February has now become the traditional stomping ground for “warm-up” international tournaments. With the Algarve Cup a mainstay of the winter schedule, followed initially by the SheBelieves Cup and more recently the Tournoi de France, the Arnold Clark Cup is the latest competition to get under way on Thursday.
Hosted by England on a multi-year deal, the Arnold Clark Cup will be an extra helpful solution for European teams unwilling to travel to the United States mid-club season, and during the times of COVID-19, has offered a closer-to-home solution for competing nations ahead of the European Championships this summer.
When Spain and Germany kick off the action in Middlesbrough on Thursday, closely followed by host England against Olympic gold medalists Canada, three nations will have their eyes focused solely on Euro 2022 preparation, while Bev Priestman’s side has eyes further ahead.
With the inauguration of the tournament closing in, here are some key talking points ahead of the opening games.
Euro Rehearsal is the Key for England, Spain, and Germany
“It’s really important. I think it’s the best preparation for us to play against really tough opponents, to test ourselves against the best. That will only help us in our buildup to the Euros. This tournament’s great for us, perfect timing, perfect opponents to test ourselves against and it should be really exciting for us.”
The words of England attacking midfielder Ella Toone, a player in a rich vein of form with six goals in her eight international appearances.
Not to discredit Toone’s record, but her goals have come against Northern Ireland, North Macedonia, and Latvia, though as the old saying goes, you can only score against what you’re up against.
But this is vital preparation for all three European sides. As football returns to some sort of normality after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the schedule is still catching up. Usually, teams wouldn’t be playing mostly noncompetitive qualifiers in the lead up to a tournament, but with the Euros and the World Cup only a year apart, that is the only preparation the leading teams have had so far.
Not only will these games offer much sterner tests than what any of England, Spain, and Germany have come up against in the past six months it also offers a key taster of what lies ahead. Spain and Germany will both face each other at the Euros in July, while England could very well face either one of them in the second round.
Spain and Germany kick off the tournament on Thursday afternoon in what many would argue is the most exciting matchup on paper, though it may not offer a truly accurate representation with Germany in particular missing key players.
While the Germans have the best European Championships record of all, head coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg thinks Thursday’s opening opposition are the team to beat.
“I think it’s been said before, they were a world-class side, if not the best at this point in time. They play with possession and based on combination play and have a lot of confidence in the squad. I think they are the team to beat, the benchmark at the minute, and we’re looking forward to a lovely challenge on Thursday.”
Stand-in captain Sara Däbritz, though, thinks Spain, like all teams, has areas to exploit.
“I do think Spain do have some weak spots we can exploit, for example in fast transitions,” said the Paris Saint-Germain star. “We won’t get 10 chances a game against them, so we have to execute the chances we get ruthlessly.”
Spain, likewise, are aiming to lay down a marker, not just in terms of their credentials for the Euros themselves but against opposition they will face again in July and are looking to maintain the momentum many of the players bring into the competition from their club sides, particularly the FC Barcelona players.
“We are a very competitive team,” said one of those in season, forward Mariona Caldentey. “We always go to win, we want to give 100% whether it’s training or games. The option of applying the handbrake does not exist in this team and that is precisely why we are advancing as we are doing.”
Head coach Jorge Vilda also did nothing to play down the importance of what it means to face an opponent like Germany, even if it is technically a friendly match.
“We do know that there are players who won’t be able to be there, but we have to focus on being ourselves. In the end, it’s Germany. They have a lot of high-level players to choose from.
“From our side, I have seen the players with a tremendous desire to train, play and compete, as always. Whenever there is a game against this type of rival, all of Germany, England, and Canada are of the highest level, so the players are very motivated and concentrated. We want to give our best version and show what we can do.”
Canada Still Offers an Intriguing Test for Tournament Hopefuls
While the European nations are very much focusing on the here and now with the European Championships just over four months away, Canada is very much the odd nation out in the lineup, but may well offer a very valuable test.
Head coach Bev Priestman has been keen to stress the same repeated term in her pre-tournament media, claiming, “this is the start of a new journey” for her side off the back of their Olympic success in Tokyo last summer.
Indeed, 12 of Canada’s players selected are in preseason ahead of either National Women’s Soccer League or NCAA seasons, but key players such as Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence, Jessie Fleming, Janine Beckie and Co., are very much fighting fit and ready to go in the middle of their European seasons.
Canada has forged a reputation as one of the toughest to break down, conceding just four goals at the Olympics, and while others scored much more regularly, it was Priestman’s side who fought their way to gold due to their impressive defensive record.
Paraphrasing a rather clichéd but accurate saying, offense win games, defense win tournaments.
