“There are moments in your career when you’re not at your best,” acknowledged Sarina Wiegman after England’s 2-1 quarter-final victory over Colombia in the Women’s World Cup. “But you can still perform at a high level of achievement, work hard, do your task and find a way to win.” It was a concise summary of England’s display.

Wiegman is still seeking the right attacking combination in Australia. Thus far, England’s forward play has been largely underwhelming, with the obvious exceptions of Lauren James’ moments of magic. The suspension for her red card against Nigeria being just two matches, rather than three, might yet be crucial in the outcome of this tournament.

The midfield balance, too, isn’t quite right. Keira Walsh is increasingly being marked out of games by opponents who realise how important she is to England’s build-up play, a problem exacerbated by the absence of playmaking centre-back Leah Williamson. Ella Toone, who returned here in place of James, has been out of form for a while and offered little in this game in Sydney.

But what England can unquestionably rely upon is their defence. Last year, they conceded just twice in six Euro 2022 matches, two of which went to extra time. This year, they have conceded just twice in five World Cup matches, one of which has gone to extra time. Keep it tight at the back, and you’ve got a good chance of going far in tournament football.

England did concede here, of course, thanks to Leicy Santos’ unlikely Ronaldinho-esque effort which sailed over Mary Earps and in. Their other concession in this tournament came from a penalty against China, for an innocuous Lucy Bronze handball, when the game was effectively already won.

This was different: England were behind, for the first time in the tournament. To their credit, they reacted well and equalised almost immediately. “I don’t think we were stressed,” said the eventful match-winner Alessia Russo afterwards. “It was just something we took in our stride… we were never panicked. These things happen in football. You’ve never going to be ahead in all the games.”

And as well as turning the match around, England limited Colombia to pot-shots from range or tight angles. Colombia had 15 shots here, five more than England. But seven of them were from outside the box. Six were from outside the width of the goal to the right, and one of the left. The only shot from what might be considered a good goalscoring position was Linda Caicedo’s in the 37th minute. She was under pressure, and the shot was blocked.

England have played two very different systems in this tournament: a back four for the first two matches, and a back three for the next three. They have sometimes been on the back foot: Nigeria found space in behind England’s wing-backs, while Colombia’s trickery in tight situations allowed them to attack with menace.

But England very rarely make mistakes at the back. Millie Bright, evidently not fit for the opener against Haiti, has recovered and perhaps only Wendie Renard in world football is better as an aerial defender. “You saw today, with Millie in the centre, with crosses and set pieces, she has a very important role,” said Wiegman afterwards, in response to a question about why she continued with the back three.

To Bright’s right, Jess Carter was seriously tested by the speed of Caicedo in the first half but remains an excellent one-on-one defender.

Carter and Bright are Chelsea team-mates (Mark Metcalfe – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

To the left, Alex Greenwood has probably been England’s most consistent defender, and after taking a bit of a battering from the bulldozer that is Mayra Ramirez in the first half, stepped up and gave Colombia’s No 9 a taste of her own medicine in the second.

The back three was supported ably by Bronze, who got back goalside of Caicedo when possible and defended very intelligently against her — usually standing off, preventing Caicedo from jinking past. She often slowed down to such an extent that the momentum was lost.

The question mark in this defensive unit is Rachel Daly. England’s concession came from a player dribbling up against her — which isn’t to say Daly did anything wrong, but opponents are more likely to funnel attacks down that side than against Bronze and Carter.

Daly’s defensive shortcomings were exposed at times last summer, particularly in those two games when England did concede against Spain and Germany. But she is, at least, a wing-back rather than a full-back here, with slightly less defensive responsibility. Greenwood, comfortable at left-back, can get out behind her to cover.

The obvious mitigation, of course, is that Daly is a No 9 at club level, and it’s hardly surprising that when placed in difficult defensive situations she sometimes struggles. In an attacking sense, she offers both a long-range goalscoring threat — she shot just over from well outside the box midway through the first half — and also a far-post aerial threat. That is the most underrated strength of this system going forward; Daly and Bronze are eternally arriving at the far post, which works well with Russo’s tendency to run to the near post. A switch towards Bronze played a part in Lauren Hemp’s opener, even if it relied on a dreadful goalkeeping error. The winner, scored by Russo, was courtesy of Daniela Arias’ error — not her first of the tournament.

Of the remaining four sides in this competition, England have the best defence. Spain looked incredibly porous in the 4-0 defeat to Japan and were also troubled by the speed of Lineth Beerensteyn in their 2-1 quarter-final win over the Netherlands. Australia were badly exposed by the speed of Nigeria’s counter-attacks in their 3-2 defeat and also defended crosses badly against Ireland.

Sweden are a little more solid, although left-back Jonna Andersson is in the side for her crossing rather than her defending, which remains suspect. At least her history playing alongside former Chelsea team-mate Magdalena Eriksson means there’s a good partnership in that zone.

But England are incredibly secure in a back four or a back five. They can probably count on the best goalkeeper too. In a knockout stage that has been tense and lacking in goals, England’s ability to keep it tight at the back might just win them the World Cup.

(Top photo: Getty Images)