A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. But what happens when a solid link falls apart, even at the start? In the case of England’s national team, Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses need to find a way to rebuild following the injury of Barcelona Femení midfielder Keira Walsh – and they need it fast.
Barça Femení defensive midfielder and tactical anchor Keira Walsh started in 18 matches during the 2022/23 Liga F season— accumulating 1,516 minutes, winning 63 duels and completing a whopping 121 progressive passes to help the Blaugrana club retain the Spanish crown (Primera División de la Liga de Fútbol Femenino). In Barça Femení’s successful UEFA Women’s Champions League (UWCL) campaign, Walsh’s importance was no different as she finished off the tournament having started 8 out of 11 matches as well as completing 491 passes with the precise accuracy of 93% among other noteworthy stats. Internationally, Walsh had only been absent on 3 occasions prior to her injury, during head coach Sarina Wiegman’s tenure since September 2021. The midfielder played every single minute but four in the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022. With a set soldier like Walsh, she is a system player whose presence is like that of a bishop on a chess board.
On July 28th, England faced Denmark in their second clash of Group D, both sides vying for a first place spot and advancement to the elimination round of 16. The English started off with a bang when youngster Lauren James (Chelsea FC) hit a golazo into the top net within 6 minutes of play. Both teams grinded it out on the grid with Denmark desperately looking for an equalizer before half time. Making her moves on the run, Walsh injured her knee after a solo fall to the ground while chasing the ball. Not the sight any football fan wants to see nor the feeling any football player wants to experience. Walsh visibly mouthed ‘I’ve done my knee’ to the cameras and required a stretcher to be carried off in the 38th minute. Laura Coombs (Manchester City FC) came on for Walsh vs Denmark following her injury and Georgia Stanway (Bayern Munich) took the defensive role on her shoulders. Fearing the worst, both England’s sidelines and supporters were visibly shaken up after the fact, not scoring another goal nor celebrating their 1-0 victory afterwards. The Lionesses released an official press statement confirming that Walsh had not torn her ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), prompting encouraging news for the English & Barcelona Femení fans alike.
However, her availability against China was still ruled out. Ahead of the Lionesses’ final game of the group stages, Wiegman stated “We have a strong enough team. We know Keira is not available. It’s not nice to lose players. We will have 11 players on the pitch who we think can win the game.” In search of answers, Wiegman switched to a 3-5-2 formation. The 3 center-back defenders and the double pivot position of Stanway & Katie Zelem (Manchester United) added the much needed blanket of security in the absence of Walsh as the Lionesses roared onto a 6-1 win — in what would’ve been a clean sheet if not for a penalty call against Lioness Lucy Bronze (FC Barcelona). The next hurdle for England amidst the uncertainty over Walsh’s future is Asisat Oshoala’s Nigeria who marched on as runners-up of Group B. An interesting encounter awaits, as eager fans want to know if England’s new setup without Walsh will be sustainable moving forward or if the Nigerian Super Falcons can cause an upset similar to their win against Australia in Milton.
If the knee injury proves to be more severe than a few weeks, Walsh will miss pre-season training and perhaps Barça Femeni’s upcoming exhibition tour in Mexico. A wounded but willing Barça side will continue to chug the Culer train into the 2023/24 season, but as they say in Catalan ‘Bona sort’ Keira.