In the 86th minute in Sydney, with the game finely balanced, Lauren Hemp galloped up the pitch. Shrugging off a defender, a trademark burst of pace enabled her to maraud from one half to the other before producing the deftest of no-look passes to send Alessia Russo through to score. In 10 seconds flat, the player of the match had changed the course of the game, with her strike partner putting it beyond the reach of a heartbroken Australia.
It was a goal that lifted the lid on the pressure cooker inside Stadium Australia. Hemp herself had restored England’s lead with dogged determination after Sam Kerr’s equaliser. The Matildas, however, had been on top in the minutes before – Kerr inexplicably missed the target twice and the Lionesses were saved by a terrific recovery challenge from Jess Carter. The semi-final was on a knife-edge, and it required someone with Hemp’s skillset to disrupt the flow.
The Hemp who starred in Sydney was the same Hemp who had caused so much excitement before the European Championship last summer. With her potential indisputable, many expected her to shine in her first major tournament for the Lionesses. Now 23, she has seemingly been made for the big stage her whole life, her raw pace, strength and ball-carrying ability catching the eye since she broke into senior football at just 16. Productivity in an England shirt, though, has been lacking recently.
In this tournament, however, there has been a resurgence, a consistent demonstration of the qualities she brings to the team. She is suited perfectly to Sarina Wiegman’s new 3-4-1-2 formation and has flourished since it was introduced in the 6-1 win against China. Her dominant performance on Wednesday, therefore, was not wholly unexpected but no less notable.
With the experienced yet ageing Clare Polkinghorne in for an ill Alanna Kennedy, Hemp had her target. The forward knew she would always win a foot race against the central defender and drove at her with intent on every occasion. Whether on or off the ball, she hassled and harried the Australia players at every turn, causing self-doubt and errors. This was exemplified by the goal that she scored. Pressuring Ellie Carpenter in Australia’s box, she placed a slight touch on the shoulder to make the full-back aware of her presence; just enough to set in the panic that led to the error to allow Hemp to pounce.
The unique connection between her and Russo as a dynamic front two has been one of the standout takeaways of the Lionesses’ tournament. The new system suits them both – both are strong pressers; both like to run the channels; neither likes to be predictable. The icing on the cake is the relationship between the two, an almost telepathic intuition that is growing with every match.
“I feel like my connection with Alessia is so strong,” Hemp said. “We’re both laid-back people so we really get on. We work off each other well and I think we complement each other’s strengths. We’re both so different as players that we just work so well together. She’s a fantastic player to play alongside. I know that whenever I get the ball, she’s going to be there. Throughout the tournament, we have built such a great connection on and off the ball.”
Wiegman described their complementary qualities as key to their success. Both have scored in the past two matches, injecting energy and belief into the squad. “They really want to work hard for the team and to work together too,” Wiegman said. “I also think that’s how the team plays now. Everyone believes in how we play and can support each other really well.”
This new confidence was also found in abundance in Ella Toone, who opened the scoring with the kind of finish that harked back to last summer. The Manchester United player has not been at her best in an England shirt of late and has received criticism from some quarters. She dropped to the bench after the first game, replaced by Lauren James. A lack of self-belief has been evident since her return but in a flash of a sublime finish, you could see the stocks refilling. The movement of the two in front of her helped her to find the space and affect the game from the pocket. Toone’s performance was in a way a microcosm of the England side seen at this tournament. They may get knocked down on a number of occasions, but they always dig deep and find a way.
The midfielder has given her manager a substantial headache before the final against Spain on Sunday. With James back after suspension, will the England manager stick or twist? The challenge of Spain could provide the perfect platform for James to thrive but equally taking Toone out will alter the foundations built and the relationships that are beginning to grow stronger. Whatever Wiegman chooses could be the decision that makes or breaks England’s chances of lifting the famous trophy.