Attempts have been made to dull Lauren James’s star, to quell the rising excitement around the dynamic forward as she has developed. No more. With two goals and three assists in this victory over China, and a hat-trick denied only by a controversial VAR call, James helped England to make an emphatic statement of intent and announced her arrival on the world stage.
The result booked England’s place in the last 16, setting up a tie on Monday against Nigeria, and breathed life into a campaign that had yet to lift off.
“First, you need belief from the team and they were really excited about it,” she said. “You don’t know if it’s going to work but we were convinced it would.”
Katie Zelem, who plays as a deep midfielder for Manchester United, joined Georgia Stanway in the middle. Ella Toone, who struggled in England’s defeats of Haiti and Denmark, made way so James could shift infield into the No 10 role and Lauren Hemp joined Alessia Russo up front. Jess Carter made her second start, this time on the right of a back three, with Millie Bright and Alex Greenwood, while Rachel Daly and Lucy Bronze moved from full-back to wing-back. The only other time Wiegman had experimented with a back three came in their record-breaking 20-0 win over Latvia.
Wiegman’s reluctance to tinker has been questioned. The manager made three changes to her starting XI in the Netherlands’ run to a European title in 2017 and two in their push to the 2019 World Cup final. During England’s Euro 2022 campaign she stuck with an unchanged XI. In those tournaments, though, she had the luxury of not needing to change things, and two European championship titles and a World Cup runners-up medal were the result. Here, the need to rewrite the script came and she acted accordingly and effectively. If there were questions about whether Wiegman could adapt a team to best fit the available personnel, they were answered.
England were rampant in the first half and it took four minutes to unlock a China team that last beat a European side in October 2018 – a 2-1 defeat of Finland.
Russo began the move that led to her opening World Cup goal, curling a sumptuous cross towards Hemp and Bronze. It was cleared as far as James, who nodded the ball down towards Russo, and the striker fired low into the corner.
It was as if a weight had been lifted off England’s shoulders, perhaps the lowered expectations after the loss of Walsh counteracting the pressure. The assist for the second goal came from James but it was engineered by Bright, who intercepted the ball and drove through the middle before finding James. The Chelsea forward slipped it to Hemp, whose first touch took the ball away from the defender and she raced through before slotting past Zhu Yu.
Bronze was unlucky less than 10 minutes later, rattling a header off the inside of the post before putting the rebound wide as she was brought down. It could have been a penalty, as could a hair pull on Russo shortly after, but neither incident led to a video review.
The third goal came not long after, Greenwood’s free-kick from the right being played back to James on the edge of the area and she swept in.
VAR would be called into action deep into added time at the end of the half to chalk off what would have been James’s second. Bronze had been in an offside position when the ball was played in but collected the ball after it had come off the back of a red shirt when she was onside. Her layoff was curled into the top corner by James but the effort was ruled out by the referee.