England’s comeback win over Spain shows a new side of this special team – and the spirit of winning Euro 2022

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England's comeback win over Spain shows a new side of this special team - and the spirit of winning Euro 2022

BRIGHTON, England – There’s something about this England team. They just don’t know when they’re going to get hit.

They were outclassed by Spain for much of Wednesday’s Euro 2022 quarter-finals. But when the pressure finally proved too much for the red shirts and the big moments presented themselves, England didn’t blink and eventually won 2-1 in overtime.

You have to walk through walls to beat Spain. The likes of Millie Bright, Georgia Stanway, Keira Walsh and Lucy Bronze have done it. If they were the ones poking at the foundations of the red wall, it was Stanway who brought it down.

Stanway ran the whole game. She’d been chasing anything and everything in red, and she’d shot repeatedly through the middle of the field only to be tripped. She had tried and tried – and met with frustration each time. But then the next opportunity came, so she would try again.

After Spain scored in the 54th minute with a beautifully crafted seven-pass goal, England had tried everything: under, through and beside the Spanish defence. It did not work. And when Spain’s defense held, it looked like England’s party was over and Spain chose the perfect time to register for the tournament.

But then came the double strike from Alessia Russo and Ella Toone, who equalized in the 84th minute to force extra time. And then came Stanway’s moment.

By the time she got the ball in the 97th minute, Stanway had made that run before – almost exactly halfway, only to be fouled by Mapi Leon. But this time, as her legs burned and her stepping back slowed, Stanway kept the ball and she kept going. She had runners running left and right, and then she looked up. She had options, but she went with her gut.

Sarina Wiegman was appointed England manager to make big decisions. Tactically adept and with a winning pedigree, she was hired by The Football Association to ensure England had the best chance of winning their home European Championship. She’s present on the sidelines – the one who knows what it takes to win this tournament, having delivered for the Netherlands five years ago – but she’s rarely lively. Behind the scenes, it’s their individual conversations with the players that make such a difference in this group. They feel empowered to make split-second decisions mid-game, knowing their coach will support them. She kept the pressure off the group; The camp is about football, not about winning.

Stanway is just one of several who have grown under Wiegman’s tutelage, but heading into this tournament, Stanway had a question mark over her head. For so long, it looked like Leah Williamson would play in the Stanway role with Alex Greenwood at centre-back. But Wiegman shifted that with just a game and a half left before the tournament to put Williamson back and Stanway in midfield. Trusting her own instincts, the manager made the tough decision.

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So when Stanway had options heading towards Spain’s goal, she knew that whatever decision she made in that split second would be the right one. And so she hit a wonderful winning goal past Sandra Panos from just outside the penalty area; It was a moment of validation for Stanway, for the team, and for the culture Wiegman has created.

But this was a victory built on sheer guts and determination – and Bright embodied that. She excelled as a central defender – and as a makeshift centre-forward – as she headed, blocked, tackled, outmaneuvered and overcame anything and everything that got in her way put away. It was thanks to Bright – and those who protected England’s goal like the standouts Mary Earps, Williamson, Stanway and Walsh – that they had the opportunity to come through.

In the first 90 minutes, Spain held number one from England. It went to the script. They moved the ball much better, they absorbed possession and they created chances. Despite a brief rebound from England early in the second half, it came as no surprise that Spain took the lead.

Spain’s goal was wonderful. After dominating the first 45 minutes, Spain survived a brief resurgence from England early in the second to create one of the few clear chances of the game. Athenea Del Castillo’s tricky footwork turned Rachel Daly over and her pass found Esther Gonzalez, who calmed with a touch and then shot over Earps’ goal and past Bright’s outstretched leg. It was a goal met with silence – and then a response from the English crowd.

In those moments, Wiegman’s experience rang true. There were two key moments in the 1990s that reversed this in England’s favour. As things grew more desperate, she first made two bold substitutions, and between the 55th and 62nd minutes Chloe Kelly, Russo and Toone came on to change things in Spain.

Up to that point, the Spanish structure allowed them to knock Lauren Hemp, Fran Kirby and Beth Mead out of the game. Ellen White had to constantly run down dead ends, Kirby fed himself leftovers, while the two Spanish full-backs Ona Batlle and Olga Carmona controlled both crosses. With Aitana Bonmati setting the pace in midfield and Mariona Caldentey playing brilliantly down the flank, things just didn’t work for Wiegman’s team. They darted away but failed to get anything going in the Spanish half.

The introduction of Toone, Russo and Kelly increased the pace. But it took Wiegman’s second big tactical decision in the 84th minute to break the Spanish resolve. Wiegman moved into the back three and temporarily edged out the outstanding Bright. We asked if England had a plan B but that was certainly more of a plan Q – but it worked.

Bright’s presence in the Spanish box caused confusion and gave Russo space to climb onto Irene Peredes’ shoulder to win a crucial header – and from there Toone finished beautifully from close range. It wasn’t pretty – it didn’t have to be when you were in moments like this – but it was life-giving.

From there came overtime and Stanway’s winning moment to keep this show on track. But this was a different England from previous games under Wiegman and especially at these Euros. After the scoring England we saw in the group stage – 14 goals, zero conceded – this was a lot more like the opening game against Austria but on a different level.

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This was an English team that needed to learn, support each other and rely on the collective skills of the 23-man squad. It took trust and pace, and then that blob of stardust from Stanway’s right foot.

When the final whistle blew in the 124th minute, Wiegman was already 10 yards on the field with the second cracker. She had gone through each emotion in her own reserved way. But then came the relief — and the celebrations. Now the reset must come.

England have two more games to play in this European Championship but what they proved on Wednesday night was they have the ability to turn the tide in a knockout draw and have the wits and cunning to get a result to conjure up the hat. That’s the mindset of a champion.

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