Leah Williamson: Has captaincy made her key for England?

By Emma SandersBBC Sport
Leah Williamson
Leah Williamson made her England debut in 2018

Leah Williamson has come a long way since being, in her own words, "passive" at the 2019 World Cup.

The 24-year-old has since notched up over 100 appearances for Arsenal and captained England for the first time, wearing the armband in both World Cup qualifiers this month.

There was a time when she struggled to break into the England team but after impressing in a less-familiar midfield role in thrashings over North Macedonia and Luxembourg, is she set for a key role under new boss Sarina Wiegman?

How has she been used by Wiegman?

Leah Williamson
Leah Williamson has started both games under Sarina Wiegman so far as a midfielder

Eyebrows were raised when Williamson, usually deployed as a centre-back, was named as a midfielder in Wiegman's first squad following an outbreak of injuries.

When Steph Houghton was also forced to withdraw, it gave Williamson an opportunity she called "the biggest honour of my life" to captain England.

It could not have gone any better for her - England thrashed North Macedonia 8-0 on Friday, before a 10-0 win over Luxembourg on Tuesday.

Reflecting on the captaincy, a new challenge she said she embraced, Williamson added: "If you'd have said 'you'll be England captain' to that little girl playing football, she probably wouldn't have believed you. So I'll just try to stay in the moment for a little bit."

Wiegman said her calmness was a key factor in the decision to give her the armband, while defender Demi Stokes added Williamson's "consistent" personality was a key trait.

But what about her performances as a holding midfielder?

Chelsea manager Emma Hayes told ITV Williamson was "at the heart of everything" in the victory over Luxembourg.

"She can do both sides," added Hayes. "She can put brilliant passes into the final third, plus recover defensively when the opponent breaks."

What held Williamson back in the past?

Millie Bright, Steph Houghton, Alex Greenwood and Leah Williamson
Millie Bright, Steph Houghton, Alex Greenwood and Leah Williamson have all played centre-back for England

Despite making her debut in 2018, Williamson only has 22 caps for England.

Former manager Phil Neville admitted having "regrets" over not giving her more minutes at the 2019 World Cup, with a more experienced defensive pairing instead favoured but admitted that could prove "the making of her".

"She's competing in an area where we've got some unbelievable players," he said in 2019. "I thought she was frustrated at the World Cup and it was a difficult time for us both because we thought the same thing.

"When I left the World Cup I thought long and hard about it - about how we can get this girl in our team. There comes a point in a young player's development where you physically can't leave them out."

Williamson's biggest hurdle was trying to break the centre-back partnership of Millie Bright and Houghton.

It led to Neville having conversations with ex-Arsenal manager Joe Montemurro, who agreed to play Williamson in midfield during pre-season to help her development.

Williamson admits she had to prove she was more reliable over the past two years.

"I needed to become reliable and just take some responsibility," she added. "I think I was capable of doing it so I needed to make sure I proved that to other people and be what the team needs me to be."

What does the future hold for Williamson?

Leah Williamson
Leah Williamson was impressive in the 10-0 thrashing of Luxembourg while playing in a midfield role

Wiegman said she has not decided who her permanent captain will be, nor if Williamson will become a regular in midfield.

"I know she is very good in defence too," said Wiegman. "I hope we can see that too but for now it was this. I thought she had a good performance [against Luxembourg]. She did well as a captain I think.

"She was playing the pivot in the game so you need to be very simple with your passing, switching the field and getting close to the goal when we are attacking. I think she did that very well."

Team-mate Bright added: "Leah has always had that ability to play in midfield. She leads by example and what you see is what you get. She is a very mature individual, both on and off the pitch. She is very calm in the way she leads.

"It's been a delight to see her lead the team out and it's been a big moment for her. I'm really proud as a team-mate. She is really effective in that [midfield] role. It's something different and it's an option."

Former England goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain said it was important for England to have a captain lined up as a replacement for Houghton in the future.

"We have heard a number of the England squad talk about her personality," Chamberlain told BBC Radio 5 Live.

"She is a fantastic leader and I think she is definitely someone who can mature and grow into the role of England captain moving forward."

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