Replace Keira Walsh? The question England never wanted to be asked


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“Good times never seemed so good,” rang the speakers as England trudged into their post-game centre circle huddle — minus one member.

The lyrics of Sweet Caroline, the song which has serenaded this England team after a win, have never seemed so wrong.

The Lionesses may have beaten Denmark 1-0, virtually securing first place in Group D, but their chances of winning the World Cup took a serious blow at the Sydney Football Stadium on Friday evening.

Keira Walsh, arguably England’s most irreplaceable player, appears to be out of the tournament with serious ligament damage to her left knee.

It is a cruel agony that the Lionesses’ pivot was injured while doing exactly that, intercepting the ball from Kathrine Moller Kuhl in the 36th minute and turning to progress England upfield. In the process, the 26-year-old’s left knee, sliding across the ground, caught in the grass.

(Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP) (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

The first stage of grief is shock. Walsh spent several seconds on all fours, staring at the floor. But the second is denial — and there was none of that.

When teammates reached her, trying to pull her up, she immediately waved them away. “I’ve done my knee,” she told them.

Their distress was clear to see. Georgia Stanway gave her fellow midfielder a kiss on the forehead as she was stretchered off the pitch. Captain Millie Bright stared into the middle-distance, hands on hips.

Right-back Lucy Bronze, Walsh’s partner, wanted to help, carrying equipment for the medical team. In a business where managers are often asked to disassociate themselves from emotion in favour of analysis, it is striking that Sarina Wiegman watched on, allowing her assistants to impart instructions to replacement Laura Coombs.

Sadly, these injuries are all too familiar to Wiegman and the England team. Leah Williamson and Beth Mead are both out of this tournament with torn ACLs. After the match, it was striking to see Chloe Kelly with the shirt of Denmark’s Nico Sorensen. Her reason?

“She’s in the ACL crew,” Kelly said, having suffered the same injury in 2021-22. “We were together throughout our journey.” For other countries, stars such as the Netherlands’ Vivianne Miedema, Germany’s Giulia Gwinn, and USA pair Christen Press and Catarina Macario have been similarly afflicted. After the match, every England player who was asked denied that the pitch was to blame.

It underscores that none of this is new, though that does not mean it does not hurt. Wiegman denied her players were upset — “We just had to find our feet” — but after the game, several England players expressed their concern. Bronze was not available for interview post-match.

Walsh has not yet received an official diagnosis, but the likelihood of this being a serious knee injury is not disputed.

“It looked serious,” said Wiegman. “If you can’t walk off the pitch then it’s serious but we’ve just finished the game. I haven’t heard anything yet.”

The Lionesses return to their Terrigal base tonight to train for China on Tuesday. Walsh returns for a scan tomorrow.

So far at the 2023 World Cup England had been searching for something, and, for 30 minutes, they had found it.

Wiegman’s changes were working perfectly — Lauren James was floating infield, opening up space for the recalled Rachel Daly to maraud forward from left-back. James’ presence drew players away from Ella Toone. Alex Greenwood was outstanding at centre-back, shuffled across from the left.

James’ sixth-minute goal meant she was deservedly named player of the match — but those who watch England play know that Walsh is the oil in the engine. No Lioness has played more minutes since the Euros.

GettyImages 1576251314 scaled

Lauren James celebrates her goal (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

After being clogged against Haiti, Walsh was once again finding the passageways through midfield. She has only misplaced eight passes all tournament and only one of her 28 balls against Denmark went astray.

keira walsh every pass attempted by keira walsh at the fifa womens world cup in 2023 passmap

Norway tasked 20-year-old Arsenal midfielder Kuhl with man-marking her — but Walsh repeatedly gave her the slip.

But after Walsh’s injury, everything changed.

England’s last shot on target came in the 22nd minute through Toone. England had 80.6 per cent possession before Walsh was hurt, along with a 93.0% field tilt, meaning that they made 93 per cent of the game’s total passes in the final third during that period. As domination goes, it’s rarely more stark.

After Walsh went off, their possession fell to 62.3 per cent and their field tilt to 62.5 per cent. England lost control and were unable to pen Denmark as effectively — with Denmark coach Lars Sondergaard acknowledging the importance of Walsh’s injury post-game. Look at the shift in attacking threat after Walsh’s 36th minute injury.

2260591 opta dark momentum plot

“I feel sorry for England that they lost her,” he said. “I hope it’s not as bad as it looks, that could also be a reason why we came back into the game.”

Denmark immediately adjusted, demonstrating how Walsh — the world’s most expensive female footballer — forces the opposition to play differently.

“We changed our pressing a little bit immediately afterwards and changed to a 4-3-3 where we didn’t have the focus on the defensive midfielder,” Sondegaard replied to a question from The Athletic. “Then we decided at half-time we could play with two strikers that could have different roles and go on pressing on Georgia Stanway (who had dropped into the deep midfield role).

“We were fortunate that England got a bit insecure in their passing from behind. In the beginning, they made us run a lot and we had to always close down spaces.”

Now, it is England racing to fill a gap. Denmark adjusted to exploit Walsh’s absence in moments. Other teams will do the same. The thought of Germany’s Lena Oberdorf, possibly lying in wait in the quarter-finals, is one to fill England’s midfield with dread.

Pondering how to replace Walsh is like asking whether a hairdryer can replace the wind. Nevertheless, that is the situation England find themselves in.

GettyImages 1576248015 scaled

Walsh’s performance had been immaculate before the injury (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Wiegman has options in her squad — but Lucy Staniforth, the most natural replacement, flew home on Sunday after only making England’s stand-by list. Sides are not allowed to call-up replacements after the first game.

Coombs, previously a teammate of Walsh’s at Manchester City, is the oldest player in the side at 32. Having won only six caps, most of those eight years ago, she is inexperienced at this level.

Manchester United’s Katie Zelem and Arsenal’s Jordan Nobbs are other options. Arsenal coach Jonas Eidevall, a pundit on BBC, says England will have to play two No 6s to replace her.

On Friday evening, Wiegman opted for Coombs, but played her as a No 8, with Stanway pulled back into the deeper role, despite being on a yellow card. Another caution would have seen her receive a one-game ban.

“I thought she did fantastic coming in for Keira,” striker Bethany England said of Coombs post-match. “I thought she held the ball up well, linked well, settled straight into the game and it didn’t look like we were missing anything.”

These are the things teammates say. Coombs was quiet, but did not look out of place. But against the top sides, that concern remains. It was only through her player of the match performance that England were able to drag themselves past Germany in last summer’s Euros final.

“Everything came through Keira,” Ellen White, starting striker that match, told the BBC. “There wasn’t a plan B.

“I dreaded to think of the idea of us ever losing her because she was one of our best players. Beth Mead was scoring all the goals but all of our play came through Keira. She was the key cog, everything moved through her.

“I just don’t know who England are going to have now in that No 6, or even potential double No 6 role.”

Wiegman was understandably spiky at the suggestion England were lacking a plan B. For a coach who prides herself on preparation and planning, this situation will have been discussed.

Asked about White’s comments, Wiegman interjected: “You’re talking about the Euros… We’re now in a World Cup. You saw the plan B.”

But merely having a plan B is no guarantee of its success. If this was a blueprint, it would have been locked in a big red box, with large lettering next to it reading ‘Only break glass in case of emergency’.

Beyond Greatness is the tagline of this tournament, emblazoned in 3D lettering as the players stride onto the pitch. It was beamed onto the big screen as Walsh was stretched off.

Without her, it feels greatness is beyond England.

(Header photo by Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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