England winning all three group games with an aggregate score of 14-0 might have given the impression that tournament football is straightforward, but the quarter-final victory over Spain showed it is far from that. England had to work extremely hard to stay in the game and needed to change tactics to get the better of their opponents, which will be beneficial going into the semis and, hopefully, final.

There is no doubt Spain are the best team England have played and offered a very different challenge from those in the victories over Austria, Norway and Northern Ireland. England needed to put into practice a different gameplan to deal with life without the ball. I thought at times they might be playing within themselves and that doubt was creeping in, but they just grew stronger and stronger as a group as the game went on.

Some of the younger players have not played in a major tournament before and facing Spain made them realise how hard it is this summer and will be at next year’s World Cup. The amount of off-the-ball work carried out in the first half stifled England’s attacking play because the wingers had to drop so deep and the No 10s were doing the same because England could not get to grips with the game as Spain dominated possession. They had to learn on the job. In the group games England were flawless but they found a really gritty way to get through against Spain. Tournaments are not about performances, they are about winning and getting the job done.

It is good for this group of players to have had a test. Ideally England would have liked to win 3-0 but it shows they have got to learn. Adversity helps a team bond; when you have to dig deep and go to places you have never been in a tournament, that is when a group becomes stronger. The atmosphere in the dressing room and the camp will be awesome after the win.

For four games Sarina Wiegman has kept the same side and a player on the bench can feel a little bit distant, but we saw on Wednesday how important the squad is. That dressing room and group will feel bonded and that is invaluable. The great thing about having young, relatively inexperienced substitutes like Alessia Russo and Ella Toone is that they have nothing to lose. In the games they had come on in previously, England had been winning, but against Spain they had to make an impact. They are very raw but they also have no fear, and I see that in how they play. I have seen Russo and Toone a lot for Manchester United but they have raised their level in an England shirt this summer. They have embraced it, they are flying and they deserve all the accolades they are getting because they have made a huge difference.

When things were not going England’s way, even after the original changes, they had to resort to plan B. Any plan is implemented to create chaos and when a team have a player like Millie Bright who is disruptive in the penalty area they have to use it to their advantage. When I played with Bright I always felt comfortable knowing she was at the back defending aerial crosses, so when moved up front she is going to cause problems.

Millie Bright (left) goes to make a challenge
Millie Bright (left) epitomised England’s fighting spirit. Photograph: Andrew Fosker/Shutterstock

For Toone’s goal, Russo and Bright caused havoc, meaning Spain’s defence was more focused on those two and the midfielder popped up because no one was tracking her. Teams like Spain do it on the floor but England’s direct plan B is aerial domination and it worked. This sport is about results, so who cares if it is plan A or Z that gets them? It shows future opponents that even when things are not going well for England they know how to change the momentum. Spain might be left wondering whether they would have been better going for a second goal rather than trying to hold on.

Not only was it a test for the players but for the manager as well. Wiegman missed the win over Northern Ireland with Covid but showed how a coach on the sidelines can be crucial. I liked the timing of her substitutions. She was direct and did not leave it until the 60th minute; instead she was quick to change things when England were struggling. I was surprised by a couple of them but overall I could see they were the right decisions. Her celebrations at the end showed a bit more of her personality, what it meant to her and her relationship with the players, and I thought it was great to see. At times we see a ruthless, cold, calculating manager, but we saw her warmth and what it meant to her as England’s coach.

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The home fans had to endure a nervy time in Brighton while Spain were on top, but when they got behind the team it really had an impact. The crowd had a detrimental effect on Spain, who were deflated after hearing the roar for the equaliser. When Toone volleyed home, only one team were going to win it. I was a little disappointed that Wiegman did not keep Bright up top and win it in the 90 minutes. I thought they had Spain in a bind, especially with the home crowd behind them.

Experienced teams are usually the ones that win major tournaments and England learned a few valuable lessons on Wednesday that should help them be successful in both the short and long term.