When Sarina Wiegman’s England won the European Championship on home soil last July, it seemed likely that her favoured starting XI would survive almost intact for this summer’s World Cup.

With a year between the two competitions, due to the Euros being postponed 12 months because of the Covid-19 pandemic, few players were in danger of being phased out. Only Ellen White was older than 30, and besides, she was about to be succeeded by Alessia Russo anyway. That process was accelerated by White’s immediate post-Euros retirement.

But things are never quite as simple as you expect, and Wiegman’s plans have been turned upside-down since that Wembley win over Germany.

She has lost three key players, including her captain, Leah Williamson, and last summer’s top goalscorer, Beth Mead, to injury. She has, more positively, benefited from the rise of Lauren James. While most unusually, the player who started at left-back throughout Euro 2022, Rachel Daly, topped the WSL goalscoring chart for 2022-23 and is now considered a centre-forward by Wiegman.



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Six players from last summer’s XI are likely to start in the same positions here: goalkeeper Mary Earps; the right half of the defence in Lucy Bronze and Millie Bright; the midfield partnership of Keira Walsh and Georgia Stanway; and left-winger Lauren Hemp. But there’s been major change in the other five roles — and question marks remain.

Here’s how Wiegman’s plans have changed in those five positions over the past 12 months.

Probably the biggest question mark is in defence.

Wiegman tends to be loyal to a select band of trusted players, and while Esme Morgan was handed an opportunity in the 2-0 loss to Australia in April, it’s more likely that Alex Greenwood and Jess Carter will complete the back four.

The confusing thing is that we don’t know what positions they’ll be deployed in, as both can play on the left or at the heart of the defence. Greenwood is a former left-back with an excellent left foot, who has become accustomed to playing centre-back for Manchester City. Carter is less technical, more of a pure defender, and is right-footed. She’s regularly forced to switch between the right, left and centre for Chelsea.

Wiegman has tried them both ways around.

In the 4-0 win over South Korea in February, Carter played in the middle with Greenwood at left-back. For the Finallisima against Brazil two months later, it was the other way around: Greenwood as a left-sided centre-back and Carter outside her. Then, for the pre-tournament friendly against Portugal three weeks ago, Wiegman reverted to having Carter inside and Greenwood on the left. Her justification was she wanted a left-footer on that flank, and Greenwood certainly offers the team more going forward. It also allows Carter to play alongside club team-mate Millie Bright in the middle.

A further complication is that if Bright doesn’t recover in time from a recent injury, Carter and Greenwood are likely to be the centre-back pairing, as they were for the 2-1 win over Italy in February.

Bright training on Friday in Brisbane (Photo: Matt Roberts – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

That would mean Niamh Charles — like Carter, a versatile right-footed Chelsea defender capable of playing on either side — coming in at left-back. Intriguingly, Charles has been handed the No 3 shirt, and Wiegman’s numbering system otherwise seems to indicate her favoured starting XI. Perhaps this situation is the only anomaly, with Carter wearing No 16.

With Fran Kirby also out injured, Ella Toone appeared to face little competition for the most attacking midfield slot. Toone, however, has been in poor form at club level, having not scored for Manchester United since November, and while her game is about more than goals, it’s a major part of her role in this England side. She has scored 16 times in 32 caps, including crucial knockout-phase goals against Spain and Germany last summer.

With Mead absent, James and Chloe Kelly are seemingly battling it out for the right-sided role, but could also start together. Toone was ineffective against Portugal, and was replaced with Kelly at half-time, with James shifting infield into the No 10 position she has sometimes occupied for Chelsea. She was England’s brightest player in the second half that day, although Wiegman suggested her decision-making could be sharper.

G scores goals.

👌 @StanwayGeorgia pic.twitter.com/MB0dshTC80

— Lionesses (@Lionesses) July 20, 2023

Then there’s the situation up front.

Arguably, Russo and Daly both deserve to start, although Wiegman seems dead against using them together in a 4-4-2. Although clearly not the manager’s ideal formation, there is nevertheless an argument for a two-striker system considering the question mark hanging over the No 10 role.

If that’s not to be, though, Daly seems likely to get the nod over Russo. Last season’s WSL Golden Boot is one factor, but she’s also consistently looked good up front for England, particularly when attacking crosses with her head. Russo is perhaps superior in terms of link-up play, but Daly is the in-form player. She’s been handed the No 9 shirt too, significant both in terms of her position (centre-forward) and her status (Wiegman’s first choice).



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Of course, with Russo a very good backup, the question is how many more defensive injuries it would take before Daly is forced to play at full-back again. It appears unlikely, but it seems obvious England would be better with Daly at left-back and Russo up front, rather than, say, Charles at left-back and Daly up front, particularly in an attacking sense.

Perhaps the key, though, is that England have quality in reserve. Substitutes changed the game as last year’s quarter-final against Spain and the final against Germany both went to extra time. Russo and Kelly would have hoped to be first-teamers by now, but they will probably be asked to replicate last year’s super-sub roles.

Daly is the No 9 but may play left-back again (Photo: Naomi Baker – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

The fact that Wiegman isn’t sure about her starting XI a day before the opening game against Haiti doesn’t have to be disastrous. Yes, she used the same XI for all six games last summer, but on the eve of that tournament, Wiegman seemed set to use Williamson in midfield, before a late change of heart — hence the unusual sight of the Arsenal defender wearing No 8 while playing as a centre-back.

It’s impossible to avoid the reality: Wiegman’s England 2.0 are a different side because of necessity rather than evolution. But it’s worth remembering that last year’s success was a harmonious, egalitarian effort — a team in the truest sense of the word. It wasn’t reliant on one or two individuals, and was stronger than the sum of its parts.

Modern sport coverage invariably focuses on individuals rather than the collective. Mead and Williamson, the top goalscorer and the captain, dominated attention after last summer, getting the awards and the book deals.

But Wiegman doesn’t care about individuals. She cares about the team.

Triumphing at this World Cup without the two players who received most attention last year would be hugely impressive, and typical of the squad she has built.

(Top photo: Matt Roberts – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)