The tactics England must employ to beat Spain in the Women’s World Cup final

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As the Lionesses prepare to take on Spain in the Women’s World Cup final, what can England do to take home the trophy for the first time in their history?

Sarina Wiegman says she’s “living a fairytale” and the rest of us, sat back home watching from the other side of the world, are in dream land. England will play their first senior World Cup final since 1966 on Sunday, and a new generation get the chance for their Geoff Hurst moment. But Spain still stand in the way, and have the chance to play the part of the Germans in 1990 and 1996 instead. This will not be an easy match.

The fact Spain have been so good – aside from the unexpected and unrepeated 4-0 thumping they took at the hands of the Japanese, anyway – is something of a surprise in its own right. It’s 11 months since 15 Spanish internationals mutinied in protest against their head coach Jorge Vildas, and just a few days since Alexia Putellas swiped away his handshake as she was subbed off in the semi-final against Sweden. This is a team who openly despise their own head coach. They have kept on winning anyway.

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This will be Sarina Wiegman’s second World Cup final as a coach - her Netherlands side lost the 2019 final to the USA.This will be Sarina Wiegman’s second World Cup final as a coach - her Netherlands side lost the 2019 final to the USA.
This will be Sarina Wiegman’s second World Cup final as a coach - her Netherlands side lost the 2019 final to the USA. | Getty Images

It’s also just 16 months since England and Spain met in the quarter-finals of Euro 2022 at the Amex Stadium in Brighton. England scraped it that day, of course, with Georgia Stanway’s stunning extra-time strike making the difference after a tense 1-1 draw in normal time. Spain edged possession and arguably the chances, but there was precious little to separate the two sides.

And while Spain have lost a dozen players since then to the strike – some who refused to be considered, some dropped, and three of their best players, Ona Batlle, Aitana Bonmatí, Mariona Caldentey, called up despite taking part – the core of the team remains, and they can call upon the services of Alexia, who was recovering from an ACL injury during the Euros. This is, as you’d expect from a World Cup finalist, a damned good team, and England, who have only just put together their first unequivocally good performance of the World Cup against Australia, are certainly up against it.

Should England change tack?

So the question becomes – how do England win? There’s a solid argument that England’s style under Wiegman so far this tournament may not work. Their game has been based largely on controlling possession and forcing their opponents to put the legwork in chasing the ball, but Spain are one of the few sides who can play keep-ball even better than England.

Vildas’ side have averaged nearly 72% possession in their six games at the World Cup so far, with their lowest being the 62% they enjoyed against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals. England, with their ball-playing back three and double pivot of Stanway and Keira Walsh, will likely push that number slightly closer to parity but cannot count on having anywhere near as much of the ball as they are accustomed to.

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There’s an argument that for England to play their normal, patient passing game would be to play to Spain’s strengths. They’re extremely well-organised at the back and tough to pass through, while going toe to toe with a midfield containing Bonmatí and Alexia is a gamble, to say the least, especially when Walsh hasn’t been running games quite as comfortably as she normally does.

Where Spain have shown a vulnerability is against the quick counter-attack. Spain complement their short passing game with a compact, high line, and Japan proved that the Iberians are at risk to direct balls over the top or through the gaps, with all four of their goals coming when they were able to get a women in behind. Spain had 78% possession in that game but still lost by four – and while the scale of the result may have been slightly freakish, it still signposted a way they can be beat. It wasn’t a fluke.

And England do have some pace up front, especially through Lauren Hemp, who was quite magnificent against the Matildas on Wednesday, but don’t usually aim to use it quite so directly. The long ball is not the modern English way – but perhaps it should be embraced come Sunday. Not necessarily as the sole gameplan, but as a string to their bow. They played Spain at their own game last year and won, but only just, and it may be leaving too much in the hands of fate to go that way again.

Should Lauren James play?

Of course, a very specific strategic question emerges now that Lauren James is available again after her red card for treading on Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie in the round of 16. From the moment she made her first start against Denmark, she had looked likely to be England’s key player in the tournament, the superstar stepping up in the enforced absence of Beth Mead – but England have arguably played better since her suspension.

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Partly that is due to England simply growing into the tournament and growing in self-belief after a slightly slow start, but partly it’s because the move to two strikers and a number ten has perhaps suited the team more – and Ella Toone, who hit the opener against Australia, is more experienced in a central creative role than James, who is better suited to working the flanks.

Lauren James will be available for the final following her two-match suspension.Lauren James will be available for the final following her two-match suspension.
Lauren James will be available for the final following her two-match suspension. | Getty Images

So if England stick to the plan which earned them their 3-1 win in Sydney, then it would be something of a risk to start with James – and arguably rather cruel on Toone, not that there’s much room for sentiment when you’re playing the biggest game in women’s football.

But if the Lionesses do want to switch it up and play in a slightly more direct way – or at least want to keep that possibility open – then bringing James straight back into the fold makes much more sense, not least because England would likely need to play with more width up front. A more typical front three with Russo as the spearhead and James and Hemp playing either side of her would maximise England’s chances of getting in behind quickly.

And however Wiegman decides to approach this game from a tactical point of view, it’s hard to make a case for excluding James when she was exuding star power in the group stages. Her five goal contributions against China showed what she’s capable of and what she’s doing for this England team. She should, surely, play.

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The bookies have Spain as favourites for the final, albeit by an extremely thin margin. The chances are that it will be a tight game between two tactically disciplined and technically impressive teams who like to get the ball down and play and who don’t take too many unnecessary risks. For all the stratagems going through the minds of the two managers, it wouldn’t be a shock if this game came down to one crucial error or, alternatively, one moment of brilliance. James can provide those moments in spades. Lauren James as the next Geoff Hurst? Well, why not?

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