Lauren James Is The Burgeoning Star Of The New England
4:26 PM EDT on July 28, 2023
Mostly this is a matter of personnel. Three of the key figures in last summer's triumph—Beth Mead, Leah Williamson, and Fran Kirby—couldn't make the trip Down Under, because each had suffered a major knee injury before the World Cup began. And during Friday's match between England and Denmark, a fourth cornerstone of that 2022 team, Keira Walsh, went off the pitch on a stretcher not long after telling team physios, "I've done my knee." Should that last injury prove as serious as the sobbing Walsh feared, a quartet of mangled knees will have robbed England of its best central defender, its most potent forward, its most creative attacking midfielder, and its passing maestro. It's no wonder this England doesn't look like last year's: Almost all of the players who made that team go are gone.
But one monkey don't stop no show, and nor do four lionesses. England didn't become the strongest team in the world, and one of the favorites at this World Cup, by having exactly four great players and no one else. Everyone knew England was going to Oceania without Mead, Williamson, and Kirby, and yet still saw them as big contenders to win, because of everyone's faith in the players the team did bring. Players capable of picking up the mantles dropped by the injured stars and lifting them, along with the World Cup trophy itself. Players who could beat defenders, knit together attacks, and score goals in Mead's and Kirby's absence. Players like Lauren James.
England's performance against Denmark on Friday was in a broad sense similar to its performance against Haiti in its World Cup opener. In both matches England looked solid but unremarkable: capable of controlling the ball and the tempo of the match, but largely uninspired, lacking incisiveness, and defensively vulnerable. Not for nothing, after both 1-0 English victories, the opposition probably came away mostly encouraged by the evidence that they could keep pace with one of the tournament's front-runners.
But if one Englishwoman did legitimately dazzle against Denmark, it was James. In a crowd full of players dutifully executing their prescribed roles, James was an inventor. She started out on the left wing but found herself drifting wherever she pleased, which (as is common with the most creative players) often took her into the middle, the heart of the action. She dribbled with carefree confidence, and also with bucketloads of skill and creativity. Where some players might take what the opposition gives them, charting their paths forward through the areas where the defense allows space, James seemed to go wherever she wanted, obstructing players mere traffic cones for her to pluck up, set aside, and continue on past. She saw the game, read what it needed and what she wanted to do, visualized how to make it happen—be it a step-over that flows straight into a nutmeg that let her skip past one defender, or the detection of a narrow crevice through which she might slide a perfectly weighted pass should she kick the ball with the precise right timing and tension—and then pulled it off. Her slingshot goal in the sixth minute that decided the match spoke to some of what makes her so good: her voracity for the ball, her predilection for the center of the field, her smooth stride and delicate touch, her ability to stitch together different actions—in this case, a dribble that without hardly changing her gait became a shot—without a seam in sight.
James is an exceedingly attack-minded player, but her version of it is subtle and sensitive. Often when you think of an attacker, you think of someone who receives the ball and is at once in a rush to do something menacing with it. But James less direct than that. The 21-year-old possesses the gift of patience, the ability to feel the moment, ascertain its possibilities, and only then decide what she'd like to do. Sometimes, yes, this means knocking the ball forward and sprinting toward goal, but other times it means stepping on the ball, waiting for the pieces on the board to move, passing it backwards, jogging into a new passing lane, collecting the ball again, and only then shattering the back line with a through ball to a teammate.
England so far this tournament has seemed in a hurry to make something happen, as though seeking in quantity a replacement for the quality and patience typically provided by the team's usual conductors in attack, Mead and Kirby. You can find a similar impatience in the play of some of the other favorites in this World Cup, some of whom have also had to get by with their main inventors sidelined. (We wish you all a speedy return to health and form, Rose Lavelle, Alexia Putellas, and Sam Kerr!)
Seeing what we've seen so far—and especially if the Walsh injury is a bad one (at the moment it's still unclear), since her unique skill set is uniquely irreplaceable in a way even Mead's, Kirby's, and Williamson's aren't—England doesn't appear to be in the opening stages of another high-flying romp to a major title. The team that did that a year ago is not the one in Australia right now. The Lionesses have nevertheless controlled both of their matches thus far, an impressive feat in light of the injury blows they've sustained; they have two laudable wins over two challenging opponents to show for it. England could certainly still win the World Cup, even if they're unlikely to do so as comprehensively and enthrallingly as they did the Euros. But to accomplish those goals this summer, the team will need to reinvent itself around the players who are actually there instead of trying to recapture the form created by the ones who are not. And I can think of a perfect new centerpiece.