SOUTHAMPTON, England — After their 8-0 hammering of Norway, it was always going to be interesting to see what Sarina Wiegman did with England coming into their final group stage match against lowest-ranked side Northern Ireland. Wiegman is usually consistent with her starting XI, but there was the question of whether, with a spot into the quarterfinals already booked, she would rest certain players to give others in the squad more minutes.
Despite a COVID-19 diagnosis keeping her off the bench for Friday’s game, Wiegman’s touch was obvious within the squad, which once again remained unchanged. Why, after all, would she change it when, regardless of the stakes, the squad are purring along so well as a collective?
While other teams who have been tipped to be favorites have faltered or looked uncertain at times, England have continued to operate as a well-oiled machine. Their 5-0 win over Northern Ireland saw England finish out the group stage having conceded no goals, only the second team to do so at a Women’s Euros — the other being Germany when they went onto win the tournament in 2005.
“At the end the team performance showed that whatever is going on, we have lots of quality,” assistant coach Arjan Veurink said after the game, stepping into the head role for Wiegman. “They were calm and they were relaxed and, although Sarina isn’t here, they reacted really well and I’m really happy with the team performance.
“The first 30 minutes, to be fair to NI, they did well — we didn’t use the right spaces to play in and that’s one of the things we tried to put some attention on — we did really well in the first part of the second half and sometimes when they are defending in a low block it is really difficult.”
While Friday was the first match that it took England until 40 minutes to score, they got some glorious goals through Fran Kirby, Beth Mead and substitute Alessia Russo, who scored with her first touch of the ball. The 5-0 finish means they have now scored 98 goals in 17 games under Wiegman, and they are undefeated in 17 games, a team record.
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The records keep coming in too.
Ellen White is one goal off equalling Wayne Rooney’s all-time England record. Beth Mead is a goal off levelling Inka Grings’ Euro record of scoring six in one tournament and leads the Golden Boot race. She would also tie Jodie Taylor for most goals scored by an English player at the Euros with one more goal. Of the top six scorers in the competition so far, four of them are English. Kirby leads the assists chart. England also broke the record for most goals scored (14) in the group stages.
Not a bad tournament for the hosts so far.
While their success throughout Euro 2022 has been a team effort thus far, it is hard to look past some of the individual performances.
Mead, who had one of her best seasons ever in the Women’s Super League, looks like a woman who is on a mission to score as many goals as she can. Heading into the 2021-22 season, the main talking point around her was the fact that she wasn’t picked to go to the Olympics by Hege Riise with Team Great Britain. It seems since that moment she has used every opportunity to show why that was a mistake by Riise. She scored 11 goals and got eight assists with Arsenal and that form has continued into her international appearances.
“Obviously it was disappointing last summer, but would I be the player I am today if that didn’t happen? Maybe not,” the 27-year-old said before the start of the tournament. “I’m enjoying my football, I’m really happy out there on the pitch, that is showing in my performances, and hopefully I can bring some of them into this summer’s Euros.
“I know it’s only been a year but I think I’ve matured as a player. I think I’ve started maybe not to think about what other people think and concentrate on myself a little bit more.
“I’ve played with a lot more freedom this year and I think for me, when I play freely is when I play my best football. I don’t over-complicate anything. I make better decisions, and for me, this year has been a lot more free on a football pitch.”
Her goal here on Friday was another moment of brilliance. She controlled it with her right foot and then brought it around the Northern Ireland defender. She then swapped to her left foot and hammered the ball past Jackie Burns.
Another player who has shown up this tournament despite facing her own difficulties before it is Kirby. While she is often central to play and an assist queen whether it is to Chelsea teammate Sam Kerr or her England teammates, her goal against Northern Ireland reminded everyone of the sublime strikes she can pull off. England had been battering at the Northern Ireland goal when Kirby controlled the ball on the outside of the box and whipped the ball into the top right corner.
There had been a question mark over whether she would be able to compete at the tournament after fatigue issues made her miss parts of the end of the season but she has shown that this hasn’t slowed her down.
“I’ve been wanting to get a goal through the tournament and have been getting myself in good positions but it hasn’t come off for me,” Kirby said after the game. “Luckily today I was in the right place and I got good contact on the ball and it was one of those you’re watching to see if it goes in so when it did I was just really happy to open my account.”
A word must also be said for Russo, who came on as a substitute at the start of the second half, replacing White. With her first touch she scored a header and minutes later she pulled off a wonderful turn to slide in every second.
Much has been made of whether Russo should be starting ahead of White, particularly ahead of the tournament when White was in a bit of a goal drought, and with four goals in four games she is giving Wiegman a selection headache. However, it seems unlikely she will swap out her consistent squad choice but Russo is a great option off the bench, especially when teaming up with Manchester United teammate Ella Toone.
“I enjoy every game in an England shirt and to come on and score is great. I just got in the right place at the right time, and was able to put it in the back of the net,” she said. “I should have finished that last one but we will move on to the next game. I’ve been watching Ian Wright’s goals this week and maybe that helped me. Obviously I want to play in every game for England but I know I have to be patient.”
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This was a group that many were confident that England could get out of — but the manner in which they’ve done it shows why they should be considered the favorites for the tournament.
Spain or Denmark await them in the quarterfinals depending on how Saturday’s Group B clash between the two goes as both sit on three points. That will undoubtedly be a sterner test for England than what they’ve faced in the group stages but it is hard to see them faltering at that stage. Spain have scored just four goals so far in the tournament while Denmark only have one. Northern Ireland manager Kenny Shiels said after their defeat that it would be a “failure” if England didn’t win the whole thing.
“It would be a massive failure if they didn’t win this tournament. They’re home and hosed. Everyone else should just go home,” he said.
Wiegman has brought a level of professionalism to this side that has been missing in previous tournaments. The main question now is: can she keep it up?