How do you replace the irreplaceable Keira Walsh? The problem is England can't

Keira Walsh (right) - How do you replace the irreplaceable Keira Walsh? The problem is England can't

Keira Walsh (right) was stretchered off with a suspected knee injury during England’s 1-0 win over Denmark – Getty Images/Cameron Spencer

It is the question Sarina Wiegman did not want to contemplate, let alone answer. How do England cope without their midfield playmaker Keira Walsh?

No player has been more important to the Lionesses since Wiegman took over than the world’s most expensive female footballer, signed by Barcelona for £400,000 following England’s European Championship triumph last summer.

No player has played more minutes for England since the Euros.

No midfielder is better at dictating the rhythm of play.

No team is built so much around one player linking defence with attack.

No individual is more integral to the style a team looks to play to hurt the opposition than the one who was carried off in the first half of England’s narrow World Cup victory over Denmark, the one in tears shouting “it’s over, it’s over” to team-mate Lucy Bronze.

Walsh may enjoy a miraculous recovery, but she was wearing a brace on her leg and left the stadium on crutches. Seconds after she twisted her knee, she had signalled to the England bench and said: “I’ve done my knee…” The player generally knows best.

Even if Walsh has not damaged her anterior cruciate ligament, the likelihood of her playing again in this tournament looks remote. Even a medial ligament injury would sideline her for weeks.

Until the scan we will not know for sure, but it is time for everyone to face up to the fact that if England are going to win the World Cup, England are going to have to do it without their best player.

“There wasn’t a plan B” for if England lost Walsh at the Euros, revealed former Lionesses striker Ellen White from the BBC studio. “Everything (came) from Keira. We appreciated so much that all our play came through her… I just don’t know who’s going to fill that void. She was the key cog, everything moved through her.”

It was left to veteran Laura Coombs to fill those boots against Denmark. She did alright, but England were clinging on for a win against a good side, not a great one. Far stronger challenges await.

England got the job done in Sydney, as they did against Haiti in Brisbane. They have all but qualified from their group with a game to spare, but now they have to come up with a plan.

Perhaps the clue is already there. How do you go about replacing the irreplaceable? It is probably best not to even try.

England do not have another player like Walsh. Nobody in this squad can play like she can, or do the things she does.

Wiegman will not sleep well. Neither will her coaching team. But they will have to come up with a solution, if not for China on Tuesday then for their round-of-16 game in Brisbane in a little over a week.

Sarina Wiegman - How do you replace the irreplaceable Keira Walsh? The problem is England can't

Head coach Sarina Wiegman faces tough selection decisions ahead of England’s third World Cup group game against China – PA/Zac Goodwin

There is time to work on things on the training ground, but rather than dwell on the seemingly impossible task of finding someone to play the role of Walsh, maybe it would be better to find a new way to play, a different approach entirely.

Rather than build patiently through midfield, could England go more direct and spread play long from their defenders to their wingers? Certainly, mixing things up would be sensible rather than mimicking a system every opposition team has analysed and planned to counter – with an inferior version of Walsh pulling the strings.

Could they line up with a deep-lying defensive player who does not go forward, who sits in front of the defence and gives even more licence for Lucy Bronze to charge forward on the flanks or move into the middle.

There are other alternatives. How about a 4-4-2 formation with Rachel Daly back in attack along with Alessia Russo and two out-and-out wingers in Chloe Kelly and Lauren James feeding them out wide?

None of it is ideal, but tournament football rarely is. For now, Wiegman was understandably coy. Her tone, though, was uncharacteristically grumpy, her answers unusually snappy and short.

She knows what is almost certainly coming next. Walsh’s tournament is over. Now Wiegman has to try to find a way to make sure England’s does not end prematurely too.

The extent of Walsh’s injury has not been revealed. The Football Association has made it clear there will not be an update until Saturday at the earliest. Everything, in public at least, is on hold, even though the crisis meetings will already be taking place behind the scenes.

“Of course, I’m concerned because she couldn’t walk off the pitch,” said Wiegman. ”But we don’t know yet, so we can’t make any assumptions. Let’s just wait until we really have a diagnosis and then we can tell you.

“You saw what we did, [Georgia] Stanway dropped back and Laura came in. Yes, of course we had to find our feet a little bit… you saw different stages.

“We really dominated the first half. Then Keira went out and we had to adapt to the situation. In the second half, they [Denmark], also had such a direct style of play. We also showed we can fight. The team showed real resilience. We kept it to 1-0 so it was really good and I’m really proud of the team.”

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