Sports FOOTBALL England captain succeeds without tackles

England captain succeeds without tackles

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Leah Williamson loves to tally the numbers on the balance sheet, but she finds goosebumps on the football field a bad move.

For a centre-back, the England captain has unusually few physical problems. Instead, the Arsenal defender’s extraordinary positional sense and ability to anticipate opponents’ intentions invariably allow her to intercept the ball away from a hovering forward without the need for a tackle.

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When Williamson takes the lead, clearing the ball from defense with characteristic elegance, her game has a touch of the late Bobby Moore. Given that on Sunday night the 25-year-old could become the first England captain to lift a major trophy since Moore lifted the World Cup in 1966, it seems fitting.

Williamson is so good at clean ball possession that official UEFA Euro 2022 statistics show that the part-time accounting student not only returned the ball 46 times, more than any other player in the tournament, but did it without making no actual call.

Paolo Maldini would treasure such a record. “If I need to roll up, then I have already made a mistake,” the former Italy and Milan defender once explained.

Tellingly, Williamson’s distribution skills are also largely in line with Maldini’s template. In England’s five tournament matches, the player who delegates most of the rough stuff to his tougher defensive partner, Millie Bright, made 411 passes, again more than anyone else involved in Euro 2022.

“Leah has been great this summer,” says Lioness center Ellen White. “Her departure is incredible. She’s one of the reasons we kept four clean sheets in five games. She definitely leads by example; we are so proud to have her as our captain.”

Leah Williamson gives advice to Ella Thun and Alessia Russo during the game against Spain. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Considering White is a good friend and Manchester City teammate of Steph Houghton, the former England captain who was controversially left out of the Euro 2022 squad by Sarina Wigman, that’s a bit of a compliment.

It is also indicative of Williamson’s emotional intelligence. After all, it was not easy for the captain to win the hearts and minds of three of England’s key senior players. Notably, Lucy Bronze, Jill Scott and Demi Stokes started with Houghton at Sunderland Dams and remain close to the exiled centre-back.

Not that they or anyone else doubted the talent of a player who started out as a defensive midfielder and initially held that position under Wigman. Indeed, it wasn’t until Alex Greenwood – England’s centre-back manager increasingly paired with Bright – contracted Covid in June that Williamson returned to the back line for the pre-tournament final friendly matches.

Although Greenwood was away for a short time, she returned to find her place taken. At the time, this was somewhat of a contentious issue, but now no one questions Williamson’s late move.

Joe Montemurro, the former Arsenal manager, used her in defense and midfield, but considered the former role to be a strength for a player whose stellar passing range makes up for a slight weakness in the air. “In terms of maturity, understanding of the game and positional sense, Leah is like a 30-year-old,” says Montemurro, who urged the England captain to study for his accounting exams. “And she always finds a pass. She is incredible. She has all the qualities to be a great centre-back on the world stage for years to come.”

Leah Williamson in action against Spain.
The departure of Leah Williamson was a key part of England’s success. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

A measure of Williamson’s versatility is that while at Arsenal she operates as a right centre-back, at Wigman’s side she is located to Bright’s left. While many defenders are comfortable playing only for their preferred side, her ability to seamlessly change positions explains why clubs across Europe and the US are likely to line up to sign her.

Not that it was easy to lure Williamson away from Arsenal. Montemurro’s successor Jonas Eidewall is adamant, he wants to “build around Leah”. Though Williamson grew up in Milton Keynes, her family are Gunners fans and were delighted when, after a year as a striker with the boys’ team at Bletchley, the nine-year-old Williamson was invited to join the club’s north London academy. .

Leah Williamson battles Swedish Arsenal teammate Stina Blackstenius for a header.
Leah Williamson battles Swedish Arsenal teammate Stina Blackstenius for a header. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

Her heroine was Arsenal and England striker Kelly Smith, whose signed photo took pride of place in her childhood bedroom. At the bottom of this photo, Smith wrote Williamson a special message that her young fan will take to heart. “Dream big,” she wrote. – This is what every girl should be able to do.

These words have become one of Williamson’s guiding principles and were often repeated during her visits to Jakarta before the pandemic, where she played a key role in Save the Children and Arsenal’s pioneering girls’ soccer coaching project in Indonesia and Jordan.

“We all understand that it is a privilege to use the power of football for good,” says Williamson. “Football can be used to achieve brilliant results; for developing confidence and resilience, those vital necessities. Whether you grew up in London, Jordan or Jakarta, the game has the power to bring people together and sometimes offer them a lifeline.”

Given that the England captain constantly speaks with an eloquence that rivals that of her pass, awarding Williamson the national armband is probably considered one of the easiest decisions Wigman has made.

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