England will play in a World Cup final for the first time since 1966 after the Lionesses beat co-hosts Australia 3-1 in Sydney.

Goals from Ella Toone, Lauren Hemp and Alessia Russo overcame a Sam Kerr wonderstrike — giving the Lionesses the chance to become just the second side ever to hold both the World Cup and European Championship trophies.

Both England and Australia had come through tough quarter-final ties, with Australia prevailing in an epic penalty shootout against France while England fought back from a goal down to overcome a resilient Colombia 2-1.

Australia, the last team to beat England when they ended their 30-match unbeaten run in April, went in behind at half-time, trailing to Toone’s composed finish.

With England handling both the occasion and possession, Australia needed something — and got it through Kerr, on her return to the starting line-up, when she produced one of the moments of the tournament with a spectacular long-range equaliser. But, as against Colombia, England dug deep and found a way when Hemp pounced on some hesitant defending to restore the lead.

With the Matildas pouring forward, Hemp’s clever reverse pass found her strike partner Russo — and the Arsenal striker stayed calm to send England into the final.

The Athletic ’s Jacob Whitehead is joined by football tactics writer Liam Tharme and data analyst Mark Carey to analyse a superb semi-final at Stadium Australia.

Toone leaves Wiegman with one final headache

Two weeks ago, Ella Toone’s future in England’s starting XI looked in serious doubt.

Dropped after a spell of indifferent performances at both club and international level, Chelsea’s Lauren James was called up in her place — and scored three goals and provided three assists in just three World Cup starts. Though her approach has changed somewhat this tournament, Sarina Wiegman is still famously resistant to changing a winning team.

Toone’s reprieve came when Wiegman was forced to make a change. James’ red card after rashly treading on Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie left Toone as the only available No 10 in the squad — leading to an instant return against Colombia in the quarter-final.

She was quiet again in that match — but showed against Australia why she has a reputation as a big-game player. After her opener in the 36th minute, Toone has now scored in the quarter-final, semi-final, and final of major tournaments.

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Her goal came through link-up play with best friend Russo — with Hemp cleverly stepping over the cutback — leaving Toone clear to curl it into the top corner. The most encouraging aspect was that it came through one of Toone’s trademark bursts into the box — runs which have been few and far between as she has searched for form and confidence.

But with James’ suspension now complete, England have a decision to make for the final. Wiegman has used 3-4-1-2 for the last four fixtures and it would be a shock if she changed it now. Though both James and Toone could be accommodated in England’s 4-3-3 (with both featuring against Denmark in the second group game), there is only space for one of them in the new system.

Despite James’ red card and Toone’s goal on Wednesday evening, the former has still had the better tournament. But Toone has now repaid Wiegman’s trust in a way that James has not. Who will the manager opt for?

Jacob Whitehead

England’s aggression

“It’s the semi-final of a World Cup — you want that environment, you want it to be tense, you want it to be noisy,” said England captain Millie Bright pre-match.

Any concerns that England were not up to the occasion were quashed inside the opening 40 seconds when Keira Walsh clattered into Kerr as Australia looked to transition. That foul could well have been accidental, but the one from Alex Greenwood, also on Kerr, nine minutes later was not. Australia tried to counter-attack after England lost possession in the final third, with the wing-backs advanced, and Greenwood scythed the No 9 down.

Despite dominating possession (67 per cent) England made nine first-half fouls, with three on Kerr, and Australia made just one. That was more in the first half alone than in the total of England’s last four games at this tournament. In order: five vs Colombia; six vs Nigeria; eight vs China; seven vs Denmark. The 17 against Haiti in the opening game is the outlier, a match where Wiegman admitted that England “struggled” with their opponent’s transitional style.

England were smart rather than cynical with their fouls, pushing both wing-backs up when pressing high — to pressurise Australia’s full-backs — but also in possession, which put them in a position to counter-press, and became a necessity given the space they left in behind for Australia’s 4-4-2 to counter-attack into.

This England team continues to find ways to nullify opposition strengths.

Liam Tharme

England exert control

The plan was clear within the first five minutes.

After England regained possession in their own half, there was an opportunity to push forward at speed and catch Australia out of shape. Instead came a simple pass back to Bright, commanding the centre of defence, to recycle possession and start again.

This was effective from England for two key reasons. The first was that it settled down the crowd — and the players — to maintain control of the tie, and not allow Australia to build any momentum in the game, particularly in the first half.

The second was that it ensured England were structurally in a good shape as they built through the thirds, wary of the counter-attacking threat Australia could pose.

Coming into the tie, no country had logged more direct attacks — which are possessions that start in a team’s defensive half and result in a shot or touch inside the opposition penalty area within 15 seconds — than Australia.

How do you prevent those counter-attacks? Starve the opponent of the ball, control the tempo of the game, and have a good defensive structure to sniff out any danger when you do lose possession.

It was a counter-attacking sequence from Australia that resulted in Kerr rocketing a shot into the top corner. England knew what the Matildas’ threat was, and it was a clear tactic throughout to try to blunt them for as long as they could.

Mark Carey

The Sam Kerr Effect

Twenty-seven days after Australia’s opening game against the Republic of Ireland, Kerr finally made her first start in the tournament. Never before has the condition of a calf muscle been a national obsession.

Kerr’s goalscoring ability often obscures how well she does the basics. Her aerial presence is outstanding — winning multiple flick-ons early in the game, with Mary Fowler the perfect second-striking option to collect those headers.

Her and Fowler also combined to sandwich England midfielder Walsh — reprising the roles they played so effectively in April’s friendly win over the Lionesses — though Wiegman’s side did well to circulate the ball around this central clot.

Nevertheless, her danger was always apparent — look at Greenwood scything her down 80 yards from goal.

For the most part, Kerr’s Chelsea team-mate Jess Carter dealt with her well, but after England gave the ball away cheaply on the hour mark, Bright was left one-v-one. Kerr drove forward — and shot early, her 30-yard strike taking the faintest nick off the centre-back before sailing into the top corner of Mary Earps’ goal.

Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

This tournament could have ended without a Sam Kerr Moment. With scarcely 30 minutes left to find one, the game’s best striker delivered. With the score at 2-1, Kerr had the opportunity to equalise with a flicked header, but uncharacteristically looped it over the bar. Australia would not have another chance.


England are resilient — again

No country ever has it their own way across the course of a whole tournament.

There will be setbacks, controversy, disappointment. England’s Lionesses have had all of the above and still managed to come out on top as they booked their place in their first World Cup final.

Losing your key player to a red card in normal time against a stubborn Nigeria side? No problem. Keep it tight and win on penalties.

Going behind to a strong Colombia side with the crowd behind them? Stay calm, get the equaliser and grab the winner in the second half.

“I don’t think we were stressed,” said Russo after that game. “It was just something we took in our stride — we were never panicked. These things happen in football. You’re never going to be ahead in all the games.”

England were similarly undeterred in their semi-final clash. Despite dominating the play for long periods, the sucker punch of Kerr’s incredible long-range goal sparked Stadium Australia into life. England could have cowered, but instead they answered with a left hook themselves — or rather left foot — from Hemp to make it 2-1, before adding gloss to the scoreline with a Russo finish in the 86th minute.

Just as they showed in their charge to victory in last summer’s European Championships, there is a resilience to Wiegman’s side to match their technical and tactical quality.

The sign of champions, you might say.


(Top photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)