Tom Hamilton, Senior WriterAug 8, 2023, 06:40 AM ET


• Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018

SYDNEY – As the penalty shootout was about to get under way, the England players stood in a line together just in front of the halfway line. Nigeria had made them wait, taking an extra minute or so to group. But England were focused, anchored in what they call “the process.”

It was muscle memory to position themselves there, slightly in advance of the opposition, standing shoulder-to-shoulder as a collective unit, just like they’d prepared for in these circumstances. Those taking their penalties took a couple of extra seconds to compose themselves before running up, remembering the advice they’d been given. Lucy Bronze stood to the right of the England line, waving her right arm, seemingly to try to catch the eye of Nigeria goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie. Mary Earps, the England keeper, stared back at her teammates from the goal line, communicating through fist pumps and nods.

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The Nigeria players were a bit more disjointed – two were on the ground, a couple stood forward of the halfway line, a few stood further back.

When Georgia Stanway missed the first penalty, England’s players came together. When Chloe Kelly scored hers, the group ran en masse towards her, save Rachel Daly who’d already sprinted half the pitch by the time Kelly’s shot ripped into the back of Nigeria’s net.

It was all planned, every eventuality of a penalty shootout neatly mapped out; from the iPad showing Earps where Nigeria’s penalty takers had previously aimed, down to the running order the players knew. The team spoke of “the process” that was established before the Euros, but didn’t need penalties there. They had the experience of the Finalissima in April and came through that, beating Brazil 4-2 on spot kicks after a 1-1 draw.

“We have talked about the psychology of a penalty and we have talked about the execution of a penalty, and then of course in this moment this is the hardest pressure, when you have to take a penalty in front of 45,000 people,” England coach Sarina Wiegman said. “The consequences of missing or score, it’s huge.

“So we have talked about that psychology as individuals and as a team. We just tried to prepare as good as possible. And yes, body language is one of them. And also supporting each other, we stand with each other. They stuck together.”

Bar the Stanway miss it all went to plan, as England went through 4-2 with Kelly scoring the decisive spot kick. It was one of the few aspects of the match where England looked like the England of last summer.

As England now prepare for their Women’s World Cup quarterfinal against Colombia on Saturday, Wiegman again has to shuffle the pack. On the day she welcomed Keira Walsh back into the starting XI, a couple of hours later she was planning for life without Lauren James after she was shown a red card for stepping on Michelle Alozie’s back.

Last summer they had the luxury of naming an unchanged XI through their triumphant Euros campaign. This summer is altogether very different but, in a weird sort of way, you imagine that Wiegman is relishing this challenge.

“I have never experienced so many problems [at a tournament],” Wiegman said. “But of course that’s my job to think of things that can happen in a game, or in a tournament, or ahead of a tournament, so you try to turn every stone and already think of the solution before it happens and today we got totally tested on those stones.”

Whether she’d planned for one of her star players getting a needless red card is another thing, but it’s another hurdle for Wiegman to overcome. And there are other stones she needs to turn.

England’s performance against Nigeria was poor. They were second best in many areas of the pitch, and needed Earps to come to the rescue with a couple of key saves.

Daly had England’s best chance as she had a powerful header well saved by Nnadozie, but clear-cut chances were few and far between. Though Nigeria are playing well above their FIFA World Ranking of 40th, England would have hoped for a better xG return than 0.9, compared to the 1.2 of Nigeria, who hit the bar twice.

England need to solve this ahead of a quarterfinal match where we may see Wiegman revert to the 4-2-3-1 system that served her so well during the Euros. The 3-5-2 against Nigeria gave the Super Falcons license to attack in behind England’s full-backs. Walsh, who played admirably on her return, wasn’t as effective in front of a back three as when the pivot in front of a two.

Though England’s players swiped away any notion of having the United States’ shootout exit at the back of their minds as they headed into penalties, they will be aware that as the tournament progresses, they will need to solve their profligacy in front of goal. Either their 6-1 group stage win over China was an outlier, or it’s the level they need to rediscover ahead of the last eight.

To do that they need to get the best out of Alessia Russo or look to alternatives like shifting Daly back to striker or giving Beth England a start. The Daly option would mean they lose her as a left-back option, meaning Alex Greenwood would most likely shift there away from centre-back, but given Daly has been England’s best performer and her distribution from the back so key, Wiegman would be loathe to disrupt that. Tottenham Hotspur striker England has played well off the bench, but hasn’t featured much from the outset under Wiegman, starting just three of her 36 matches in charge.



Lawson: A moment of absolute idiocy from Lauren James

Sophie Lawson reacts to Lauren James’ red card for a stamp on Michelle Alozie.

There’s also the No. 10 dilemma: they need to find a solution to James’ absence, which could be through to the end of the tournament if she’s handed a three-match ban. They could select Ella Toone, or play Katie Zelem further forward, or alternatively play Lauren Hemp through the middle.

So while Wiegman is turning the stones, one of the few things she can rely on with certainty is their on-field togetherness. You could see that play out even as James was sent off in the 87th minute, if anything it caused them to play with more discipline, leading to fewer errors. Millie Bright was indispensable in that, barely putting a foot wrong as she headed away anything and everything that came her way.

England have to improve if they are to win the competition, but Wiegman is in her comfort zone in this situation. That’s what happens when you have a remarkable record in big tournaments like she does: winners at the 2017 Euros and finalists in 2019 World Cup with Netherlands, then winners at Euro 2022 with England. This World Cup? Well it’s the most unpredictable yet for Wiegman but as England stood collectively through that penalty shootout, it was indicative of their raison d’etre at this World Cup.

“I’m really proud of the team,” Wiegman said. “We’ve had many setbacks and this was a big one too – so as soon as it looked like Lauren James was sent off, straight away, we had to reorganise and do something else on the pitch.

“We didn’t need a minute to do so. Of course, the players got really tired but we really stuck together and showed a lot of resilience. And then to be so tired, to go into a penalty shootout and do so well, I think that’s incredible from the team.”