England's Beth Mead celebrates her 16th-minute goal against Austria in the opening match of the 2022 UEFA Women's European Championship.
England's Beth Mead celebrates her 16th-minute goal against Austria in the opening match of the 2022 UEFA Women's European Championship.

England Win, but There’s Work to Do

Job done.

Just, and in an unconvincing manner, but perhaps we expected too much on a night that had been built up in players’ heads for more than three years. The plan pre-COVID-19 would have had former Manchester United player Phil Neville leading his team out at his former home, but that fairy tale was put to bed some time ago.

There was no fairy tale for Ella Toone, who admitted she had been dreaming about scoring at Old Trafford and knee-sliding in front of the Stretford End, nor for United teammate Alessia Russo. The fairy tales came largely off the pitch, with 68,871 supporters packing out the Theatre of Dreams, a record for a UEFA Women’s Championship match and likely not the last time that record will fall this month.

The anticipation and hype was there for all to see. Flames and fireworks pre-match, a chorus of “Sweet Caroline” post-match, but the in-between will never get remembered as a classic of the competition.

That is in part credit to a feisty Austria side who not just frustrated England but had a go too. Laura Feieirsinger, in particular, was a constant source of annoyance for the Lionesses in midfield, while Viktoria Schnaderbeck was superb at the back in marshaling Ellen White on her return to the England team.

Perhaps unsurprisingly with the weight of the world and the eyes of a nation on them, Sarina Wiegman’s side started in nervy fashion, with the visitors looking the more accomplished on the ball early on, but Beth Mead’s sole goal settled the nerves, via a combination of goal-line technology and VAR.

There were some solid performances across the pitch, but nobody stood out among the pack. Mary Earps had little to do but did well when called upon twice late on.

At the back, Lucy Bronze was always looking to get forward, with Millie Bright largely the standout, constantly getting her head on everything the visitors threw into the box.

Wiegman shuffled the pack with captain Leah Williamson at the back in place of the desperately unfortunate Alex Greenwood, who until tonight had been an almost constant presence in Wiegman’s defense. The Manchester City star didn’t even get second prize of slotting into her old left back role, with Rachel Daly favored over both her and Demi Stokes.

Keira Walsh was her usual controlled self while Georgia Stanway took the player of the match honors, albeit she faded in the second half. Fran Kirby, promisingly, showed glimpses of her old self, setting up the decisive goal and playing an eye-catching pass for Bronze that split the Austria defense open shortly before the breakthrough came.

Lauren Hemp had everyone’s eyes on her coming into the tournament off the back of a fourth young player of the year award, but she had a frustrating night overall, albeit managing to get several tantalizing balls into the box, but the Austria defense did a solid job of thwarting her.

White missed a glorious chance to double the lead in England’s best spell and it’s credit to Schnaderbeck who constantly got in the way and was largely attached to White’s hip until both were replaced in the second half.

England’s substitutions were a big part of the three warm-up games, with Wiegman’s changes all either scoring or assisting in all three matches, but it wasn’t a similar story tonight.

Russo once again worked hard up front when she replaced White but did miss a good chance to seal it, while United teammate Toone showed bright moments but not quite the impact she would have hoped for.

Chloe Kelly was probably the brightest of the three changes Wiegman made just after the hour mark, constantly running at her marker and at one point firing away an effort from the edge of the box that rolled just past the far post.

This is what England could and should expect throughout the tournament, in the knowledge teams will try to frustrate them and nullify their threats out wide. Austria has always been a solid outfit, they made their way very nearly to the final of Euro 2017 based on their solid defensive work, and Manuela Zinsberger will point to the fact she was generally less troubled than her counterpart Earps at the other end of the pitch.

Wiegman described the occasion overall as “incredible” and “unbelievable,” but didn’t use the same terminology to summarize her team’s performance on the night.

“I think we were a little rushed in the final third,” said the head coach. “We did create lots of chances, but the final choice on the ball, whether to pass or to shoot, we can do that better. But the most important thing is we scored one, we kept them to nil, and we got three points.”

Wiegman did though praise her team for what she believed was a “mature” and “calm” final few minutes as they saw out the game without giving Austria any further chances and emphasized the importance of getting the first three points on the board.

“A good start helps. It gives confidence to the team and of course we want to win all the games, but it’s very nice to have those three points in your pocket to take into the next game, otherwise there’s more pressure on that game and that’s not what you want. A good start really helps the whole team.”

England will regroup for potentially their toughest group game against Norway on Monday night in Brighton, where they will come up against an attack including Ada Hegerberg, Guro Reiten, and Caroline Graham Hansen.

The pair are familiar opponents having faced each other in both the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, with England victorious on both occasions. If it’s the same again on Monday night, they can be almost certain of returning to the south coast again in the quarterfinals, but there are still some issues to iron out against a more dangerous opponent with one of the best attacks in the competition.