While none of the European sides will have to face Canada this summer, coming up against their efficient and solid defense will offer them a taste of what they may have to do to win a tournament this summer when it comes to breaking down the strongest of defenses.
England duo Leah Williamson and Keira Walsh both worked with Priestman when she was assistant head coach to Phil Neville and both are aware of how Priestman’s strengths match up with her squad.
“When Bev worked with us she had a real kind of defensive focus and I’d say the main traits when you watch them is you can really see how they play in possession” said Williamson. “They’re an organized team, but they have a lot of pace and she’s playing to those strengths. It’s interesting to me what she’s done with the Canadian team being so successful in the Olympics. It’s an efficient style of play which is maybe something we didn’t quite get to with Bev. It’s different, but it’s an interesting style of play to play against.”
Manchester City midfielder Walsh added: “First and foremost, a lot of the girls got on with Bev, she was a great person and a great person to have in and around the camp. I think she’s very organized in defense and that’s something that she always prided the team on when she was here, and I imagine she does the same in Canada if you watch them play.
“They’re very good at pressing and they’re organized and tough to break down, so I think obviously we’re looking forward to the game and I think personally, for us, we’re trying to maybe get a really important result in that game. We’ve probably in those games not shown what we’re capable of and that’s something the team are focusing on. I just think we’ve not had the toughest opposition so we’re just trying to keep pushing and it’s such an important year with the Euros that we’re just trying to get out and play against the top teams really.”
England has failed to score in their last two meetings with Canada, both played at home, while Team GB relied on a late own goal to seal a draw at the Olympics last summer.
When asked about comments from her former players, Priestman said, “It’s playing on our strengths. I think I have a world-class back four and a group of players who are committed to doing whatever it takes for each other and the team.
“I’m proud of that fact, that they want to work harder than any other team, but I want this team to move forward in terms of attacking and scoring more goals and that’s the next step for us on this journey, but it’s a compliment to hear that.”
Wiegman’s First Test
Sarina Wiegman’s opening months as England head coach couldn’t have passed by more smoothly. Six wins, 53 goals, and none conceded is an impressive record whoever you’re up against, but the reality is the head coach looking to defend her title this summer is yet to be truly tested in her new role.
The former Netherlands head coach did record 4–0 and 1–0 wins against Northern Ireland and Austria, respectively, two sides she definitely will face in the Euros this summer. With no disrespect, Wiegman won’t be judged on her results against North Macedonia, Luxembourg, and Latvia, the latter on the end of the 20–0 defeat last time out in November.
“Since the moment I came in, we have played games where we are in possession all the time and although the pressure is high, not as high as we expect in upcoming games,” said Wiegman.
“We have some other subjects we are working on and will be working on and that’s both in possession, in transition and out of possession. We’ll see where it goes, we have our plan, our technical plan and we’re trying to develop our style of play. After this tournament, maybe I can tell you more about that.”
That is the one caveat to this tournament. Yes, it’s highly competitive, but all four nations will likely rotate heavily across the three games. Firstly, to get everyone necessary game time and test them against top level opponents, while all head coaches have spoken about the importance of managing player loads given many of the stars involved are in the middle of a European season and have big Champions League games coming up alongside their league duties.
Manchester United star Toone is one of several England players who will be getting their first real taste of high level international football, and one of the nation’s form players is also relishing the opportunity to test herself against some of the best.
“These are three great games and three great opportunities for us to test ourselves,” said the 22-year-old. “We know they are great teams because they are in the world’s top 10. They will be difficult, but that’s what we want in preparation for the Euros. We want to test ourselves against the best and see what we need to improve on. It’s exciting.”
“I’ve not played a lot of international football but in the games I have, we’ve won quite comfortably. These will be really tough for everyone involved and for me especially. It will make me test myself against better opposition but that’s the same for the whole team. We’re really excited we get to play against these teams and prepare ourselves in the best way we can for the Euros.”
One oddity thrown up by the upcoming tournament is all four nations will be without their regular captains.
England’s Steph Houghton is still recovering from a setback in her return from an Achilles injury, while Spain captain Irene Paredes had to pull out of the competition with an injury after initially being named in the squad.
Alexandra Popp is another longer team absentee for Germany, while Canada’s Christine Sinclair misses the trip to England after the death of her mother.
It means Jenni Hermoso, Sara Däbritz, Jessie Fleming, and Leah Williamson respectively will get the opportunity to pull on the armband over the course of the next week, with the latter concentrating on the job in hand despite looking more and more like she is very much next in line to be the permanent captain if and when Houghton steps away from international football.
“Firstly, I’m just happy to be back in the squad, back fit and to be here and sort of try and pick up where I left off in terms of performance on the pitch,” said the Arsenal defender. “The responsibility has fallen into my lap so I’ll try my best to apply myself in the right way to that this week, but the most important part for me is being back part of the team again.”
