When England kick off against North Macedonia on Friday in their opening 2023 World Cup qualifier it will be the team’s first competitive game in 802 days. A lot has changed since that defeat by Sweden in the bronze-medal match at the 2019 World Cup.
England have played only nine times since. Although a hefty chunk of players travelled with Team GB to Tokyo for the Olympics, there was an interim manager, Hege Riise, in charge with England’s manager-in-waiting, Sarina Wiegman, leading the Netherlands to the quarter-finals. Now, with Wiegman settling in at St George’s Park, it is time for a fresh start. But what needs addressing and what will her team look like?
Short time frame
The Lionesses kick off a home Euros at Old Trafford on 6 July 2022 and there are only seven international windows to work with. Wiegman said in her first press conference there will be no room to rest players on international duty: “If they’re fit and ready to play, I bring them in because we have a short time, we have to play qualification games and we have to win.” That makes building a solid relationship with managers in the Women’s Super League critical.
This season many of the top teams will be playing in five tournaments, with last season’s FA Cup still to be completed. Chelsea’s manager, Emma Hayes, has criticised the international set-up for not taking enough care of Fran Kirby and failing to get the best out of her. Already there are a number of injuries across the core of the England squad. Wiegman said managing player loads would be “a challenge” but added that early conversations with coaches had been good. “As a club coach you have to win and as a manager of the national team you have to win. You can’t always come together but at least you can communicate and we can be aware that we need to take care of players. [Talks] were really good and they were very open.”
No room for sentimentality
There can be no room for sentimentality with a home Euros so soon and the trophy targeted. The goalkeeper Mary Earps described Wiegman, from the team’s first interactions, as “switched on” and “direct” and she will need to be just that. The quality of competition in Europe has risen massively. The reigning champions, the Netherlands, the Olympic runners-up and World Cup bronze medallists, Sweden, plus France and Germany will be huge barriers to England winning next summer. In selecting her squad Wiegman will have to be ruthless and she must decide whether senior members still bring enough on the pitch. There is no time to allow for one last hurrah for players who have given so much to the development of women’s football in England. That Wiegman is yet to confirm her long-term captain, with the current captain, Steph Houghton, told she will lead the team for the next couple of games while Wiegman gets a feel for the squad, is a sign that the manager is not afraid of potentially ruffling feathers.
The Netherlands under Wiegman have been one of the most exciting international teams to watch in recent years and they traditionally set up in a 4-3-3. Wiegman has made clear it is important to “look at what is best for the players” and, although she is pleased that England players have grown up playing 4-3-3, she also wants fluidity. “Formations, these days, the football game has become so dynamic,” she said. “You’re talking more about principle. Sometimes if you take a picture it just looks like a 4-4-2. When you take a picture at another moment it looks like 3-5-2 or 3-4-3. In another moment it’s 4-3-3. It just depends on what happens in the game. You’re not going to just stay in your position all the time.” England have a host of players well suited to a dynamic style because many do so at club level. There are also players who can play in multiple positions. Placing an emphasis on the best group of players over the best individual performers will be key.
Fixing the defence
The Lionesses have struggled to look comfortable at the back. Even at the 2019 World Cup there were moments of madness in defence and the manager, Phil Neville, did not seem to have the answer. Balls into the box have caused chaos and, with a fully English defence in the Team GB squad, those holes were evident in Tokyo, too. With just a few months in the build-up to the Olympics there was little Riise could do to shore up the backline. Wiegman has more time but she also needs a plan. Confidence has seemingly been sapped bit by bit and a revamp of personnel could be needed to inject energy and belief. The defence needs a fresh strategy and to be able to handle set pieces, and maybe that requires minds less weighed down by the results of the previous regime.