Wiegman’s wing-back surprise could prove a twist that sets England free

<span>Photograph: Andy Cheung/Getty Images</span>” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/YXtSAuEy9VTmVF250dt0BA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/ea12d9178cc3503bbc8df21e87282147″ src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/YXtSAuEy9VTmVF250dt0BA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/ea12d9178cc3503bbc8df21e87282147″></img></p>
<p><figcaption><span>Photograph: Andy Cheung/Getty Images</span></figcaption></p>
<p>With one display, the pressure that had been mounting on Sarina Wiegman and England has eased. In a 6-1 victory against China, ranked 14th in the world, the Lionesses hit cruise control on a night that brought surprise and an end to their struggles in front of goal.</p>
<p>It was the sort of display that can set alight a team’s campaign and it led Wiegman to claim they were growing into the tournament. Edgy 1-0 victories had done little to answer questions about England’s capabilities at both ends of the pitch, with several players lacking in form and confidence.</p>
<p><span>Related: </span>Sarina Wiegman hails ‘special’ Lauren James after England progress</p>
<p>One such player was Millie Bright, Wiegman’s ever-present leader at the back. England’s opener against Haiti had been her first game back since a knee injury and the captain looked uncharacteristically shaky, especially when faced with fast opposition playing on the counterattack. Although she produced an improved performance against Denmark, she was clearly, and somewhat understandably, taking time to return to full fitness.</p>
<p>A shift in formation against China, with Wiegman switching to a back three, did wonders for the Chelsea defender, who put in a strong performance. Supported by Jess Carter and Alex Greenwood, a trio who complement each other’s abilities, she was afforded the security absent from previous matches.</p>
<p>One move summed up the sudden uplift in confidence and belief. Stepping out of defence to steal the ball from Wu Chengshu, she surged forward to support the attack and found Lauren James, who in turn set up Lauren Hemp for England’s second goal.</p>
<p>Bright was far from the only one who benefited from the freedom Wiegman’s alterations offered. Alessia Russo, used consistently as the starting No 9, has hit a barren run in recent months. The 24‑year‑old had not scored in eight games and has faced particular pressure from the domestic form of Rachel Daly and Bethany England. Hemp and Chloe Kelly had been struggling with end product despite their creative ability. Hemp returned to the starting lineup here in Adelaide while Kelly dropped to the bench.</p>
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Alessia Russo opened the scoring with her first goal in nine games for England. Photograph: Fred Lee/Getty Images

Much had been made about the lack of goals from open play – James’s against Denmark was the first since the Finalissima in April. The system against China suited her forward-thinking players, with Russo, Hemp, James, Kelly and Daly getting on the scoresheet. “Once one goes into the net, they all start flowing,” Kelly said. “It’s brilliant to get that goalscoring up and the confidence is flowing.”

England were afforded the fluidity to roam into the spaces, with the high press on China giving room to manoeuvre. Daly and Lucy Bronze pushed down the flanks, at times finding themselves acting as forwards in the box.

Russo was at the heart of everything early on, having the support around her to drop deep and affect play more. She opened the scoring with the kind of instinctive strike fans were so accustomed to seeing at Euro 2022. James, meanwhile, put in a player‑of‑the‑match performance.

Wiegman complimented her team on the way they adapted to the new structure. “When we discussed we wanted to change like this, everyone believed in it straight away,” she said.

“What we always try to do is use the qualities of the squad as optimally as possible. We played with three at the back, then did things a little differently and got a higher press. The team showed we are really adaptable.”

Related: China 1-6 England: player ratings from Women’s World Cup group D game

From a manager traditionally reserved when it comes to alterations, particularly in major tournaments, it was a surprise to see such an adaptation. Yes, her hand had been forced by Keira Walsh’s knee injury, forcing her to rethink. But once again the Fifa Best Manager of the Year came up with the solution. At the European Championship last year it had been the power of her substitutions; here it showed her tactical adaptability and flexibility at its very best.

Whether by circumstance or something else it could, in a strange twist, turn out to be the making of England’s tournament. At times in recent months the Lionesses had become a bit too formulaic but their ability to adapt could add a layer of unpredictability.

Nigeria will provide a sterner, different test in the last 16 and England will have to adapt again. But they will go into it with the confidence and knowledge that they can reap the rewards of being unpredictable.

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