In Pythagorean numerology the number eight represents victory, prosperity and an ability to overcome adversity. Given such associations it seems appropriate that players deployed in the box-to-box central midfield role known as the No 8 position often hold the key to winning football matches.
The bad news for Sarina Wiegman is that, immensely impressive as her England team have looked during their canter towards the Euro 2022 quarter-finals, their principal potential weak link is sited alongside the Lionesses’s midfield anchor, Keira Walsh. In other words, Wiegman lacks a suitable Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard equivalent.
Although Leah Williamson wears the No 8 shirt – not that squad numbers necessarily equate with actual positions these days – the Arsenal defender is a natural centre-half and has been deployed in that role by Wiegman during these Euros. Perhaps significantly, England’s manager fielded Williamson alongside Walsh for some months before experiencing a last-minute change of heart and relocating her captain to the rearguard.
That pleased those critics who believed it unnecessary for the Lionesses to field a double 6 pivot, with both players sometimes prone to duplicating each other’s jobs. Moreover Williamson’s reversion to the rearguard created room to accommodate the talented Georgia Stanway, newly recruited by Bayern Munich, in midfield.
The only problem is that Stanway’s preferred position is the No 10 role just behind the central striker, which is currently filled by the Lionesses’ brilliant attacking playmaker Fran Kirby.
Stanway has shone in a box-to-box capacity during the group stage but she harbours a certain penchant for cheap concessions of possession against high-calibre opponents and tackling hasn’t always been the forte of a player who started out as a striker.
It was not for nothing that, on the eve of the tournament, Fara Williams, one of England’s finest all-time midfielders, described her former domain as “one of our weaker areas”. One solution would be the reintroduction of Jill Scott, a natural No 8, to that department, but Scott is 35 now, spent last season at struggling Aston Villa on loan from Manchester City and is arguably best used as a substitute. A player described as “socially intelligent” by Wiegman excels at building dressing-room camaraderie but possibly needs her on pitch minutes rationing.
Indeed had Arsenal’s Jordan Nobbs, another true No 8, not been sidelined by injury – and after also sitting out the 2019 World Cup in France and most of Canada 2015 Nobbs has endured awful luck in this respect – Scott might not even have made the squad.
If Nobbs were fit she would surely partner Walsh but in her absence Wiegman could perhaps do worse than turn to a player who began her career at the heart of midfield. Lucy Bronze may now rank among the world’s best right-backs but she was originally a No 8 for Sunderland, only relocating to full-back when Nobbs joined the side.
Tellingly, Wiegman’s England predecessor, Phil Neville, attempted to reconvert Bronze into a No 8. “If you haven’t got a Jill Scott or a Jordan Nobbs available you have to find players of the quality, experience, vision and physical capacity to play in that position and take us to the next level,” the current Inter Miami manager once reflected. “The rest of the team like having Lucy in central midfield and I think that, playing there, she can make us better.”
Ultimately Neville decided, reluctantly, against moving Bronze from right-back but, for all Barcelona’s latest marquee signing’s swashbuckling overlaps, there are fears that, against the very best opponents, she can sometimes be a little vulnerable defensively. Polite as they invariably remain about each other in public, there were tensions between Bronze and her former Manchester City manager, Gareth Taylor, about her interpretation of the right-back role last season.
Might her catalytic dynamism not be harnessed to better effect in a more advanced and central brief? Much as Rachel Daly has impressed at left-back for England – and is there any position Daly cannot nail? – the Houston Dash utility player is right-footed and could be even more solid on the opposite side of defence, allowing Bronze to form a double act with Walsh and the assured Alex Greenwood to take over at left-back.
Not that Bronze’s switch would necessarily need to be permanent. “There should be games where Lucy plays in midfield and games where she plays right-back,” Neville once opined. “But Walsh and Bronze together in central midfield are so brave and so good at winning the ball, and then keeping it, under pressure. They are colossi.”
Wiegman’s world is only three games away from turning gold but winning Euro 2022 may also necessitate re-imagining Bronze’s brief.
July 16, 2022 at 09:06PM Louise Taylor