ADELAIDE, Australia -- Ever since Keira Walsh was stretchered off in the 35th minute of Friday's match, England have put on a brave face. The players talk about Walsh's absence and the shock of losing her to injury as having brought the team closer together. That's what happens when you lose your team's most important player.
The first 24 hours or so after the injury was a case of preparing for the worst -- those dreaded three letters "ACL" hanging over Walsh. But by mid-afternoon on Saturday, the clouds lifted a little. The prognosis came back: she had avoided tearing her ACL -- an injury that's already robbed England of Leah Williamson and Beth Mead of a place at the World Cup.
But it is still not certain that she will play again in this tournament. England are being tight-lipped on whether she has any chance of featuring again for the Lionesses, though such a timeline depends not only on how the player is recovering, but also the team's progression. Talk to anybody in and around the squad, though, and they will all talk of Walsh's importance.
"It's difficult losing a player of her ability and the quality that she brings. She's a vital part of the team as well, so it's tough," Rachel Daly said. Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall, in his role as an analyst for the BBC, said Walsh is "almost irreplaceable." On the night of England's 1-0 win over Denmark, ex-Lioness Ellen White -- who, like Walsh, started every match in the Euros last summer -- said: "I dreaded to think of the idea of us ever losing her because she was one of our best players."
White's analysis came through the prism of looking back at how England would have reacted had Walsh got injured last summer. "Everything came through Keira, there wasn't a Plan B," White said. "Beth Mead was scoring all the goals but all of our play came through Keira. She was the key cog, everything moved through her."
Plan B on Friday was to bring on Laura Coombs and move Georgia Stanway back into Walsh's role. After the 1-0 win in Sydney, White's comments were put to England coach Sarina Wiegman. "You're talking about the Euros," she said, slightly irked. "We're now in a World Cup. You saw the Plan B."
But it remains to be seen if they will deploy a different plan for the threat of their final Group D opponents, China, in Adelaide on Tuesday. Without Walsh, England must rethink their approach and personnel. Walsh is the fulcrum of England's play, both in attack and defence. "She dictates the tempo for the team," Eidevall said. "That's the hardest part to replace for England."
England experienced the impact of losing Walsh first-hand on Friday. No longer having the Barcelona playmaker to worry about, Denmark switched from a 4-4-1-1 to a more attacking formation. "We didn't have the focus on the defensive midfielder," manager Lars Søndergaard said afterward. "Then we decided at half-time we could play with two strikers that could have different roles and go on pressing on Georgia Stanway. We were fortunate that England also got a bit insecure in their passing from behind. In the beginning, they made us run a lot and we had to always close down spaces." Denmark went from using one of their two forwards to press Walsh, to focusing player-for-player on centre-backs Millie Bright and Alex Greenwood. That's the influence Walsh has.
Walsh has been integral to the success of England's Wiegman era. She played in every match in the Euros, and 11 of the 12 games since, missing just one through illness. Before that, she missed the first two matches of Wiegman's tenure back in 2021 through injury. On all three occasions, absent skipper Williamson played in the No. 6 role. When Walsh was substituted in the final few minutes of extra time in the Euros quarterfinal win over Spain she was replaced by Jill Scott, who retired at the end of that tournament.
So it's likely to be Stanway at No. 6. It's a role she knows well, as she has been picking Walsh's brain about the nuances of the position. "I think for me it's just covering that discipline element into the game, knowing I don't always have to be running to help with the attack," Stanway said on Monday. "It's just knowing I need to protect the back four, too. I just need to stay on my feet and make sure there's players in front of me.
"That position comes naturally to me because I've played it a little bit at club [level]. I've played alongside Keira who is the best teacher without knowing it. Going into tomorrow it's about communicating in the middle of the pitch. The connections we've had between me, Keira and Tooney [Ella Toone] has been easy and really synchronised."
But it's who plays alongside Stanway that is the burning question. We're in largely uncharted territory under Wiegman. Coombs is the leading candidate to replace Walsh, slotting into the No. 8 role in tandem with Toone at No. 10 and Stanway at No. 6. The 32-year-old has six England caps -- two coming in 2015 and four this year -- and is more of a box-to-box player than Walsh, a more traditional sitting defensive midfielder. "Coombs is an experienced player," England striker Beth England said. "Maybe people underestimate her at this level but I thought she did fantastic coming in for Keira. She held the ball up well, linked well, settled straight into the game and it didn't look like we were missing anything."
Other options include Jordan Nobbs, who has 71 caps, but hasn't had much game time under Wiegman. Her ability to play in different midfield roles does help her case, as she could switch seamlessly with Stanway. Manchester United's Katie Zelem trained in the Walsh role last week, and is perhaps the most like-for-like option to replace Walsh, but has been in and out of Wiegman's plans over the past couple of years.
There's also the chance Wiegman opts to switch formations, potentially utilising a 3-4-3, with three centre-backs and a makeshift No. 6 in Lucy Bronze. Bronze could slot into a role similar to how Pep Guardiola utilises John Stones at Manchester City, and she has experience playing in the middle of the park under former coach Phil Neville. Walsh's Barcelona teammate is one of the world's best distributors of the ball, but using her there would rob England of her on the right flank. They could also play two of those candidates.
"That's the hardest part to replace for England," Eidevall said. "Do you find one player to replace that, or do you need to play two players there instead in order to regain that control and space control that you miss when Keira is not playing?"
But the party line this week hasn't been one of panic, but instead emphasising the squad's versatility and adaptability. "We've got a 22-player squad and anyone can step up at any moment," Stanway said. "That's what's so special about this team."
Either way, China are preparing for all eventualities. "We will engage in formations and tactics that we are familiar in," China manager Shui Qingxia said on Monday. "We might be more adventurous or conservative. We might look at different scenarios."
England require a point against China on Tuesday to guarantee top spot in Group D. Wiegman is a manager with an incredible eye for detail. She'd have planned for this scenario, it's something she spoke at length about before the tournament. It's not a situation Wiegman would have wanted, but there will be a Plan B, and Plan C and so on.
"We're here to move on," Wiegman said on Monday. "It's part of sport and it's not nice but you have to move on and adapt to the new situation and find a way. That's what we're doing all the time."