A new era was heralded in for England as Lauren James starred once more to help the Lionesses seal their spot in the last 16 of the Women’s World Cup.
England went into their final group stage game against China with a perfect record but still weren’t guaranteed to qualify for the last 16. A draw would have been enough to secure top spot, but defeat could have seen them drop to third, given the makeup of the group.
There was also the added uncertainty of England’s midfield with Keira Walsh suffering a knee injury in the 1-0 win over Denmark last time out. Although it was later confirmed as not a dreaded ACL injury, the injury was enough to rule Walsh out of the game against China, with no return date given just yet.
Against Denmark, Laura Coombs came on for Walsh but Katie Zelem was the chosen starter alongside Georgia Stanway in what was a different midfield set up. Rather than sticking with the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 she has been known to use with England, Sarina Wiegman opted for a back three and a 3-5-2, and it paid off almost immediately.
Rachel Daly was the left wing-back with Lauren Hemp joining Alessia Russo up front and James-Zelem-Stanway the midfield trio. Jess Carter came back in alongside Millie Bright and Alex Greenwood for the back three, with the Chelsea defender providing defensive cover to allow Lucy Bronze to romp forward.
It took just four minutes for England to open the scoring with Russo thriving alongside a strike partner. The Arsenal striker, who hadn’t had the best of times at the World Cup so far, linked up well with Hemp whose cross into Bronze just missed the defender. But the second ball was won by James, whose header fell back to Russo and the 24-year-old calmly finished for her first World Cup goal.
England got the goal they needed to calm things down and they were in full control when Russo’s strike partner Hemp made it 2-0. Again James was involved, receiving the ball from Millie Bright who had intercepted a pass. James’ pass to Hemp cut the defence and the Man City forward opened up space with a great first touch before coolly slotting it past the goalkeeper.
Then the Lauren James show truly started. Given the freedom to express herself with Zelem and Stanway behind her, James was running the show for England, but surprisingly her first goal of the game came from a set piece. England had a free-kick in a wide position and James lurking on the edge of the box. Although it was the most obvious move, China left James unmarked and when the ball did come to her, the 21-year-old had no challenger as she curled a first-time effort into the far corner.
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James thought she had another curling effort just before half time, even better than the first, on her weaker foot but it was eventually ruled out for a subjective offside on Bronze.
Three goals up at half-time, England were in full control and looked a completely different side to the one that had laboured to wins against Haiti and Denmark.
Sarina Wiegman channelling 16/17 Antonio Conte to great effect
— JPH (@jessyjph) August 1, 2023
Best we’ve looked in a long time. Dynamic. Moving the ball quicker. ???????
— Ian Wright (@IanWright0) August 1, 2023
“It’s like we’ve finally arrived at the tournament,” Karen Carney said at half time.
“It’s why we play Sarina the big bucks. England have gone with a 3-5-2 and basically this formation has meant that every single player in the team is playing in their best position, and getting the best out of them.
“Everyone is connected and this is the best I’ve seen us.”
“It’s a masterclass, it’s an absolute tactical masterclass from Sarina Wiegman,” Eniola Aluko added.
Wiegman did shake things up at half time, bringing Stanway off as she is one booking away from a suspension, and England did look a bit more loose without her on the pitch. Allowing China some time on the ball to grow in confidence, England did give away a penalty for a handball on Bronze following a corner which was dispatched.
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However, James put England back in control with a beautiful side-footed volley from Carter’s cross, her third goal in as many games at the World Cup. And James wasn’t done there, before being taken off and denied a hat-trick of goals, the 21-year-old did complete her hat-trick of assists, setting up Chloe Kelly via a bit of poor goalkeeping.
Including her strike against Denmark, James had been directly involved in all six of England’s goals from open play at the World Cup, scoring three and providing three assists. She also made history in becoming the first ever Englishwoman to record a hat-trick of assists at the Women’s World Cup.
Lauren James’ game by numbers vs. #CHN
9 duels won
4 take-ons completed
3 chances created
3 assists (!!!)
2 tackles made
— Squawka Live (@Squawka_Live) August 1, 2023
“I think the less I say, the better. Because we’re witnessing a brilliant, brilliant football player that is deserving of everything she’s getting,” Chelsea manager Emma Hayes said on commentary.
“I hope whichever club has this player, they’ve signed her to a long-term contract. Because we’re witnessing just brilliance.”
“I’m running out of fantastic words, superlatives, descriptions to describe what is a generational talent, Lauren James,” Aluko added.
Rachel Daly made it 6-1 before full-time, and England now prepare for a last 16 tie against Nigeria. But it was all about Lauren James.
Damn Lauren’s got a better finish than me bro ??? @ReeceJames
— Michy Batshuayi (@mbatshuayi) August 1, 2023
Lauren James watching back the highlights from the group stage games pic.twitter.com/tDJSu6Wiiu
— Emma Levin (@EmmaLevin_) August 1, 2023
Lauren James. 2 goals. 3 assists. pic.twitter.com/PlCEgDfbgk
— Rich Laverty (@RichJLaverty) August 1, 2023
Lauren James is the best young player in the world.? pic.twitter.com/ziWOj1nxdi
— CfcwComps (@CompsCfcw) August 1, 2023
Lauren. James. pic.twitter.com/WoLwD3L5UL
— FIFA Women’s World Cup (@FIFAWWC) August 1, 2023
Lauren James is going to win the Ballon D’or one day
— Edwin (@iamsantaclaus_) August 1, 2023
6 & 5 – Despite not starting England’s first game, Lauren James has the most goals+assists of any player at this year’s #FIFAWWC (3 goals, 3 assists). Today she became the first England player to be directly involved in 5+ goals in a game at the Men’s or Women’s World Cup. Force. pic.twitter.com/fjDNtifPjn
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 1, 2023