Keira Walsh keen to attract attention in pulling England’s World Cup strings

One of the costs of the world waking up to the excellence of Keira Walsh is that space has started to shrink around her.

Against Haiti, in England’s opening World Cup game, the Lionesses’ deep-lying midfielder was the focus of attention and heavily marked. Cutting off such a vital conduit to the attack stifled the team’s threat, particularly through the middle. With Leah Williamson and Fran Kirby absent from the tournament because of injury, Walsh’s vision is all the more important.

Denmark are up next on Friday and Walsh says the experience was not new. “I was used to it at Man City – it happened quite a lot in the WSL,” the Barcelona player says. “I don’t necessarily think it’s just me; I think a lot of teams are trying to stop holding midfielders in general because that’s where football is going now. A lot of teams play through midfield. We have a lot of other top players so if I’m marked that’s one less player for them in and around the space.”

Related: Sarina Wiegman ready to make England changes for Denmark World Cup clash

Walsh is not averse to new challenges. She swapped City for Barcelona to push her game up a level and relishes having to work in tighter spaces.

“First half it’s usually a little more difficult,” she says. “In the second half games tend to open up a bit more anyway, but I want to be playing in those tighter situations and really testing myself. I enjoy the challenge and am just looking forward to seeing the rest of the tournament.”

Walsh really started to notice the added attention on her as the Lionesses moved through the Euros last year, on the way to a first major tournament trophy. “The Sweden game they really looked to stop us, not just me, playing through midfield. In the final Germany go man-for-man so it’s naturally more difficult in midfield anyway. But I was used to it in the WSL, I learned quite a lot, so it’s something I’ve experienced before and I can try and figure it out, get on the ball, and make an impact.”

Walsh says: “It’s about picking up smarter spaces and dropping into different areas and maybe not staying so set in the middle. Maybe it’s about going forward for it to come back to me and getting the sets and finding different ways to get me on the ball rather than a pass from A to B.”

Has she seen a change in forwards trying to stop defensive midfielders from operating rather than the other way round?

“City have always put a big emphasis on the buildup play going through the holding midfielder, so from the age of 18/19 that’s something I’ve always experienced,” she says. “When I was younger, and maybe the younger age groups at England, maybe it was more about stopping the counterattacks and breaking up play, and maybe that’s not my strength as a holding midfielder; it’s bringing other players into play and setting up attacks for our team. I think the game has changed as a whole but I’ve got more influence from the Spanish in terms of how they’ve always played, and the Pep [Guardiola] influence has always helped me in that respect. In general, I think more people do try and play through the central midfielder.”

Interactive

Playing with the technically sublime Barcelona players has forced Walsh to think and move faster but it has also helped her with the physicality of the game, something people might not have expected.

“Maybe teams think I don’t like the physical game as much, but from playing in Spain they are more tactical like that and look to do that a bit more,” she says. “The training we do in the gym is a lot more focused on holding players off when you have the ball. That’s something I’ve got better at and hopefully I can keep improving on in terms of when players are trying to stop me, I can hold my own.”

Walsh has stepped up hugely since a difficult World Cup in 2019. Now, she is being asked to step up as a leader too.

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“That’s something Sarina [Wiegman] has been pushing me on,” she says. “Maybe it’s just solving the pictures on the pitch and coaching a little bit more. I wouldn’t say I’m the loudest, so it doesn’t come naturally to me. But it’s something she wants me to improve on. I’m one of the more experienced ones in terms of being at tournaments and winning the Champions League, so players do automatically look at that but it’s a team full of leaders and it doesn’t matter if you’ve played one game or 50. We listen to each other and respect each other’s opinions. I think that’s what’s so special about this team. Hopefully we can show that against Denmark and what we’re about.”

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