Finding a Centre Back Pairing for the England Lionesses

Abdullah Abdullah takes a look at the centre back situation for England and tries to determine Sarina Weigman’s optimal pairing.

After a slow start, the England Women’s National Team are really starting to flourish under Sarina Weigman. The Arnold Clark Cup win has been the first real sign of progress under the new coach who has brought a positive atmosphere around the England camp with a squad that is arguably filled with some of their brightest talents.

In certain areas, England are well-stocked for talent, especially in the goalkeeping department. Arguably, though, they have their best talent depth at centre back. Weigman has several high profile choices to choose from as she looks to create a long-term pairing. But who is the best fit? 

The European Championships will be the first major indication of who Weigman sees as her long-term partnership in the position. Of course, there is scope for things to change, given there is a year between the tournaments. A new contender could emerge, but having a multitude of options only means a more competitive camp.

So who should start for England at centre back?

The Role

Before delving into the different combinations, it’s important to understand what Weigman wants from her central defenders and what kind of profiles she prefers to have there.

The Lionesses have a wealth of options to pick from when it comes to central defensive options: Leah Williamson, Alex Greenwood, Millie Bright, Lotte Wubben-Moy, Jess Carter, and Steph Houghton, although Houghton has undergone surgery and is likely to miss the European Championship. 

So far in the Weigman tenure, we’ve seen a number of experimental lineups as she tries to piece together her optimal starting XI. Although we’ve seen mostly high scoring games with little resistance for the Lionesses, the most competitive games have come recently in the Arnold Clark Cup against Canada, Spain and Germany. In these games, there was only one clean sheet but it’s worth noting that only two goals were conceded across the three games.

These are the centre-back pairings since Weigman took over in September 2021:

North Macedonia: Greenwood + Bright (4-3-3): 8-0 ENG
Luxembourg: Greenwood + Bright (4-3-3) : 0-10 ENG
Northern Ireland: Greenwood + Bright (4-3-3): 4-0 ENG
Latvia: Greenwood + Bright + Williamson (3-5-2): 0-10 ENG
Austria: Greenwood + Bright (4-3-3): 1-0 ENG
Latvia: Greenwood + Wubben-Moy + Bright (3-5-2): 20-0 ENG
Canada: Greenwood + Bright (4-3-3): 1-1
Spain: Greenwood + Carter (4-3-3): 0-0
Germany: Greenwood + Bright (4-3-3): 3-1 ENG

The common pairing in a back four has been Greenwood and Bright with Carter appearing in one game against Spain while Williamson and Wubben-Moy have been trialled in a back three. It seems that Weigman has considered Greenwood and Bright as her preferred pairing with each of their qualities a reflection of the early type of football they want to play.

Perhaps the most impressive of these combinations appeared the game against Spain where Greenwood and Carter performed well with a new goalkeeper in Hannah Hampton behind her.

What we have learnt from the Arnold Clark Cup is that Weigman is set to have one clear playmaking centre back who is a diligent ball progressor and can pick clear line-breaking passes. Meanwhile, the other central defender is a more no-nonsense defender who is comfortable on the ball but is very much an aggressor. 

Using TransferLab’s profiling tool, we’ll assess the options individually from Weigman’s selections so far to determine which combination might work the best.

Alex Greenwood

Alex Greenwood has been the surprise package of the season after starting out as a centre back for Manchester City. 

Her performances have propelled her into the England setup where she has become a mainstay even with the likes of Houghton and Williamson available. Most importantly, she’s a left-footed option for England.

When compared to the rest of the Women’s Super League (WSL) in the “Centre Back – All Round” profile, she averages in the 99th percentile, indicating she’s been consistently one of the best central defenders in the league. 

With Houghton’s injury woes, and Kennedy and Ruby Mace able to defend on the front foot, Greenwood has taken up the role of the ball-playing defender with her excellent range of passing and positioning.  

A few standout metrics here are Greenwood’s progressive short passing, progressive long passing, adjusted pass accuracy, and carries: all 95th percentile or higher in the league. When it comes to her defensive attributes, these are equally impressive with Greenwood putting up good numbers in 1v1 defending and tackles (91st and 92nd percentiles respectively).

The defender’s heat map shows a high level of activity both in the defensive and midfield region which indicates Greenwood’s capacity to step forward and carry the ball out to provide relief against a team that sits deep. Alternately, she’s a player who can bypass a high press through a range of passing and carrying ability to push through.

Millie Bright

Next, we have England’s other consistent central defensive option, Millie Bright. Most importantly, Bright is a right-sided option to balance Greenwood next to her. Although she’s good on the ball, Bright is a very physical centre back who can compete in most aerial and defensive duels. Her statistical profile reflects this. 

Bright has been a consistent presence at the back for Chelsea and England. Her skill set allows her to create goal-scoring opportunities, offer a deeper passing option, and stop attackers from having time to react by being the aggressor. 

Her heat map is almost a mirror of Greenwood’s on the right side and reminiscent of what we’ve said to describe her game. Able to step forward and defend on the front foot will be a big factor for England given their defensively solid double-pivot in Walsh and Williamson. 

Bright’s standout characteristics show up in the 1v1 defending win % and aerial duels win % metrics, where she is ranked in the high 90s percentile. Her passing metrics in this category aren’t rated as highly but are still amongst some of the best in the division.

Next to Greenwood, Bright is a good compliment given their left-/right-sided compatibility. When Bright steps forward to stop players higher up the pitch, there is a tendency to leave space in behind that can be exploited. This is one of the reasons for Chelsea trying to block any form of central build-up. Internationally, Greenwood can help cover in behind using her superior positioning.

Finding the Combination

Greenwood and Bright have been the most used pairing in Weigman’s tenure so far and they look set to continue as the favourites as we head into the Euros. But how do the other options stack up statistically here? 

Here’s a comparison of the two stalwarts with other strong candidates, Lotte Wubben-Moy and Leah Williamson:

You can see that Greenwood is the standout player with Bright not far behind. Wubben-Moy is comparable but has been inconsistent in Arsenal’s team so far and Williamson is now being considered as a central defensive midfielder rather than a centre back but is still a very viable option there. Playing Williamson alongside Walsh at the Arnold Clark Cup was a relative success but that is an entirely different discussion altogether. 

Jessica Carter is primarily a full back, although she is a versatile player. The Chelsea defender is a diligent, true no-nonsense player who can be used as a tactical option against certain oppositions and can be played in both a back three or four. 

The double pivot in front of the defenders has been Williamson and Walsh who both provide an equilibrium in midfield by protecting the back four. This, in turn, offers an alternative method of build-up which means England can have a slightly more aggressive approach from the back. 

At this stage, it becomes increasingly difficult to decipher how exactly Weigman wants to play but it’s noticeable in her choice of defenders that she wants competent ball players who offer slightly different alternate qualities. It seems inevitable that Greenwood and Bright will begin the tournament as the centre backs of choice. But Houghton’s return next season and other players improving their performances might alter her thinking going into the 2023 World Cup.

England have a variety of elite central defenders to pick from. We haven’t even considered such promising alternatives as Molly Bartrip, Aofie Mannion, and Abbie McManus. All have had good seasons for their clubs and could make the step up. 

It’s safe to say that Weigman has a wealth of options and a selection headache going into the Euros and beyond. 

Header image copyright IMAGO / Nina Farooqi

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