Jess Carter carrying the team through periods when the attack wasn’t quite clicking.

England’s new 3-4-3 formation allows the Lionesses to control the midfield with advantages in personnel numbers, but also to commit those numbers forward quickly in transition to punish teams who push against them. They don’t always find the breakthrough in a cagey chess match, like in the Round of 16 against Nigeria, but the approach was on full display against Australia in Wednesday’s semifinal.

Australia’s superpower seemed to be in pushing tempo and trying to create overloads against the three-back with their own attackers to generate quality chances. The England defense held fast for the first half, allowing Toone to grab the opening goal by holding the ball and firing off a quality strike.

But after Sam Kerr’s equalizer in the 63rd minute, England’s ability to improvise shone through the cracks. Seeing an opportunity while holding the ball, Bright sent a long pass forward to Lauren Hemp. Hemp forced an error by Australian defender Ellie Carpenter in isolation, and suddenly England was back in control of the match. Russo then put the game away on the counter-attack, punishing Australia for their attempts to get back in it.

Ultimately, the Lionesses provide an example of how years of development can build depth and individual quality, and the right tweaks in the moment empower that talent to make their own decisions. England has a lot of different ways to beat their opponents, even when the shots aren’t falling. They’ve proven in multiple knockout matches that, even when they concede, they have the fortitude to continue to problem-solve.

Against a Spain squad in the final that can also hold the ball and use their wingers when games open up, England will need every tool in their arsenal.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.