It was not to be. The Lionesses experienced the agony of losing in the Women’s World Cup final as they succumbed to Spain 1-0. The 57-year wait for a senior England side to once again become world champions goes on.
After Sarina Wiegman’s England triumphed at last year’s home Euros, confidence was high going into this final.
The off-field issues affecting the Spanish team were well-documented — 15 players withdrew from international selection less than a year ago in objection to manager Jorge Vilda’s methods, and only three returned for this World Cup amid rumours that the rift has not entirely healed.
As expected, Spain dominated the ball and pressed England high in the first half, forcing the Lionesses to go more direct. After a fairly open start where both sides went close to an opener — Lauren Hemp hitting the bar for England — Spain’s dominance began to tell.
They took the lead in the 29th minute through Olga Carmona’s angled shot before England survived several other first-half scares. Despite Mary Earps’ penalty save from Jenni Hermoso midway through the second half, England could not find an equaliser.
The Athletic’s Jacob Whitehead, Tomas Hill Lopez-Menchero and Mark Carey break down the key moments of a tense final at Stadium Australia.
Wiegman’s tactical gamble
Going into the final, Wiegman’s main tactical decision was whether to start Ella Toone or James at No 10.
James starred in her three starts — scoring three goals and providing three assists — but was sent off for a stamp against Nigeria, and was banned until the final. Toone, at 23, is only two years older than James but has significantly more top-level experience. Despite her indifferent form over the last year, Toone repaid Wiegman’s trust with the opening goal against Australia in the semi-final.
Toone started the final quietly, but that was not necessarily a surprise — her trademark is to press relentlessly and burst into the box late. When England do not dominate possession, she can often seem peripheral in attack.
Toone had a quiet game for England (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
That said, she missed a chance towards the end of the first half — and though she was later ruled offside, it did show a lack of sharpness. She was also slightly culpable for Lucy Bronze being dispossessed for Spain’s opening goal, sitting on her heels rather than offering an option.
Wiegman had a reputation for resisting changes — until this World Cup, where the former Netherlands manager made more tactical tweaks than her previous three major tournaments put together. In the final, she made one of her most significant.
Rather than replace Toone at half-time, she chose to bring on James for Russo, also swapping Daly with Kelly. It led to a system change — 4-2-3-1. This is the same formation with which England started the game against Denmark, before Walsh’s injury, with James on the left and Toone central.
England’s width was now more unrestrained by defensive duties, with Kelly finding space on the right to whip crosses in. It was perhaps surprising that converted winger Hemp stayed as the spearhead rather than Russo — but after 50 minutes, the Manchester City forward had taken all four of England’s shots.
Ultimately, however, the change was not enough to force an equaliser.
Carmona comes up trumps again
Carmona has only scored three goals for Spain — but two of those have come on the biggest stage.
Carmona’s 89th-minute effort against Sweden sent her side through to their first Women’s World Cup final, but this one was even better. It started with a fine cross-field pass from Teresa Abelleira to Mariona Caldentey, before the Barcelona forward laid off expertly for Carmona. Spain’s left-back and captain drilled home a perfect finish that left Earps with no chance.
Carmona’s finish past Earps was inch-perfect (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
The Real Madrid defender was a constant threat down the left-hand side and her link-up play with Caldentey proved difficult for England to handle. Her goal also meant she became the second-youngest player to score in the semi-final and final of a single Women’s World Cup, behind Alex Morgan of the U.S.
23 – Aged 23 years and 69 days, Olga Carmona is the second-youngest player to score in both the semi-final and final of a single edition of a FIFA Women’s World Cup tournament, behind only Alex Morgan in 2011 (22y 15d). Example. pic.twitter.com/62tVwa4z34
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 20, 2023
At 23, she has ensured her name will go down in Spanish football history.
Tomas Hill Lopez-Menchero
England going long
Realistically, we all knew how the game would pan out in Sydney.
