Perhaps the reason why soccer analytics tend to sound like gibberish at times is because soccer is, by nature, resistant to tidy compartmentalization. In the span of 90 minutes, a team can hold the upper hand in every advanced stat under the sun and still lose. It’s part of what makes this sport such beautiful chaos. It’s part, perhaps the biggest part, of why Wednesday’s Euro 2022 quarterfinal between England and Spain was the game of the tournament so far. Sometimes, one team just refuses to quit, despite what the stats might say.
Through 84 minutes on Wednesday, Spain was the team that the numbers said it was. Despite losing the best player in the world (Alexia Putellas) and her creative partner at club and country (Jenni Hermoso) to injuries right before the tournament, Spain still had as much, if not more, firepower as the rest of the field. The side put that talent to good use against the hosts of the Euros on Wednesday, consistently driving England onto the back foot. Though the first half ended scoreless, Spain seemed to be cruising, just waiting for an opportunity to lean on the throttle and end England’s hopes of winning a first major international trophy on home turf.
Nine minutes into the second half, a bit of individual brilliance seemed to do just that. Halftime substitute Athenea del Castillo received a ball that played her into a one-on-one with English left back Rachel Daly. The Spaniard immediately nutmegged Daly and found herself with enough space in the box to center the ball to Esther González. Spain’s number nine’s first touch wasn’t the cleanest, but she was able to recover and blast home the opener to give Spain what, at the time, looked like a commanding 1–0 lead.
The match followed pretty much the same script for the next half hour, as England failed to get anything substantial going. The team that beat Norway 8–0 nine days before didn’t quite show up against Spain in attack, with Fran Kirby, Ellen White, Beth Mead, and Lauren Hemp failing to make much of an impact before the first three were substituted in the second half. That’s England’s star-studded starting front four, and it would seem impossible for the Lionesses to come back without them playing at their usual levels.
It did seem impossible, right up until the moment that it happened:
That’s 22-year-old substitute Ella Toone finding herself in the most crucial of open spots, and finishing with the coolest of volleys to send the game to extra time. English soccer history is filled with similar moments that went against England, so having it go the other way seemed to fire up the side. The Spain that so dominated for nearly an entire game’s worth of minutes never truly recovered. Whereas before the England goal, the Spanish players seemed to be able to get whatever they wanted by attacking Daly and Lucy Bronze down the wings, they hardly threatened once the game restarted in the extra 30 minutes.
The match quickly slipped away from Spain. After the equalizer, though the English still weren’t back to their group stage dominance, they at least they started to create real attacks, and it seemed a matter of time until the 2–1 would materialize. And even when it did, it wasn’t due to any sort of team dominance from England. Instead, Georgia Stanway took it upon herself to score one of the biggest goals in the Lionesses’ history with an absolute firecracker of a strike following a solo run from deep midfield.
There’s a certain irony to that goal, since for most of the game it was Spain that showed the kind of individual excellence the strike required. Live by the solo stardom, lose by the solo stardom, or so the saying I just made up goes. This was a wonder goal by a tireless midfielder playing out of position—Stanway plays as a striker or, at worst, an attacking midfielder for Bayern Munich, but she started here as part of a lopsided double pivot—and it was a glorious capper to a frenzied comeback that still makes little sense.
For the game, England finished with just 42 percent of the possession, and a good portion of that came when it hogged the ball during the extra time as Spain faded. Though the shots on target count was similar—three for England, four for Spain—the Spaniards had 17 total pops at the English goal, compared to just eight in the other direction. The eye test backs this up, as Spain really should have put more goals on the board during its period of supremacy.
But sometimes it just goes that way. I don’t want to chalk this English victory up to luck, though. It takes serious reserves of mental fortitude to stay engaged and committed for so long against a dominant opponent, and both of England’s goals were down to players in the right spot at the right time doing the right thing. Surely, playing at home helped with that, as the crowd at Brighton & Hove Albion’s stadium was rocking with every English touch in the Spanish half. But it’s also down to the team responding to the demands of the moment.
For 84 minutes, England looked to be going out the way England always does. For the remaining 36, though, the Lionesses were giants, and they advanced with all deserved glory. Could this finally be the year? Signs now point, blaring, towards yes.