Keira Walsh injury: How can England replace key midfielder in next World Cup game?

Keira Walsh on crutches in the 1-0 win over Denmark
Keira Walsh was taken off on a stretcher after 38 minutes against Denmark and returned to the dugout on crutches

When Keira Walsh went down clutching her knee during England’s Women’s World Cup win over Denmark last Friday, you could have heard a pin drop inside the stadium in Sydney.

Fears she may have suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury were quashed by subsequent scans but the seriousness of her injury is still unclear.

The 26-year-old, who played all but four minutes of England’s successful Euro 2022 campaign, is widely regarded as one of the best midfielders in the world – but she will not be available for the Lionesses’ final group game against China in Adelaide on Tuesday.

“How do you fill the shoes of someone like Keira Walsh?” former England goalkeeper Karen Bardsley told BBC Radio 5 Live.

“She is essentially the link. She brings others into play and [chances that] typically end in a goal or a shot on target come through Keira Walsh.”

Having lost Walsh for at least one game, what are Sarina Wiegman’s options to replace her in midfield?

‘People underestimate Laura Coombs’

Laura Coombs
Laura Coombs had not played for England for eight years until a return in 2023

Manchester City’s Laura Coombs came on for Walsh against Denmark to earn her sixth international cap, and could be an option.

Walsh is a holding midfield specialist who dictates play from a deep role but when Coombs came on, she played in a more advanced role. That meant regular starter Georgia Stanway dropped further back from her usual more attacking position.

A year ago, Coombs was barely on England’s radar, having not played for her country since 2015. Yet now the 32-year-old, the oldest member of the Lionesses squad at the tournament, could fill one of the most important positions on the pitch.

She certainly has the support of her team-mates, with Rachel Daly describing her substitute performance against Denmark as “phenomenal”.

Striker Bethany England added: “Coombs is an experienced player. Maybe people underestimate her at this level but I thought she did fantastic coming in for Keira.

“She held the ball up well, linked well, settled straight into the game and it didn’t look like we were missing anything.”

Coombs helped drag England to a second win in two matches in Australia by doing the simple stuff well.

In the past two seasons at Manchester City she has played a crucial role, helping to retain possession and bring their creative stars into play. She is reliable and composed in possession, which could prove valuable for England.

Will Wiegman opt for experience?

Jordan Nobbs
Only Alex Greenwood and Lucy Bronze have more caps for England in the current squad than Jordan Nobbs

Wiegman’s squad is relatively inexperienced – only seven players here went to the 2019 World Cup, including goalkeeper Mary Earps who was an unused substitute, while just seven of the 23 players have picked up more than 50 caps.

With Walsh missing, Wiegman has lost a leader. She could opt for international experience.

Aston Villa midfielder Jordan Nobbs is a creative, attack-minded player, so is not a direct replacement for Walsh but she is a former England vice-captain, with 71 caps, and is at her fourth major tournament.

She could come in as a number eight but that would mean dropping Stanway, arguably England’s best performer in their opening match, back to a holding role where she may not be as a effective.

Could Zelem be England’s pivot player?

Katie Zelem
Katie Zelem had a good season with Manchester United as they finished runners-up in the Women’s Super League

Another option is Manchester United captain Katie Zelem.

She fought off competition from Aston Villa’s Lucy Staniforth to make the squad, having been edged out of the final 23-player selection for Euro 2022.

Zelem has made just eight appearances for England and has largely been out of favour with Wiegman but she is used to being a pivot player for her club in the Women’s Super League.

Like Walsh, Zelem is someone who connects the defence to the attack and switches play effectively. She has a good passing range and is a set-piece specialist, which could be an additional weapon.

But given Walsh’s unique quality on the ball and her ability to find spaces, England may find it hard to replace her with a straight swap.

They may be forced to change formation from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-1-3 with two holding midfielders doing Walsh’s job, leaving either Ella Toone or Lauren James to be creative as a number 10.

Either way, England’s squad depth will be tested.

“It’s about the 23 players we have here and utilising every single one of us on and off the pitch,” said winger Chloe Kelly.

“It’s important we are all ready to play. It will be an opportunity for someone else.”

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