In Sarina Wiegman’s first news conference as England manager in August 2020, after she was introduced as a “one of the best coaches in the world” and a “winner” by FA CEO Mark Bullingham, she outlined her plans to nudge the team over the threshold of near misses to champions.
England have been to the final four in the past two tournaments — getting knocked out by Wiegman’s old side, Netherlands, in the 2017 European Championship, and then by the US in the 2019 Women’s World Cup. So they needed that extra bite when it came to big tournaments.
Having won the 2017 Euros and reached the final of the 2019 World Cup with the Dutch, Wiegman’s CV was deeply impressive, while the appointment came with a clear mission: Providing the winning mentality to deliver the title at the 2022 Women’s European Championship (watch LIVE July 6-31 across ESPN networks in the US) on home soil.
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But nestled in there were other signs of what was to come in the Wiegman era. Bullingham spoke of how she was not afraid to make big decisions — which she has certainly delivered on by omitting Steph Houghton from the final 23-player squad for the competition. She’s focused on forging team unity, with honest feedback a cornerstone of her philosophy and the environment she wants to foster.
She made the promise that England “can win major tournaments.” So after 14 games, with 12 wins and two draws – and an incredible total of 84 goals scored – since her first game in September 2021, it’s been a faultless start, but do n’t for one second think this team will simply expect success .
“We’re not going to sit on a pink cloud,” Wiegman said after the 5-1 win over Netherlands in a pre-tournament friendly last month. “We’re going to stay grounded. There are many favorites for the tournament and we’re just one. We’re in a good place but there are a couple of things we need to improve.”
In the year between Wiegman talking to the media and taking charge of her first game, Phil Neville departed for Inter Miami and interim coach Hege Riise led Great Britain to a quarterfinal finish at the Olympics. Wiegman inherited a team full of supremely talented players but lacking cohesiveness in a group with some nearing the end of their careers looking for one last shot at silverware, and others at the beginning hoping to kick-start a trophy-laden spell for women’s football.
But the question now is whether they can turn this form and promise into an elusive trophy. England have come close in the past decade, but are yet to deliver. Greats such as Karen Carney, Kelly Smith, Fara Williams and Alex Scott all came and went having established legacies in the game, but without that major trophy to their name at international level.
So the hopes lie with the class of 2022, including incredible talent such as Lauren Hemp playing in her first major tournament, alongside generation-defining players such as Lucy Bronze and Fran Kirby, who know what it’s like to play in major tournaments and the heartbreak of falling short.
So what will the secrets be, the reasons England can hope for success this summer? According to Jill Scott, at 35 a veteran of the group who is embarking on her 10th major tournament, the key will be this team’s unity.
“It’s really part of the England DNA to work hard to stick together, and why wouldn’t you stick together?; you are all stepping into the pitch, you all want the same thing so fight elbow, work hard,” Scott told ESPN . “You know if you could do that off the pitch you will take it onto the pitch.”
The training sessions under Wiegman are intense but the week is structured so there are clear delineations between time in camp and away from it. A source close to the group described Wiegman as “authentic, human and, above all, an adult.”
There were fears the team may fizzle out before the start of the Euros as they started their range of training camps back on May 30. But she has allowed players most of weekends off — giving them the Jubilee bank holiday so they could spend it was their families — to ensure that when they are in camp, the focus is solely on football. Though it’s a relaxed environment, it’s described as a place for “adults” where they take their craft seriously, but also a place where she is happy to take a back seat, according to one source.
“She’s not someone to dominate the dining room,” they said.
And then there are those who’ve been in the inner sanctum from the start such as Kirby. “She has her tricks that she has been doing with us in terms of dealing with pressure and dealing with certain situations, so she it’s the best person we could learn from,” Kirby told ESPN. “It’s going to help us have that extra 1% going into the tournament.”
Bridging the different generations and range of experience is Wiegman’s championship mentality. England have a proven winner.
“I think Sarina’s credentials speak for themselves, the experience that she brings and she has obviously imparted her philosophy and the way she wants to play on the group,” goalkeeper Mary Earps told ESPN.
