BRIGHTON, England – There’s something about this England team. They simply do not know when they will be beaten.
In so much of Wednesday’s European Championship 2022 quarter-final, they were outclassed by Spain. But when the pressure eventually became too much for those in the red shirts and the big moments showed up, England did not blink, and eventually won 2-1 as well.
You have to run through walls to beat Spain. It did such as Millie Bright, Georgia Stanway, Keira Walsh and Lucy Bronze. If it was they who took away the foundations of the Red Wall, it was Stanway who brought it down.
Stanway had run the entire match. She had chased everything and everything in red, and she had jumped through the middle of the field repeatedly only to be knocked down. She had tried and tried – and had encountered frustration every time. But then there was the next opportunity, so she wanted to give it another chance.
After Spain’s goal in the 54th minute through a wonderfully worked-out goal sequence with seven passes, England had tried everything: go under, through and to the side of the Spanish defense. It did not work. And as Spain’s defense held, it looked like England’s party was over, with Spain choosing the perfect time to announce themselves in the tournament.
But then came the double pace of Alessia Russo and Ella Toone to combine for an equalizer in the 84th minute to force extra innings. And then came Stanway’s moment.
When she got the ball in the 97th minute, Stanway had done it the race before – almost exactly the same at the break, only to be fielded by Mapi Leon. But this time, when her legs burned and her backtracking subsided, Stanway held the ball, and she continued. She had runners on her way to the left and right, and then she looked up. She had options, but she went with the gut feeling.
Sarina Wiegman was appointed England manager to make major decisions. Tactically astute and with a winning streak, she was hired by The Football Association to ensure that England had the best chance of delivering in the European Championship at home. She is present on the sidelines – she who knows what it takes to win this tournament, after delivering five years ago for the Netherlands – but she is rarely animated. Behind the scenes, it is her individual conversations with the players that make such a difference in this group. They feel empowered to make decisions in a fraction of a second in the middle of the match, knowing that their coach will support them. She has kept the pressure off the group; talk in camp is about football, not about winning.
Stanway is just one of several that have grown under Wiegman’s guidance, but on his way into this tournament, Stanway had a question mark over his head. As long as it looked like Leah Williamson would be in the Stanway role with Alex Greenwood as center-back. But Wiegman changed that with just one and a half games left before the tournament to move Williamson back and Stanway into midfield. The leader relied on his own instinct and made the tough conversation.
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So when Stanway had the opportunity to influence Spain’s goal, she knew that the decision she made in that fraction of a second would be the right one. And then when she beat a fantastic winner past Sandra Panos just outside the box; it was a moment of affirmation for Stanway, for the team and for the culture Wiegman has created.
But this was a victory built on pure gravel and determination – and Bright personified it. She was unique as a midfielder – and as a provisional midfielder – as she headed, blocked, tackled, outmaneuvered and overcame everything and everything in her path. It was thanks to Bright – and those who defended England’s goals as the outstanding Mary Earps, Williamson, Stanway and Walsh – that they had the opportunity to get through this.
For so much of the first 90 minutes, Spain had England’s number. It went to script. They moved the ball far better, they sucked the ball and they made the chances. Despite a brief boom from England at the start of the second half, it was no surprise to see Spain take the lead.
Spain’s goal was fantastic. After dominating the first 45 minutes, Spain managed a brief resurgence in England at the start of the second and then created one of the very few clear chances in the match. Athenea Del Castillo’s hard footwork turned Rachel Daly upside down, and her pass found Esther Gonzalez, who took one push to settle in and then shot back across Earps’ goal and past Bright’s outstretched leg. It was a goal met with silence – and then a response from the English audience.
It was in those moments that Wiegman’s experience came true. It was two important moments in the 90’s that turned this back in England’s favor. First, as it became more desperate, she made two bold changes, and between the 55th and 62nd minutes made the introductions to Chloe Kelly, Russo and Toone Spain think again.
Until then, the Spanish structure allowed them to mark Lauren Hemp, Fran Kirby and Beth Mead out of the game. Ellen White was left to run continuously down blind alleys, Kirby fed herself from scratch when the two Spanish fullbacks Ona Batlle and Olga Carmona controlled both flanks. With Aitana Bonmati dictating the pace in the middle of the pitch and Mariona Caldentey playing brilliantly on the flank, it simply did not work for Wiegman’s team. They ran away, but did not achieve anything in Spain’s half of the field.
Toone, Russo and Kelly’s introduction increased the pace. But it took Wiegman’s second big tactical decision in the 84th minute to break the Spanish determination. Wiegman moved to a rear three, and temporarily moved the excellent Bright in front. We asked if England had a Plan B, but this was probably more of a Plan Q – but it worked.
Bright’s presence in the Spanish box created confusion, and it gave Russo room to get on the shoulder of Irene Peredes to win an important heading – and from there Toone finished fantastically from close range. It was not pretty – it did not have to be when you are in those moments – but it was life-giving.
From there came extra time and Stanway’s winning moment to keep this show on track. But this was a different England than we have seen in previous matches during Wiegman, and especially at these European Championships. After the free-scoring England we saw in the group stage – 14 goals, zero conceded – this was much more like the Austria opening, but on a different level.
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This was an English team that had to dig in, support each other and rely on the collective ability of the 23-player squad. It needed confidence and work speed, and then a blob of stardust from Stanway’s right foot.
With the full blast in the 124th minute, Wiegman was already 10 meters on the field when the second explosion landed. She had been through all the emotions, in her own underrated way. But then came the relief – and the celebration. Now the reset must come.
England have two more matches in this European Championship tournament, but what they proved on Wednesday night was that they have the ability to turn the tide in a knockout decision and have frugality and cunning to pull a result out of their hat. It’s a master’s mindset.