England captain Williamson making her mark without having to tackle

Leah Williamson quite enjoys crunching numbers on a balance sheet but regards making wince-inducing tackles on a football pitch as something of a failure.

For a centre-half, England’s captain is involved in unusually few physical challenges. Instead the Arsenal defender’s extraordinary positional sense and ability to second-guess opponents’ intentions invariably permit her to intercept the ball, whisking it away from hovering forwards without needing to tackle.

As Williamson steps forward, carrying the ball out of defence with hallmark elegance there are shades of the late Bobby Moore about her game. Given that, on Sunday evening, the ultra-poised 25-year-old could become the first England captain to lift a major trophy since Moore hoisted the World Cup in 1966 that seems rather fitting.

Williamson is so good at winning possession cleanly that Uefa’s official Euro 2022 statistics show the part-time accountancy student has not only recovered the ball 46 times, more than any other player at the tournament, but that she has done so without making a single actual challenge.

It is the sort of record Paolo Maldini would have treasured. “If I have to make a tackle then I’ve already made a mistake,” the former Italy and Milan defender once explained.

Tellingly, Williamson’s distribution skills are also very much in Maldini mould. In the course of England’s five tournament fixtures a player who leaves the bulk of the rough stuff to her tougher-tackling central defensive partner, Millie Bright, has completed 411 passes, again more than anyone else involved in Euro 2022.

“Leah’s been amazing this summer,” says the Lionesses’ centre-forward Ellen White. “Her passing’s incredible. She’s part of the reason we’ve kept four clean sheets in five games. She definitely leads by example; we’re so proud she’s our captain.”

Given that White is a good friend – and Manchester City teammate – of Steph Houghton, England’s former captain who was controversially omitted from the Euro 2022 squad by Sarina Wiegman, that is some compliment.

It is also testament to Williamson’s emotional intelligence. After all it cannot have been entirely easy for a captain much more about calm, quiet authority than shouting and finger-pointing to win the hearts and minds of three key senior England players. Significantly Lucy Bronze, Jill Scott and Demi Stokes started out with Houghton at Sunderland Ladies and remain close to the exiled centre-half.

Not that they, or anyone else, doubted the talent of a player who started as a defensive midfielder and initially occupied that position under Wiegman. Indeed it was only when Alex Greenwood – the central defender England’s manager had paired, increasingly, with Bright – contracted Covid in June that Williamson reverted to the backline for the final pre-tournament friendlies.

Although Greenwood was absent only briefly, she returned to find her place taken. At the time it was a slightly contentious switch but no one now questions Williamson’s late relocation.

Joe Montemurro, Arsenal’s former manager, deployed her in defence and midfield but regarded the former role as the forte of a player whose stellar passing range compensates for a slight weakness in the air. “Leah’s maturity, understanding of the game and positional sense are like those of a 30-year-old,” says Montemurro, who encouraged England’s captain to study for her accountancy exams. “And she always finds the pass. She’s unbelievable. She has all the attributes to be an amazing footballing centre-back on the world stage for many years to come.”

It is a measure of Williamson’s versatility that, while she operates as the right-sided centre-half at Arsenal, she is situated to Bright’s left in Wiegman’s team. Whereas many defenders are comfortable playing only on their preferred side her ability to seamlessly rotate positions explains why clubs across Europe and the United States are likely to be queueing up to sign her.

Not that it will be easy to prise Williamson away from an Arsenal side Montemurro’s successor, Jonas Eidevall, is adamant he wants “to build around Leah”. Although Williamson grew up in Milton Keynes her family are Gunners fans and were suitably delighted when, after a year spent excelling as a striker in a boys’ team in Bletchley, the nine-year-old Williamson was invited to join the north London club’s academy.

Her heroine was the Arsenal and England forward Kelly Smith, whose signed photograph took pride of place in her childhood bedroom. Across the bottom of that picture Smith penned Williamson a special message her young fan would take to heart. “Dream Big,” she wrote. “That’s what every girl should be able to do.”

Those words have become one of Williamson’s guiding principles and were oft repeated on her pre-pandemic visits to Jakarta, where she has played a key role in a project pioneering football coaching for girls in Indonesia and Jordan run jointly by Save the Children and Arsenal.

“We all understand it’s a privilege to use football’s power to do good,” says Williamson. “Football can be used to achieve brilliant things; to develop confidence and resilience, those life essentials. Whether you grow up in London, Jordan or Jakarta, the game has the power to bring people together and, sometimes, offer them a lifeline.”

Given that England’s captain consistently speaks with an eloquence to rival the articulacy of her passing, handing Williamson the national armband probably ranks as one of the easier decisions made by Wiegman.