Teammate Keira Walsh has been a close friend and come through the international youth teams alongside Williamson, while the more experienced Lucy Bronze returns to the squad after injury and has previously captained the side.
Both praised Williamson for how she’s taken to her new role in recent camps and Bronze has no issues with the center back taking the armband.
“Sarina’s just mentioned to me that I’ve obviously been out for a while and missed a lot of camps, I need to be caught up to speed with the way we play and the way we do things,” said Bronze. “She just wants me to focus on me. Me playing well, training well, so Sarina just said to me we obviously know you’re a strong leader in the team, but right now it’s important that you get yourself right, and it gives me a time to focus on how I play in an England shirt.
“In terms of Leah being the captain, I think she’s obviously captained the team a lot recently. She’s done a really good job, she’s a young leader in the team but she has set a good example for a lot of the players, but ultimately I think we know we’re at the stage where we have loads of leaders in the team, there’s a lot of people that can help lead the team in different ways. But ultimately Leah’s the one who is wearing the armband on the pitch and she’s going to be our leader in these games and in this tournament.”
Walsh added: “When I was younger and we played at U-17s, U-18s, and U-19s, she was always the captain of the youth teams. It’s always a role she has naturally assumed anyway, whether she is wearing the armband or not. We have a team of leaders. But yeah, I’m so proud of her and seeing how far she’s come… She’s had a few injuries recently so just seeing the strides she’s made in her game. She’s at the forefront of that now. It’s not always nice playing against her because she’s so good and stops us scoring a lot of goals! As her best friend and teammate, it’s such a proud moment for me. I know her family really well too so I know they will be so happy for her. It was a nice moment for everyone.”
Staking a Claim
“In these three games we want to see things, but of course we approach every game to win,” said Wiegman. “We want to see how players relate to each other and try things out, but we also have to manage some loads with three games in six days and the busy schedules players already have with their club teams, we need to take care of that. It’s a combination of trying out things, developing our style of play, managing some loads, and hopefully we can get through everything we want to practice in these games and at the end of the tournament know where we are and where we want to go to.”
While there is a definite feeling of preparation for the Euros, plus the tournament being placed in the middle of a hectic domestic schedule means we can expect to see all four nations utilize their entire squads across their own three respective matches.
The next week is likely to provide all nations with an opportunity to test out some fresh blood, something we’re unlikely to see in the heat of a major tournament where head coaches prefer to settle on a starting XI.
While it’s unlikely any of the countries involved will tinker with their squads too much between now and July, fate has at least thrown a few curve balls when it comes to injury and COVID-19, with Germany the most affected.
Already without key players such as Alexandra Popp, Dzsenifer Marozsán, and Melanie Leupolz coming into the tournament, Voss-Tecklenburg has lost several more through injuries or COVID-19 positive cases since announcing her squad.
It means there are five uncapped players in the Germany squad and several more with only a handful of caps, but it will be an opportunity to see the exciting young talent Germany has to offer. Many believe the Euros may be a tournament too soon for the new-generation Germany side, but it also offers opportunities for players such as 29-year-old Aston Villa star Ramona Petzelberger, drafted in to offer experience and a reward for her performances in the FA Women’s Super League.
“The last few days have been quite energy-sapping, I’ve got to admit,” said Voss-Tecklenburg. “Throughout Saturday, Sunday, and Monday we were losing players virtually by the minute. We knew before it would be difficult, but there’s nothing we can do to change things and I expect we will approach this on a solution-orientated state of mind.”
On Petzelberger, Voss-Tecklenburg added: “I’ve known her for quite a long time, since she was a teenager. We thought to ourselves, ‘Who can help us in this rather special situation?’ In addition to calling up young and uncapped players, we thought it would be a good idea to have a 29-year-old woman who has seen a lot and done a lot in our squad as well.
“We contacted her and it turned out she was in Germany at the time visiting her parents. She had nothing with her, no kit or anything, but that problem was soon solved and she joined us for training on Tuesday.”
Spain’s squad also looks largely set in stone ahead of the Euros, bar the obvious return of captain Irene Paredes by July, but there are certainly talented players within the squad looking to claim a spot in the squad outside of the 10-strong FC Barcelona contingent.
Real Sociedad duo Nerea Eizagirre and Amaiur Sarriegi are certainly two to watch as outstanding young talents, with Barcelona youngster Clàudia Pina has also been called up to the squad since the original announcement.
Spain versus Germany takes place at 2:30 p.m. UK time on Thursday, with England versus Canada following at 7:30 p.m., both played at Middlesbrough FC’s Riverside Stadium.