BRIGHTON, England. There is something about this England team. They just don’t know when they’re being hit.
They were behind Spain for most of Wednesday’s Euro 2022 quarter-finals. But when the pressure ultimately proved too much for those in the red shirts and big moments presented themselves, England didn’t blink, eventually winning 2-1 after extra time.
You must run through the walls to defeat Spain. This was done by Millie Bright, Georgia Stanway, Kira Walsh and Lucy Bronze. If they were the ones poking around at the base of the red wall, then Stanway had torn it down.
Stanway led the entire game. She chased everything and everything in red, and she repeatedly raced through the middle of the field only to be knocked down. She tried and tried, and every time she was disappointed. But then the next opportunity came, so she tried again.
After Spain scored a goal in the 54th minute thanks to a superbly practiced series of seven passes, England tried everything: went under the Spanish defense, went through it and went around it. It didn’t work. And as the Spanish defense held on, it seemed that England’s game was over and Spain picked the perfect time to make their mark in the tournament.
But then followed by a double action by Alessia Russo and Ella Thun, who equalized in the 84th minute to go into extra time. And then came Stanway’s moment.
When she got the ball in the 97th minute, Stanway had done it before – almost the same at half-time, only to be fouled by Mapi Leon. But this time, with her legs on fire and the rollback slowing down, Stanway kept the ball and she kept going. She had runners heading left and right, and then she looked up. She had options, but she followed her intuition.
Sarina Wigman has been appointed manager of the England team to make important decisions. Tactically astute and with a winning pedigree, she was hired by the Football Association to make sure England had the best chance of winning the Euro at home. She’s on the touchline – someone who knows what it takes to win this tournament, she played for the Netherlands five years ago – but she rarely perks up. Behind the scenes, it is her individual conversations with the players that make such a difference in this group. They feel capable of making split-second decisions in the middle of a match, knowing their coach will back them up. She held back the pressure on the group; in the camp they talk about football, not about winning.
Stanway is just one of several who grew up under Wigman’s tutelage, but Stanway had a question mark over his head before he went to this tournament. For a long time, it looked like Leah Williamson would be playing the role of Stanway with Alex Greenwood at center back. But Wigman changed that a game and a half before the tournament to bring Williamson back and Stanway back into midfield. The manager trusted her own intuition and made a difficult choice.
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So when Stanway had options that got in the way of Spain’s goal, she knew that whatever decision she made in that split second would be the right one. And that’s when she scored the perfect winning goal, beating Sandra Panos from outside the penalty area; it was a moment of affirmation for Stanway, for the team, and for the culture Wigman created.
But it was a victory based on sheer tenacity and determination, and Bright epitomized that. She was outstanding as a centre-back – and as an impromptu centre-forward – as she headed, blocked, rebounded, outplayed and overcame anything and everything in her path. It was thanks to Bright and those who defended the England goal, such as the outstanding Mary Earps, Williamson, Stanway and Walsh, that they had the opportunity to get through this.
For most of the first 90 minutes, Spain had England’s number. It went according to script. They moved the ball much better, absorbed the ball and created chances. Despite England’s brief success early in the second half, it was no surprise that Spain took the lead.
Spain’s goal was wonderful. Dominating the first 45 minutes, the Spaniards survived England’s brief resurgence early in the second and then created one of the very few clear chances of the match. The tricky footwork of Athenea Del Castillo turned Rachel Daley inside out and her pass found Esther Gonzalez, who calmed down with one touch and then shot through the Earps gate and past Bright’s outstretched leg. It was a goal met with silence, and then followed by the response of the English crowd.
It was in those moments that Wigman’s experience sounded plausible. In the 90s, there were two key moments that turned the situation in favor of England. First, as the situation became more desperate, she made two daring series of substitutions, and between the 55th and 62nd minutes the appearance of Chloe Kelly, Russo and Thun made Spain rethink the situation.
Up to this point, the Spanish structure had allowed them to eliminate Lauren Hemp, Fran Kirby and Beth Mead from the game. Ellen White had to constantly run around dead ends, Kirby lived on leftovers, and two full-backs from Spain, Ona Batlle and Olga Carmona, controlled both flanks. With Aitana Bonmati dictating the pace in midfield and Marion Kaldentey playing brilliantly on the wing, it just didn’t work out for Wigman’s team. They were leaving, but they could not do anything in the Spanish half of the field.
The introduction of Toon, Russo and Kelly picked up the pace. But it took Wigman’s second big tactical decision in the 84th minute to break the Spaniards’ resolve. Wigman moved to the back three, temporarily shifting the outstanding Bright forward. We asked if England had a plan B, but it was more of a plan Q, but it worked.
Bright’s presence in Spain’s penalty area caused confusion and it gave Russo space to climb onto Irene Peredes’ shoulder to score a vital header and Thun completed the shot miraculously from close range. It was ugly—it shouldn’t be at times like this—but it was refreshing.
From there came extra time and Stanway’s winning moment to keep this show on track. But it was a different England than we’ve seen in previous matches under Wigman, especially this Euro. After the England goal we saw in the group stage – 14 goals, zero conceded – it was more like the first match against Austria, but on a different level.
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It was an England team that had to dig in, support each other and trust the collective ability of a team of 23 players. It required trust and speed, and then a drop of stardust from Stanway’s right foot.
On the whistle at the 124th minute, Wigman was already 10 meters from the field when the second explosion was heard. She went through all the emotions, in her own reserved way. But then came relief—and celebration. The reset should now take place.
England have two more matches to go at this Euro, but on Wednesday night they proved they could turn the tide in a knockout match and also have the smarts and cunning to pull the result out of the hat. This is the mindset of a champion.
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