While there has been elements of continuity from Neville’s tenure to this, she drew a line in the sand when she appointed Leah Williamson as captain. Williamson stepped in with Houghton injured for much of this season, and in April he was confirmed as England’s skipper for the tournament. Williamson is described by one source as a “commanding, assuring individual.”
Williamson has drawn on external inspiration for her captaincy style by analysing England men’s cricket captain Ben Stokes, but has also backed her own instincts on how to lead this squad. She leads the team alongside her vice-captains Ellen White and Millie Bright, and keeps the messaging concise and clear to the players.
“It’s not that I’ve been put on a pedestal, I’m just the same, it’s just I have this extra responsibility,” Williamson said. “And I take it more as a responsibility rather than pressure.”
But there will be no Houghton in the party. It was a ruthless call from Wiegman as she decided to omit a true England legend from the squad due to her lack of fitness. It was the shock call from the squad announcement, and a sign of Wiegman making decisions on form and fitness rather than emotion, and in line with what she told the players from the outset.
“She always said to the players that if they couldn’t prove their fitness, they wouldn’t be included,” one source said.
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Wiegman’s balanced selection has been one of the staples of the success to date. She has had an incredible ability to make substitutions at the right time — like she did in their recent friendly against Netherlands. Her introduction of Beth Mead at half-time changed the game, as did the replacements she made on the hour mark as it turned the game back in England’s favorite and led to them running away with the match.
“I think tactical power is something we’ve got and I think the ability to change at any point and adapt, I think is something that we are really good at,” Rachel Daly told ESPN.
There are still question marks over certain positions heading into their opener on Wednesday against Austria at Old Trafford. Left-back is a spot that will be decided on the flip of a coin between Daly and Demi Stokes, while Mead could yet start up front as a No. 9 with White, who missed the game against the Dutch after testing positive for COVID, off the bench.
The centre-back partnership of Alex Greenwood and Bright looked a little shaky at times against the Dutch, but far more assured once Williamson had moved back there to partnered with Bright, but the likelihood is that it will be Greenwood and Bright.
But they have real stars in this group, such as Hemp, the Manchester City winger, who will be one of the focal points of this championship. Then there’s Kirby — who’s back after managing fatigue which saw her sidelined from February to May — who is world-class.
Bronze, who has just signed for Barcelona, is superb, as is the versatile Daly and the midfield glue of Keira Walsh. White will score up front while Chloe Kelly and Mead are outstanding on the flanks.
“I think we are quite lucky with the state that women’s football is in now, with all our clubs that play a tactical game that really helps when you come to your national team, and you’ve got a coach like Sarina and [assistant coach] Arjan [Veurink] who are really tactically astute and you know we will be able to mix the teams up, mix the positions up to make sure that we have an advantage in the match,” Nikita Parris told ESPN.
One of the words Wiegman has used most so far is “ruthless.” She wants this team to improve their rate in front of goal, but also be more clinical in all areas of play.
“For us we openly said we need to be more ruthless and that comes in different ways,” Bright told ESPN. “It doesn’t always have to be just the force of a challenge or dominating your opponent, it could be the little things. Like dominating your opponent in 1-vs.-1, or putting the ball in the back of the net, and creating more chances and being more clinical.”
But for all this planning and potential, they must turn this into results in one of the biggest tournaments of their careers. The group have already picked the brains of men’s players Declan Rice and Kieran Trippier on what it’s like to play in a home Euros — the men reached the final in 2021 — and this group aim to go one further and win the tournament.
“Pressure is a privilege,” Daly said, but this team is aware of the need to deliver.
“I’m a firm believer of, you know, it doesn’t matter what’s on your team sheet, it doesn’t matter what’s written down, because it only matters about your performance,” Kirby said. “I think that shows in the last Euros when everyone probably didn’t expect Denmark to get to the final and they did and that’s credit to them because they have a fantastic team, but on paper people were talking about other teams.
“But I think for me it’s a case of turning up on the day and giving 100% and not thinking we are at home, we are favorites. We still have to perform. Every nation is coming because they want to win.”