ADELAIDE, Australia — This evening was great for England. They were missing Keira Walsh, playing in a new 3-5-2 formation, and coach Sarina Wiegman had made more changes than she ever had in a major tournament. But even though the sand was shifting, they were still in charge as they beat China 6-1 to move on to the round of 16 at the Women’s World Cup.
Wiegman usually doesn’t talk about specific players, but in a game where so many people did great things, it’s hard not to mention how excellent Lauren James was. She was a key part of five of England’s goals—she scored two and set up three others.
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She was replaced with 10 minutes left, and the applause and cheers were as loud as any heard on a cold night in Adelaide. Her smile said it all. James said after the game, “It’s what dreams are made of.” “Everyone is excited and happy for the team.”
When asked about moving to the No. 10 spot for this match, she added: “I had no limits. I’m happy to play and help score goals on the wing or in the middle.”
But this wasn’t about each person’s role; it was about breaking down the group as a whole. China couldn’t get near England, and they even had to pull Alessia Russo’s hair to get close. That was the only way they could touch her at one point because she and the rest of the Lionesses had run circles around China in the first half, using perfect passing triangles and wide wing play to get around the low block they were up against. England’s six goals, which showed how many different ways they could attack, did not make this performance look better. After two 1-0 wins that were nerve-wracking and sometimes uncomfortable, this was the complete opposite. It showed that England had arrived at the World Cup and was making its mark.
China didn’t have the strength to beat England, and in the first few matches, they were far too passive. This made England’s attack possible by spreading the ball wide and going for the middle as China’s 4-3-3 was moved out of place. Wiegman set up a 3-5-2, which was a 3-4-1-2 in attack. Their back three controlled the field, and Lucy Bronze and Rachel Daly could move around on the wings.
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Jess Carter sitting down, let Alex Greenwood and Millie Bright carry the ball out from the back. With a bigger field in front of them, they could either pass the ball to the wings or move it forward to Katie Zelem and Georgia Stanway. James was a No. 10 when attacking and a No. 8 when defending. Russo and Lauren Hemp were in the front. It was a formation that could change quickly, like a chameleon. This allowed England to move pressure from the sides to the middle in the blink of an eye.
Wiegman said, “When we talked about how we wanted to change, everyone agreed immediately, and you could see that on the field.” “We could press hard, but we also found a way to play the possession game well, which was great. The team showed how well we can change.”
Before the game, there were doubts about how well England would do without Walsh. In short, she can’t be replaced, and the fact that the formation is always changing shows her importance. Zelem was the go-to player to start play from the back, and Stanway was the player who moved the ball forward, but the two switched places in that pivot role. It made James much more important than when he fought Denmark, and the result was deadly.
Russo got England going in the fourth minute by starting and finishing a move. She worked hard down the left side, and James set her up for a shot on the turn, which she scored. In the 26th minute, Hemp scored England’s second goal when she ran onto James’s through ball for a simple finish. But then Alex Greenwood’s free-kick found James on the edge of the box, and she curled the ball past the goalkeeper to give England a 3-0 lead. According to FIFA, the technology inside the match ball showed that James’s first goal had the most spin of any goal at this tournament: 14.62 rotations per second. James could have scored another before halftime and maybe should have, but the referee didn’t let him because Bronze was offside, even though it was in the second phase of play.
Since Wiegman was ahead, he could switch out Stanway for Laura Coombs at halftime. If she got another one, Stanway was one yellow card away from missing their round-of-16 match. China got one back after a VAR handball call against Bronze led to a penalty, but England didn’t let up on the gas. James scored England’s fourth goal with a brilliant cushioned volley into the far corner of China’s net. She then set up substitute Chloe Kelly to score England’s fifth goal with a through ball that confused the China goalkeeper and left Kelly with an empty net to shoot into. Rachel Daly added England’s sixth goal with a firm volley from close range.
It wasn’t kind and mean but a sign that England had arrived in Australia. The team thought some of the reactions to their first two 1-0 wins were unfair. In those games, they had some tense moments. Goalkeeper Mary Earps saved them late against Haiti, and a post saved them against Denmark. This was their response.
James was the most essential player, but you could point out what each player on the field did to help win. Above all, it was a match where players who needed to get back into form did so. Bright, the captain, led from the back, and Hemp and Russo scored goals after long waits. Russo’s last England goal was against South Korea in February, and Hemp’s was against the USWNT in October.
England will now focus on Nigeria on August 7 in Brisbane, but for now, they will enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done. “Sweet Caroline” has been played at the end of their last two games. The team did what they always did when they played Haiti and Denmark and huddled together while the music played loudly. They stood still as they listened to Wiegman and the other leaders. But when they came together in the middle of the field against China, Neil Diamond’s “Good Times Never Felt So Good” was playing in the background, and a few of them started jumping up and down, it was a sign that they were back in their groove.