Spain would dominate possession and England would go extended periods without the ball. This game hinged on what Wiegman’s side did with it when they had it.
Given Spain’s approach, England’s share of balls that went long — defined as passes of 35 yards or more — was unsurprisingly their highest (16 per cent) of the tournament. This was either through counter-attacking play after recovering the ball or from bypassing the midfield where Spain’s key strength lay.
However, the difficulty of going more direct is that there can often be a gap between the forward players and their supporting team-mates to catch up behind them. England did have some good counter-attacking opportunities that were snuffed out by Spain’s defence in the first half, as Hemp and Russo were outnumbered in advanced areas.
Bronze key in penalty miss
It would have been the cruellest way to concede in a World Cup final.
As Caldentey drove past Keira Walsh in the penalty area, Walsh’s outstretched arm — used partially as balance, partially to check Caldentey’s run — made contact with the ball as it flicked past her.
We can debate the award of the spot kick and the long VAR discussion to reach their conclusion, but penalty was the decision.
England were helpless to change the outcome, but Bronze ensured that she did as much as she could to influence proceedings as Hermoso stepped up.
Bronze stayed near the penalty spot to query Hermoso’s positioning of the ball on it, forcing the Spanish midfielder to move the ball before taking her kick.
Bronze disrupted Hermoso’s rhythm before the penalty (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
It was excellent mind games from Bronze — just as she has done earlier in the tournament during England’s penalty shootout against Nigeria.
“Lucy will do whatever she wants, whatever it takes to win,” Earps told The Athletic earlier this year. “We’re both not shy. If we can get an edge in any way then we’ll do it.”
Research has shown there is a temporal link between a penalty being awarded and being subsequently taken — a longer duration between the two means the taker is less likely to score.
Earps guessed correctly and kept England in the game after Hermoso’s well-struck penalty went low to the goalkeeper’s left — but Bronze must also be given credit for her role in the chaotic five minutes.
Spain’s success has everything to do with their youth setup
For Spain to have made it to the World Cup final was remarkable given the off-the-pitch issues they have contended with over the last year.
To win it seemed more like a miracle — but this Spain side’s victory is down to continued success at youth level. Under-pressure head coach Vilda proved his mettle by guiding his team to glory, but this result speaks to the talent coming through at all age levels for La Roja.
They are the reigning champions in the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups, both of which they won last year. Salma Paralluelo scored twice in the Under-20 final against Japan and has been a revelation this past month, even if she was slightly subdued in the final.
Paralluelo has impressed for Spain (Richard Callis/MB Media/Getty Images)
Spain did it the hard way — overcoming protest, their heaviest defeat since 2011 against Japan and, finally, a stubborn England team to emerge victorious. But spare a thought for world-class players such as Sandra Panos, Mapi Leon and Patri Guijarro — all of whom were part of the 15 players who called for change in the national setup and none of whom were present for this crowning win.
Tomas Hill Lopez-Menchero
What next for England?
In a way, it is striking that England made the final with such a transitional side. This team made the showpiece despite the retirement of top-scorer Ellen White after the Euros, and after injuries to Leah Williamson, Beth Mead, and Fran Kirby.
The majority of the starting XI will be available to play at the next European Championship in Switzerland in 2025. The main question marks are over the full-backs.
Rachel Daly and Lucy Bronze will be 33 at that tournament, playing in a position where athleticism is so vital. Though Daly is a striker by trade, Russo appears to have stamped her name on the starting jersey.
England’s other eight starting outfielders in the final were all under 30. With nearly half of England’s squad 24 years old or younger, this side has every chance of making three consecutive appearances in major tournament finals.
Wiegman’s contract does not expire until after 2025, and though there will be undoubted interest in her assistant Arjan Veurink, both are set to stay in charge.
“I’m with England, I’m really happy with England and I have a contract until 2025,” she said on Friday.
The Lionesses will come again.
(Top photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)