If you’d offered Sarina Wiegman three wins, 12 goals and two clean sheets ahead of facing three opponents who will all be heading to England after the weekend to take part in Euro 2022, there’s little doubt the Lionesses head coach would have snapped your hand off.
Even if the understated leader of the Lionesses is uncomfortable with the idea of sitting on a “pink cloud,” optimism among supporters which already existed pre-warm-up games has only skyrocketed after the convincing nature of England’s three victories.
Wiegman will have seen a lot, heard a lot, and more importantly, learned a lot from all three of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, but the trio of wins has also offered question marks for the head coach to ponder over with less than a week until their Group A opener against Austria.
England Can Go the Distance… No, Not That
Okay, that too, but we’re not getting carried away yet.
No, this is about England staying patient, playing their football, and not getting frustrated, as they may have done in the past. Wiegman’s side was drawing all three of their warm-up games but ran out comfortable winners on each occasion, a trait that will both concern, but surely also delight the head coach.
Against a Belgium side who wanted to frustrate, England remained patient and once the first goal went in, the next two followed. Against the Dutch, England trailed thanks to Lieke Martens’s header but came out in the second half and blitzed their tiring opponents. It was similar against Switzerland despite actually starting quickly, the hosts soon grew into the game but once Alessia Russo opened the scoring in the second half, three more goals followed.
Patience in tournament football is a must, especially given opposition such as Austria and Northern Ireland in particular will look to frustrate England, but the Lionesses have shown they are prepared to wait it out and grind down their opposition.
Potentially something we knew before these games, but something we absolutely know now — England’s depth may just be their most potent weapon if they are to win the European Championships.
Wiegman has tinkered with her team slightly in all three games. Some pre-planned, some forced by the odd knock or a COVID-19 case. Against Belgium, it was Mead, Stanway, Hemp, and White from the start, with Kirby, Kelly, Parris, and England off the bench. Kelly scored, as did fellow sub Daly from left back.
Against the Netherlands, it was Kelly, Kirby, Hemp, and England, and Mead, Toone, Parris, and Russo off the bench. Mead scored twice and Toone also found the net as England’s depth once again showed its importance.
The story was similar against Switzerland, with this time Mead, Kirby, Hemp, and Russo leading the charge and the latter opening the scoring, before substitutes England and Scott both found the net and Kelly got herself an assist.
England’s depth in attack, even without the absent White, will have left Wiegman with a huge headache in terms of who starts at Old Trafford next week, but it’s the best kind of headache to have.
Some Frailties Remain
There will be times in the tournament if England go really deep they simply can’t afford the slow starts seen in some of the warm-up games because they’ll be punished. That’s a small criticism, though, and no doubt something Wiegman is not asking of her team by design.
At the back, despite two clean sheets, England did sometimes look a little shaky, with Millie Bright at times again not looking as comfortable as she does for Chelsea, while Alex Greenwood was sublime on the ball, but was caught out by a ball over the top against the Netherlands and subsequently conceded a penalty for a clumsy foul.
In the same game, England conceded from a corner, something which was certainly an all too familiar pattern under predecessor Phil Neville. Wiegman may also be wondering who actually starts in her back four, with Daly doing a good job and Stokes also available at left back, while Alex Greenwood could end up there with Leah Williamson all of a sudden looking more comfortable back in her center back role that we see her play at club level.
The Captain Conundrum
And that leads nicely onto perhaps the biggest quandary Wiegman will take away from these games, and potentially one she didn’t see coming, despite all her experience.
Most of Wiegman’s tenure so far has been based around a fairly solid and consistent spine of the team, with Bright and Greenwood working to form a partnership at the back and Williamson and Walsh forming a double pivot in the midfield. Yet Wiegman admitted Williamson felt more comfortable when moving back into defense against the Netherlands and kept her there against Switzerland, getting a good performance out of her captain.
But these changes would make for a huge reshuffle in system and personnel just days out from a major tournament opener. Williamson’s presence at the back would push Greenwood back out to left back, a role she has not played regularly at the top level for a couple of years now.
It also leaves huge question marks in the midfield, with realistically no other player capable of playing the same double pivot role alongside Walsh. It may well mean a shift to a more conventional 4-3-3, which will have an effect on the likes of Fran Kirby and Ella Toone’s roles as the potential No. 10s.
Wiegman may well revert to type and keep Williamson in the midfield for continuity purposes, but it will certainly be giving her huge food for thought.
Who has Done Enough to Start?
The reality is at this stage it almost doesn’t matter. As was touched upon in ITV’s commentary against Switzerland, some players may actually be relishing coming off the bench with fresh legs given the impact we’ve seen from Wiegman’s changes throughout the three games.
Wiegman decided not to rotate her goalkeeper, only reaffirming that Earps will be the starting goalkeeper against Austria and beyond. Lucy Bronze will no doubt come back into her right back role once she recovers from illness, but there are now question marks over how the rest of the back four will look come Wednesday.
But the main questions are in attack. The likes of Mead, Kelly, and Russo put in some of their best performances off the bench rather than when starting, albeit the latter was very impressive in her general play against Switzerland. Wiegman likely won’t be too concerned about what her attack looks like against Austria, because she will be safe in the knowledge that whoever starts, the options off the bench will be just as good.