Think of England v Spain and you instinctively imagine a clash of styles – the old-school English approach, all one-on-one and fast-forwarding the ball, against Spain’s technical quality and patience .
There will likely be evidence of that in Wednesday’s encounter at Brighton – Spain would be expected to dominate possession and England provide more speed during the break – but there is now more similarities than you think.
It is not a coincidence. Spain entered the tournament as many people’s favorites as they have many Barcelona players. Barcelona’s style has been shaped by Dutch influences, in particular Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, and it was a Dutch manager, Sarina Wiegman, who transformed England into something that largely resembles her Dutch team a while ago. five years.
As a result, England are actually quite similar to Spain – and can look to surpass them.
Throughout this tournament, Spain were disjointed and sorely lacked cohesion in the final third. Their 4-1 win over Finland was won largely on set pieces, their 2-0 loss to Germany was a classic example of possession without penetration and they just passed Denmark with a late winner, who only came after the Danes advanced because a draw was no better than a loss for them. In short, Spain don’t take down their opponents on a regular basis.
The comparison between Spain and Barcelona is inevitable given that eight of the 11 players who started against Denmark are Barcelona players or ex-Barcelona players, but realistically Jorge Vilda’s formations have not showed a lot of similarities to his previous starting XI, not to mention a typical Barcelona. side. He was deprived of the two players who finished first and second in the Ballon d’Or last season: Alexia Putellas and Jenni Hermoso. Replacing one or the other is not easy. Replacing the two is apparently impossible.
But Vilda desperately struggled to find a coherent system. He deployed Lucia Garcia, an Athletic Bilbao left winger, from the right in the first game and then up front for the next two. Mariona Caldentey played the first two games on the left, then moved to central midfield against Denmark. Patricia “Patri” Guijarro started the tournament in the starting role but was later moved to a No.8 position against Germany (as Vilda brought in Atletico Madrid’s usually centre-back Laia Aleixandri, at the base of midfield) before returning to the No.6 role against Denmark. If you’re having trouble understanding this, you might be feeling much the same as Vilda players.
Goalkeeper Sandra Panos and the four defenders are everywhere, but the only midfielder or striker to start all three group games in the same position is the exceptional Aitana Bonmati, player of the match against Denmark. Three players have been used in Putellas’ left midfield role, all unsuccessfully, but realistically it’s Bonmati who is essentially Spain’s best alternative to Putellas, playing a slightly more advanced role than usual at right of the midfield trio.
Bonmati can lead the game from deep and slip passes through the opposing midfield. Against Germany, this ball in Caldentey was sent around the corner for Garcia to pass on goal…
….and she is also running more and more behind the opposing defense. Spain often find themselves in this form, with the centre-forward – in this case Claudia Pina – falling short and the two No.8s overtaking her.
On this occasion, Patri sends the ball in the back for Caldentey, whose volley is saved, but Bonmati makes a similar run to the right.
Bonmati is of particular concern given the slightly unusual shape of England’s midfield in this tournament, which sits somewhere between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3. Keira Walsh is in the deepest midfield role, Georgia Stanway goes from a double pivot to become a box-to-box midfielder, and Fran Kirby has the freest role, as a hybrid of 10 and a left central midfielder.
Therefore, Kirby will – on paper – have some level of responsibility to manage Spain’s most creative outlet, a difficult task for a mainly attacking player, but England should be more comfortable when passing. to a 4-2-3-1 without possession.
This allows Walsh to deal with Bonmati when she wanders into attacking positions and as Spain often attack with a front five, England can often defend with a strong defensive block of six.
But that doesn’t have to be a negative display. When England faced the United States in the 2019 World Cup, it looked like England needed to be reactive to stand a chance. Phil Neville essentially omitted Kirby to play Rachel Daly in a defensive-minded midfielder role meant to combat the threat of Megan Rapinoe (which didn’t really start anyway). It was negative, but England were the underdog, and there was some logic in accepting that shamelessly.
Now England are good enough to focus on how they could hurt Spain. Two avenues are particularly promising.
The first comes from pressing high. Goalkeeper Panos, normally excellent with her feet, made a fatal error as she fed the ball straight to German striker Klara Buhl in the third minute of her team’s second group game, giving Germany the initiative and putting thus ending Spain’s chances of dominating the group.
Ellen White, meanwhile, was excellent at regaining possession to directly create goal-scoring chances, doing so against Austria to slip past Kirby to kick off Lauren Hemp…
…and, against Norway, helping Beth Mead dispossess Maria Thorisdottir before slipping home for England’s third.
The trio of Panos and centre-backs Mapi Leon and Irene Paredes is a Barca-based combination that Vilda has left untouched. They probably won’t slide as dramatically anymore, but Spain started the matches nervously. In front of a raucous local crowd at the Amex, a simple closing can force mistakes.
Secondly, although England’s star has so far been right-winger Mead, it’s Hemp on the opposite side who could prove England’s key weapon here. Spanish right-back Ona Batlle is usually a solid defender for Manchester United, but Hemp was taken out by Hemp in Manchester’s derbies last season, particularly in the first 45 minutes of City’s 1-0 win over United in February.
Hemp got him into trouble in different ways.
There were the classic one-on-one duels. Here, Hemp could beat Batlle for speed…
…and when the right-back got too tight, Hemp could spin her before crossing.
And eventually, Batlle stopped constricting and ended up in awkward middle positions. This opened a space in the channel for Stanway to burst into…
…which are exactly the type of moves England are playing in this tournament, but with Kirby in the inside left role and Stanway on the other side.
But a more significant feature was that Batlle found himself unable to cope with Hemp’s movement to goalscoring positions when Manchester City crossed the ball from the opposite flank. This happened three times and led to Hemp tilting the ball over the bar when he came up with an open goal…
…then loop a header just above…
… then moving towards the goalkeeper: his England colleague Mary Earps.
And those goal runs have been a key feature of Hemp’s performances in this tournament, particularly when she scored England’s second goal against Norway through Mead’s assist.
And so, while the battle between Hemp and Batlle looks promising for England – especially as Denmark have managed to get around the Spanish right-back on a couple of occasions – that doesn’t necessarily mean England need to channel their attacks to that side. Hemp can finish moves as well as start them.
Of course, England cannot afford to be complacent. Spain have been disappointing so far but remain the toughest team to face in the quarter-finals. Arguably, no other team in this competition can hold onto the ball like they can and the England defense will face a much tougher test than they faced in the group stage.
Still, England enter Wednesday’s quarter-finals as favorites and the two key features of their game so far – pressing high up the pitch and playing wide – could see them beat Spain. at his own game.