Football Features

A big call in defence? How England Women should line up this international break

By Harry Edwards

England Women best players: How the Lionesses should line up

Published: 13:45, 22 October 2021

England Women are back in action this week with Sarina Wiegman’s side looking to take a big step towards qualification for the 2023 World Cup.

The Lionesses are currently top of their qualifying group on goal difference, ahead of Austria and Northern Ireland, having won both of their opening two matches. Both games ended in big scorelines for England, who beat North Macedonia 8-0 and Luxembourg 10-0 in what were Wiegman’s first two matches in charge of the Lionesses.

Although the opposition did not pose much of a challenge on either occasion, the two games gave Wiegman a chance to look at the current England talent pool and start to mould her team for the future — with the long-term goal of firing them to the top of the world and putting the drab times under Phil Neville firmly behind them.

Up next for England is a World Cup qualifying double-header, starting with the visit of Northern Ireland to Wembley on Saturday before the Lionesses travel to Liepaja to face Latvia on Tuesday. England do still have a handful of players missing due to injury, including Lucy Bronze and Ellie Roebuck, but Wiegman still has a plethora of talented players from which to choose.

But, of those available and called up for the current international break, what is England’s best starting XI? And how should they be lining up other the next two games to remain in control of Group D?

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The back five

In her two games so far, Wiegman has set England up in a 4-3-3 formation and there is no reason for that to change. As mentioned, England’s first-choice goalkeeper Roebuck is injured so Mary Earps, Sandy MacIver and Hannah Hampton are the options for these two matches.

Earps has started both games under Wiegman so far and that is unlikely to change, with the Manchester United shot-stopper making eight saves and keeping two clean sheets in five Women’s Super League appearances so far this season. Both Hampton and MacIver are solid goalkeepers and will be part of England squads for at least a decade, but based on current form Earps should get the nod.

The back four also pretty much picks itself based on those available, though there one or two contentious decisions to be made. First of all, Rachel Daly should not be starting at right-back. Not because she’s a bad player, not by a long shot. But because she isn’t a right-back. Daly is a forward and plays there for Houston Dash, scoring nine goals in the NWSL with only Ashley Hatch managing more in the division so far this season.

But Daly will start at right-back because she has the most experience and quality there in the England squad, with Niamh Charles more of a wing-back and Jess Carter playing centrally for Chelsea this season. If it were to come down to Daly and Charles, Daly wins every day.

On the other side of the defence is where we make our first big call of the XI. Demi Stokes has been England’s first-choice left-back for some time but hasn’t been at her best of late for club or country so it could be worth pushing Alex Greenwood back into her natural position. Greenwood has been playing centre-back for Man City and England for some time now, filling in for Steph Houghton but she can add so much more to the game as a full-back, getting up the pitch and allowed a more rigid centre-back pairing. Plus it would save England from having half of their back four coming from a defence that has conceded nine goals in their past three matches (regardless of personal performances, that doesn’t look good).

The centre-backs, then, come from the two best defences in the WSL. Millie Bright is a guaranteed starter for England and has been pretty solid for Chelsea despite playing in a back three under Emma Hayes (a new formation for the club) but any nerves from the switch back can be aided by Lotte Wubben-Moy. The Arsenal defender is one of the best young English centre-backs around and has been growing into her game at Arsenal, often partnering Leah Williamson (more on her in a bit). At just 22, Wubben-Moy is a player for now and the future of England, so there is no better time to start bedding her into the squad and becoming a regular starter.

An attacking midfield

So you’ll notice we didn’t include Williamson in our defence. That’s because Wiegman has played her as a midfielder so far, and that is where she’ll continue. Naturally, being a centre-back, Williamson is solid defensively and provides the perfect shield for the back four that allows her midfield partners to push further up the pitch. It’s her presence that also allows Wiegman to be more attacking in her midfield selections.

But Williamson is not just in that role as a defensive player. She’s also a ridiculous passer of the ball. Wherever she is on the pitch, Williamson has the ability to pick out a teammate on the other side of the stadium with a meaningful pass. In the WSL last season Williamson created nine chances, recorded two assists and completed 83.2% of her attempted passes from centre-back, so you can imagine what she brings to the team when further forward. She’s also a brilliant leader and it’s only a matter of time before she’s named Houghton’s permanent replacement as captain.

Now things get really contentious and attacking, as we (and Wiegman) try to fit in all of England’s offensive talent in one XI. In the 10-0 win over Luxembourg last month, Fran Kirby and Ella Toone were named as the other two players in England’s midfield trio and we expect that to be the case once again — despite the pair being listed as forwards in the squad announcement.

Kirby is the WSL leading assist-maker so far this season, setting up five goals for her teammates and has also brought three strikes of her own; all told, she has been directly involved in more goals than any other player in the division. She normally plays as a forward for Chelsea so will be pushing further up the pitch, rotating freely with the attacking players as she does with the likes of Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder.

Toone is second on the table for assisters with four so far, while also scoring two herself. The Manchester United No.7 plays slightly deeper than Kirby but still pretty far forward and has been thriving under Marc Skinner. But she wouldn’t be out of place when asked to do her bit defensively and helping England control the midfield alongside Williamson.

White looking to make history

Leading the line will be Ellen White, the Lionesses’ Harry Kane if you will. The Man City forward has not had the best time at club level recently, scoring just one league goal so far this season and three in her past 14 appearances across the two campaigns since a four-game scoring run in January. But she turns it on at the international stage, scoring 10 goals in her past six appearances for England and Team GB, including a brace against both North Macedonia and Luxembourg. White is also chasing England history, now just three goals behind Kelly Smith in her race to become the Lionesses’ all-time top goalscorer. Could she get it during this international break?

She will be aided by Man City teammate Lauren Hemp, who is one of England’s brightest stars and one of the guaranteed starters in any serious Lionesses XI. Hemp might not be having the best season for Man City when it comes to goal involvements, with just one goal and no assists so far this season, but she is tough to stop whenever she’s on the ball. For England, the 21-year-old is often the person involved before the final pass, doing the hardest work to set up the opportunity without getting any of the statistical glory. In the WSL this season, Hemp has completed nine take-ons in five games, average 2.25 per 90 minutes.

Completing the front three will be Beth Mead, who has been a key part of Arsenal’s excellent start to the season. After falling out of favour in the England set up, Mead has made herself impossible not to pick, with three goals and three assists in her opening five WSL appearances this season, making the top five for both statistics going into the international break. Like Hemp, Mead is solid with the ball at her feat, completing eight take-ons in the WSL this season but she is more direct than her Man City counterpart, always looking to get central and make her mark in front of goal, even  playing as a centre-forward at times.

Alongside White and Kirby, Mead will give Hemp options in the box and cause both Northern Ireland and Latvia defences real problems.

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