Niamh Charles must be England's left back for critical Nations League games

  • Niamh Charles has three WSL assists to her name so far this season
  • Chelsea star's creativity is paramount in an area where England are lacking
  • Alternatives left-backs Alex Greenwood & Jess Carter set to play centrally

Niamh Charles started England's last two fixtures
Niamh Charles started England's last two fixtures / Visionhaus/GettyImages

Niamh Charles has had a flying start to this WSL season, having the most goal involvements of any player so far. And with two must-win UEFA Nations League fixtures on the horizon for England, the defender is the perfect candidate to start at left-back.

Charles has earned her plaudits just eight games into the WSL season: scoring once, assisting three and creating five other chances from her wing-back role with Chelsea. It is these stats that now make her Sarina Wiegman’s first choice left-back.

In the coming days, England face arguably their two most important fixtures since World Cup final defeat to Spain in August as Netherlands visit Wembley and the Lionesses then head to Scotland.

Since returning from Australia, England, once near unbeatable under Wiegman, have lost two of their last four games. Their Nations League campaign started well with a 2-1 win over Scotland but went off track with a defeat to the Netherlands by the same score-line. 

Following a further defeat to Belgium, and with progression - or even salvation - in the Nations League at stake, as well as Great Britain's qualification for the 2024 Olympics, these next two fixtures are must-win games for England. They need to beat the Netherlands by two goals in order to get ahead of the Dutch on head-to-head record and hope Belgium, who sit first, also drop points. 

With such high stakes, England need a left-back who is reliable, proactive and creative. It's not a postition that was nailed down during the World Cup or since amid changing tactics and formations. But in-form Charles, who has started each of the last two international games there, is the perfect fit.

Niamh Charles
Niamh Charles was Chelsea's best player against Real Madrid / Angel Martinez/GettyImages

The 24-year-old, once arguably a victim of her own versatility after starting out as a winger, is excelling for Chelsea. She has started every WSL game this season, making critical contributions to each fixture. Charles even scored her first European goal in the Blues' recent 2-2 draw with Real Madrid and would have got a late winner but for a questionable offside flag.

"She's a top pro, she really looks after everything and the one thing that doensn't get said enough is how much work these athletes put into themselves and Niamh Charles has done absolutely everything she can to be where she is," Chelsea manager Emma Hayes said of Charles.

"This is no accident, this is no luck. This is unbelievable work on her part."

Hayes took Charles to Chelsea as an attacker from Liverpool in 2020. But the club had recognised that her abilities could create a perfect full-back. She had the drive and vision of a winger and under Hayes' watch, developed her other abilities to become a defender of international calibre.

There is plenty of competition for places in the England squad. Although, due to recent injuries, the fight for the left-back role is rather thin, working in Charles favour.

The main competition for the shirt, Jess Carter and Alex Greenwood, will most likely be shifted into central defence with Millie Bright ruled out - Leah Williamson is also still absent with an ACL injury. Chelsea teammate Carter is well aware of Charles and vice versa, meaning that in a new backline establishment, regardless of who steps in, having some familiarity will be key.

England's squad contains two other Chelsea players in Lauren James and Fran Kirby. That pair and Charles have been firing in their partnership recently, although rarely playing all at once, and Wiegman will be eager to capitalise on this to ensure trust and composure in her side. 

Niamh Charles went to the 2023 World Cup after just missing out on Euro 2022
Niamh Charles went to the 2023 World Cup after just missing out on Euro 2022 / Zhizhao Wu/GettyImages

There is a chance that Wiegman, uncharacteristically, will change things up and opt for a fresh faced back-line but it is highly unlikely given the must-win nature of these upcoming games. Charles has already stepped into the role when needed to, making her World Cup debut against China during the summer and starting both matches against Belgium last month.

There is a mental strength to the 24-year-old that also make her a prime candidate to step up in the tense nature of the games. Charles was on the fringes of England selection heading into Euro 2022 and just missed out on a place in the final 23-player squad after being cut from the provisional.

"What that did for her, I think was so good," Hayes added. "That lit a fire in her, kicked her on. She'll continue to flourish in the right way."

During the World Cup in Australia, Charles had opened up to 90min about a back injury that almost derailed her entire career. She revealed how that injury taught her to take every opportunity with both hands and make the most of it. It was an experience that instilled a toughness and resilience in her, giving her the capability to handle pressure.

Every factor currently points towards Charles being England's first choice left-back and there is no player more in-form or creative to step up to help the Lionesses reach their goals.