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The key questions facing Sarina Wiegman ahead of must-win Nations League showdown with Scotland


England boss Sarina Wiegman faces a tough decision in setting up her side to face Scotland.

Four months on from missing out on World Cup glory, England face their biggest challenge yet. With a place in the Nations League finals and therefore the 2024 Olympics on the line, the Lionesses must start and finish the game in full force.

England earned an emphatic comeback win against the Netherlands on Friday at Wembley. After Lineth Beerensteyn netted twice in the first half, the Lionesses rebounded to put three past the visitors and keep their hopes of qualifying for Paris 2024 alive. Their result was helped by Belgium dropping points to Scotland in a 1-1 draw.

The Netherlands and England are level on points and with head-to-head cancelled out, but the Dutch remain at the top of the table on goal difference, with their +4 trumping the Lionesses’ +1.

England must beat Scotland by at least three goals to overturn their deficit assuming the Netherlands beat Belgium in their last fixture. If the Netherlands drop points, England will top the group if they do defeat Scotland no matter by how many goals. Conversely, they could thrash their oldest rivals and it might not even matter.

With so much on the line, Wiegman faces questions as to how best to set up against in every area on the pitch.

Could Beth Mead start?

Beth Mead

Mead made her England return on Friday / Marc Atkins/GettyImages

Beth Mead finally made he England return on Friday and her introduction at half-time injected impetus into the Lionesses. Similar to how she inspired a comeback for Arsenal to beat Aston Villa at the start of the WSL season, Mead lifted the Lionesses and was instrumental in orchestrating their three-goal comeback.

England need to score early and maintain their dominance from the off to beat Scotland by at least three goals – Wiegman said pre-match she hopes the team start strong from the first minute. Playing Mead from kick-off would certainly give England an edge to do just that.

But is she better off the bench? If England are leading by only one goal, or worst case scenario are trailing to the Scots, she is the exact player you would want to introduce to inspire yet another comeback.

This game carries so much jeopardy that it seems a big risk to constrict Mead to only substitute minutes. The 28-year-old is a player for big moments and given the chance will want to announce her full comeback with as many goals as possible. Starting the Arsenal winger is the best choice for Wiegman.

Will Alessia Russo reclaim her striker spot?

Lauren Hemp, Alessia Russo

Russo was replaced by Hemp in Friday’s starting lineup / Marc Atkins/GettyImages

Alessia Russo has had a slow start to life with Arsenal, only scoring twice in eight games. It is no calamity yet, but it has clearly presented warning signs for Wiegman. Lauren Hemp filled in as a lone striker for England for the first time in over a year on Friday, but played in a dup upfront with Russo during the World Cup.

Regardless of where you play her, Hemp has to start – Wiegman simply cannot bench her. She is in flying form, scoring goals and putting defences under pressure. As a striker, she is far more clinical than Russo.

The England boss is revelling in Hemp’s successes and is unlikely to change it up. Russo’s history as a super-sub is so prominent – it is too irresistible to throw her on when play is dwindling and watch her turn the tide for England as she did during the 2022 Euros.

Wiegman has a quartet of viable winger options to partner whichever striker she chooses, and having so much of a headache in picking a forward line is a blessing rather than a detriment.

Does Lauren James move into the number ten role?

Lauren James

Lauren James has to start someway / Justin Setterfield/GettyImages

If Russo was to regain her starting spot as the number nine, Hemp would have to move to the wing. That would mean dropping Lauren James to the bench or shifting her into midfield, possibly at the expense of Fran Kirby.

Kirby is now capable of handling at least 60 minutes after recovering from a knee injury that ruled her out of the World Cup. James slotted into the attacking midfield role during the tournament and rapt fans, but still lacked the creativity and experience Kirby brings.

James seemingly has an inability to come off the bench. The 22-year-old is England’s cheat code but only when playing from kick-off. As a substitute, James is far less effective. Starting on Friday, she struggled to control the overload in midfield and is still learning the ropes.

Playing James as the number 10 could improve her composure, but is losing Kirby’s experience and influence in midfield too risky?

England’s engine room was threadbare during the World Cup and relied heavily on the lacking form of Ella Toone during the back end of the tournament.

The Manchester United midfielder was a former super-sub in her own right, and moving her back into that spot seems most effective for both player and team. Having James and Kirby playing together from kick-off with the option to introduce Toone off the bench is likely the way forward.

Do England switch to a back three?

Alex Greenwood

England used a back three during their World Cup campaign / Steve Christo – Corbis/GettyImages

England’s defence is troublesome. Jess Carter and Alex Greenwood had far from controlled performances against the Netherlands.

The pair were quivery, often making rash and skewed passes when under pressure. With this fixture coming with so much pressure, England need a tranquil backline that will be steady and communicative.

Veteran right-back Lucy Bronze often inverted into midfield and further up the pitch. While this was beneficial to send crosses in, the lack of defence left the backline vulnerable. This raises questions as to whether a back three – with Bronze and Niamh Charles filling in as wing-backs – would be better.

A back three was effective during the World Cup but with Keira Walsh operating as a deep lying midfielder, the set up seldom worked once she returned from her injury. It feels unlikely that Wiegman will make such a drastic change to her back line, especially given the absence of Millie Bright who was critical in the former set up.

The options for a third centre-back are plenty. Maya Le Tissier, Lotte Wubben-Moy or Esme Morgan would all be in contention. But Wiegman’s lack of rotation has come back to haunt her and the young defensive trio have rarely had minutes for England.

Could Esme Morgan earn a start in place of Jess Carter?

Esme Morgan, Lineth Beerensteyn

Morgan played well against the Netherlands / Soccrates Images/GettyImages

Carter was overran by the Netherlands. Her hesitation and tendency to drift out of position left England vulnerable. Her performances have fluctuated between impressive and nervy for the Lionesses since the start of last season. But having played much of the World Cup in defence, she is calm, collected and understands the high stakes games.

Morgan, on the other hand, is young and fresh but lacks refinement that comes with playing in big games. She started in England’s loss against Australia in April that ended their 30-game unbeaten streak and started in place of Bright during the Lionesses’ farewell game against Portugal in July.

On Friday, Morgan injected energy into the backline to prevent the devilish Dutch counter attack from regaining a point. Her stellar tackle on Beerensteyn was clinical and proved how much the 23-year-old had grown in her decision making and execution.

She also has a history of partnering Greenwood at Manchester City. Morgan is definitely in contention to start against Scotland – she provides a vigour at the back that is lacking with Carter in defence and might be exactly what England need to defeat Scotland by a large margin.

England predicted lineup vs Scotland (4-3-3): Earps; Bronze, Morgan, Greenwood, Charles; Kirby, Walsh, Stanway; Mead, Hemp, James.

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