England Women will have to be at their best without the ball against Spain


England’s momentum is growing and they will not be worried about facing Spain in the Euro 2022 quarter-finals on Wednesday. They have played them before and know what it takes to get the better of one of the best sides in Europe.

At Euro 2017 I was in the England squad that beat Spain 2-0 despite having only 22% possession during the match. England will be happy to let Spain have the ball as long as they themselves are organised and disciplined, which they have shown to be thus far. Sarina Wiegman’s side have dominated possession in the group stage but they might need to be at their best without the ball on Wednesday. England will play top nations in the latter part of the tournament and will be embracing the challenge.

Spain are without Alexia Putellas and any team in the world that would miss a player of her quality. You do not win the Ballon d’Or for nothing. The tournament is the lesser for her absence after she was cruelly sidelined with an ACL injury just hours before the first game. She scored 11 goals in the Champions League and another 18 in the domestic league for Barcelona last season. She is the person who can make a difference in a major tournament. The experienced forward Jennifer Hermoso is also out, leaving gaps to be filled in the spine of the team.

Spain hit four against Finland but struggled in front of goal in the loss to Germany and only scored late on against Denmark with the opponents chasing the game in their final group match. They are not as clinical as they would like given their possession stats; they are the best team between the two 18-yard boxes thanks to their style, buildup play, ability to receive the ball under pressure and how they can dribble through in central areas but they are lacking something in the opposition box. England are yet to concede a goal in the Euros and have rarely looked like doing so since Wiegman took over as head coach, making the prospect even more daunting for Spain’s attackers.

Putellas’s Barcelona teammates Mariona Caldentey and Aitana Bonmatí are two of the players putting in the extra yards to try to make up for her absence. Caldentey is best when cutting in from the left and has shown she is good at drifting into any space left between the full-back and central defender. She would have two goals to her name in the tournament already if it was not for a couple of world-class saves.

Apart from the penalty against Finland, which was won by a wide player, all of Spain’s goals have come from crosses, whether set pieces or from open play. It is a surprising revelation because I have watched Spain for a long time and you can see their style is similar to that of Barcelona in how they like to control possession and open teams up. The tournament overall has more headed goals than ever before, so it is a common theme. Spain are incredibly dangerous in wide areas and have the players to provide the delivery demanded by those in the box.

With the amount of possession they have they try to stretch the opposition and work their way through. I remember Barcelona men’s coach, Xavi Hernández, discussing the importance of the third player run and this team has a lot of that, whether it is Bonmatí or Caldentay, they all try to play that role by spotting the gaps in defence. England, despite being very good defensively, will need to be wary of what is happening on the flanks. Stopping as many crosses as possible is the best way to go about it.

Spain are susceptible to a ball over the top because they are not the quickest side on the turn. They are so good in possession that they want to get high up the pitch which means they can be caught out at the back. María Pilar León had problems against Denmark and Pernille Harder, but as a team the Scandinavians did not have the numbers to catch up with the Chelsea player, whereas England have Lauren Hemp and Beth Mead on the flanks to exploit space.

Finland scored early on thanks to a ball over the top which turned the defence and Spain were not quick enough to get back. Irene Paredes was lucky not to be dismissed against Germany after being outpaced by Alexandra Popp, pulling her down to stop her going through one-on-one. England will be mindful of this and Keira Walsh has the passing range to send balls into the right areas for forwards to chase.

The further good news for England is that they are scoring all types of goals: from long range to tap-ins and are not reliant on one scorer. They have the competition’s top scorer in Mead with five goals in three games and Alessia Russo is the joint second-highest scorer – and she has had to make do with coming off the bench in the group stages. It shows that even if England are struggling to find a goal, they have options onthe bench. There is no reason to think about changing things; Ellen White is doing a great job starting and Russo is the perfect impact player and that is a great role to have, especially as a young striker.

The players will be very pleased to go back to Brighton after defeating Norway 8-0 there. It is a ground I felt very comfortable at during my career because it is a fantastic new stadium where the fans are close to the pitch, creating an intimidating atmosphere. They have a built-in iPad system for music, which is good news for the dressing room DJs, and it really does help the players a lot pre-match. Let’s hope they will be rocking it after the match, too.