Ella Toone or Lauren James? Sarina Wiegman has already made the biggest decision of England’s World Cup

England stand on the brink of greatness. The European champions are one victory away from being the best team in the world. However, this has not been an easy tournament for Sarina Wiegman and her players.

While the Euros saw emphatic victories – the best being 8-0 vs Norway and 4-0 vs Sweden in the semi-finals – and exultant home support, England have got into gear in a slower, more controlled way in this tournament (they did beat Sunday’s opponents Spain 2-1 in extra time in their toughest match in 2022 excluding the final, in case anyone had forgotten, but that was a rather different Spain team).

Sarina is characterised for her consistency – bordering on stubbornness to her critics – but in this tournament, she has had to change things up: the shift to a 3-5-2 against China was an inspired throw of the dice after some pretty drab stuff against Haiti and Denmark. The England head coach has also had to do without the enormously gifted Lauren James after her red card against Nigeria, having brought her in to start against the Danes. James was the best player in the group stages for England, scoring three and assisting three.

But in her absence, two things have occurred. Firstly, the back three has got better, with Alex Greenwood staking a major claim to being the best player at the tournament and one of the best ball-playing centre-backs in the world. No one has made more than Greenwood’s 563 passes at the World Cup, according to WhoScored.com, even more impressively, she’s made them at 90 per cent accuracy. Against Australia, her clipped pass to set up Georgia Stanway’s shot nine minutes in was world class and shows how important she’s been to England’s ability to generate chances.


But crucially, the front two have also started to click. The final goal against Australia was sublime: Russo’s pressure caused an Australian error, which was seized on by Lauren Hemp. Hemp drove towards the heart of the Australian defence, while Russo’s cleverly drifting run took her away from a retreating Steph Catley. Hemp’s angle-changing pass was simply brilliant, and Russo’s cool, driven finish was a fitting end to an incisive attack.

Hemp was the best player on the pitch against Australia, and the front two’s combination of movement, work rate and technical ability shone against an excellently stubborn and well-organised Australia side.

England’s Lauren James celebrates celebrates scoring the opening goal against Denmark

At times, Russo has looked isolated playing for England and being asked to drop deep doesn’t suit her game. She’s an excellent passer but her real threat is in and around the box. In too many games she’s had limited options to link up with.

Alongside Hemp, though, who roams left and right as well as dropping deep, Russo always has at least one rapid option central and often one or both of the wing-backs and a midfielder bursting beyond. She also has support when playing higher. One of the reasons England scored that third goal was because Hemp could carry it further and release it later, leaving less for Russo to do in terms of beating players and allowing her to focus on the finish.


And when she’s left to focus on her work in and around the area, Russo is lethal. She’s one of the purest ball strikers in the camp and her finishing under pressure is as good as anyone at the tournament.

England’s front two can both score goals, both want to find pockets of space wide or deep and both can create differently: Russo’s touch in tight areas, her hold-up play and her through balls are superb, while Hemp can still show why at club level she’s one of the world’s most effective wingers with her tricky ball carrying and ability to execute technical passes while moving at speed. It’s also worth noting that now only Ellen White and Fara Williams have scored more for the Lionesses at major tournaments than Russo (10 and eight, to Russo’s seven).

Alex Greenwood has been excellent for the Lionesses at the World Cup

And they’ve been at their best in front of a midfield including Ella Toone. Toone might be less creative and more about linking play than James, but England tick over nicely with her as the more advanced midfielder of the three. Sarina won’t keep Toone in because she scored a worldy, but because she kept the ball well, found good pockets of space and worked hard in defence. And then, once the game becomes more open and transitional, as finals tend to, James could come on and drive at a stretched defence, take the ball deep and, although I hope England won’t need it, change the game.

So while the focus might be on whether Toone or James starts, Sarina has already made the most important decision of the tournament: shifting to a back three has platformed Greenwood’s passing excellence and unleashed the front two of Hemp and Russo. If they can combine again, England have everything they need to bring it home.

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