England’s Miss Dependable Keira Walsh full of promise for Euro 2022

With all the focus on captain Williamson’s move into midfield, we’ve been guilty of overlooking the reliable 25-year-old’s quality and consistency for her country, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

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When she was 22 years old, Keira Walsh went to the 2019 World Cup and started five games for England, including their semi-final against the United States of America. Since then, she has been an automatic starter for England, a name on the teamsheet that is never questioned. It is hard to think of many players in that period who have had the same impact. Millie Bright and Lucy Bronze are perhaps the only others, and Walsh is several years younger than them.

The Manchester City midfielder has undeniably benefited from the fact that there is zero competition for her role. England are not a midfielder heavy team, and there are even fewer players who could occupy that role at the base of the midfield. But that does no service to Walsh’s quality. It would take an exceptional alternative option to replace her in this English side.

Walsh is an elite passer. Her pass completion rate of 87.7 per cent was the highest of any midfielder in the Women’s Super League last season, and only three outfield players had higher (Aoife Mannion, Alanna Kennedy, and Lotte Wubben-Moy). Given that they are all defenders who get more time on the ball, it is testament to Walsh’s ability to make the right decision. Indeed, Walsh made 11.41 passes under pressure per 90 last season and ranked fourth in the WSL for players who played more than 900 minutes.

Under Gareth Taylor, Walsh’s passing numbers have dropped significantly with Manchester City often looking to play more directly through Alex Greenwood or Bronze. Where Walsh used to make on average more than one key pass per game, that dropped to only 0.42 this season. In fact, almost all of her metrics around attacking play have fallen: passes into the final third, passes into the 18-yard box, and progressive passes. She is not passing less at City but she is passing differently, with less vertical passes that might break lines and impact the game in an attacking sense. This leaves Walsh with rather little to do. She is certainly not a ‘defensive’ midfielder. She barely makes any tackles, does not intercept play, and rarely makes clearances. Walsh is a playmaker, so it is essential that she contributes to the attacking structure of the team.

It was not always this way for Walsh. From 2018-20, she made more progressive passes and more passes into the final third than any other player in the WSL. She even racked up enough assists to make it into the top 10 of each of those seasons. In 2019/20, she had an average of three shot creating actions per 90. This season, it was 1.37.

This is not necessarily a problem for City — after all, they only scored two goals less than Chelsea last season — but if England are to succeed at this tournament, they will need Walsh to rediscover that attacking side of her game. It is still not clear who she will be paired with at the tournament. Wiegman seems set on a double pivot with a 10 ahead of Walsh but whether that alternative eight is Leah Williamson, whose move into midfield has been a big talking point, or Georgia Stanway, remains to be seen. Certainly, the stalwart seems more comfortable playing alongside her former City team-mate, who she has dovetailed with in a similar way at club level. Against Switzerland, where she played with Stanway, Walsh was able to push forward more, relaxed about the Bayern Munich star’s ability to cover the space. Contrast that to when she played with Williamson against the Netherlands, where Walsh felt a bit more rooted. However, there are differences in the quality of opposition to bear in mind here.

Regardless of who Walsh starts with, there is evidence that she can be at her best for England. It is of course an incredibly limited sample size, but she averaged nine passes into the final third across England’s three warm-up games, and 1.6 into the penalty area — both much higher than her Manchester City numbers. England’s second goal against the Netherlands demonstrated how effective she can be going forward as she slid the ball through to Lauren Hemp who crossed in for Beth Mead to finish. England will be hoping there is lots more where that came from this month.

You can follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph

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