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Women’s Euros: Sarina Wiegman has transformed England and glory is within reach

It’s all well and good sticking 20 goals past Latvia in qualifying, or attaining double figures against Luxembourg and North Macedonia.

It’s all well and good coasting through the group stage, racking up 14 unanswered goals to sweep aside Austria, Norway and Northern Ireland.

But when England were really under the pump, when they were staring an early exit from their own European Championship squarely in the face, the character and fighting spirit instilled in the team by Sarina Wiegman came to the fore.

Sarina Wiegman celebrates after England beat Spain to reach the Euro 2022 semi-finals

Ella Toone (right) one of England's subs early in the second-half scored a late equaliser

Ella Toone (right) one of England’s subs early in the second-half scored a late equaliser

Georgia Stanway scored a stunning winner in extra time to send England into the last four

Georgia Stanway scored a stunning winner in extra time to send England into the last four

The Lionesses had been second best to Spain in Wednesday night’s quarter-final at Brighton and when Esther Gonzalez broke the deadlock nine minutes after half-time, Wiegman took decisive action.

England’s Dutch head coach could never be accused of lacking the courage of her convictions.

It certainly took guts to take off England’s all-time leading goalscorer in Ellen White and the tournament’s leading scorer in Beth Mead, but the fresh legs introduced revitalised the attack at a crucial time.

Gradually, England pushed Spain back and when Ella Toone, who’d been introduced for Fran Kirby, equalised late on, there only looked like being one winner in extra time.

When Georgia Stanway won it with a rocket of a shot that is destined to be replayed for many years to come, Wiegman’s bold calls had been fully vindicated.

Wiegman greets Fran Kirby after she took her off early in the second-half against Spain

Wiegman greets Fran Kirby after she took her off early in the second-half against Spain

Kirby's replacement, Ella Toone, scored the crucial late equaliser to take it to extra time

Kirby’s replacement, Ella Toone, scored the crucial late equaliser to take it to extra time

How many England managers – not least with the men’s team – have frozen on the touchline in such situations? How many have not made that tactical switch so glaringly needed, or delayed that crucial sub?

It’s why Wiegman has won this tournament before – with the Netherlands in 2017. She doesn’t shirk the tough calls or wilt under the pressure.

The delirious fans were singing ‘it’s coming home’ late into the Brighton night and they could well be proved right a week on Sunday if Wiegman and England continue like this. 

‘It was a good thing she made the subs early in the second-half because it gives confidence for the players coming on and shows the depth that we have got,’ former England captain Faye White told Sportsmail.

‘Some managers would hold it off. To make those changes and to have faith in the players who came on, it was just the perfect masterclass really.’ 

Wiegman, 52, has made trickier decisions in the past. During that successful 2017 European Championship, she hooked her captain Mandy van den Berg after 54 minutes of the Netherlands’ second group game.

Van den Berg remained on the bench for the remainder of the tournament, playing just twice more in cameos as the team went all the way.

Joy for England at the final whistle as their 2-1 win carried them through into the last four

Joy for England at the final whistle as their 2-1 win carried them through into the last four

Wiegman, who'd recovered from Covid ahead of the game, celebrates after the final whistle

Wiegman, who’d recovered from Covid ahead of the game, celebrates after the final whistle

Her team-mates were astonished at the time but hindsight and history proved Wiegman was correct. Don’t be surprised if England’s forward line is reshuffled for the semi-final against either Belgium or Sweden on Tuesday.

The erstwhile PE teacher has learned over time to curb her strictness. In her early years coaching in Holland, which followed a stellar playing career, Wiegman was certainly no fan of music blaring out from the dressing room pre-match.

It took time for her to appreciate that certain players needed the tunes to relax before taking the field.

But Wiegman undoubtedly goes about her job in a businesslike manner, getting tough when she needs to but also presenting a human side that endears her to the players.

Perhaps it’s her background in education that explains why she’ll only read non-fiction books, a constant broadening of horizons and search for enlightenment to pass on to the team.

Wiegman (left) delivers a team talk after England made it through to play Belgium or Sweden

Wiegman (left) delivers a team talk after England made it through to play Belgium or Sweden

Wiegman won the last European Championship with Netherlands in 2017 and wants a repeat

Wiegman won the last European Championship with Netherlands in 2017 and wants a repeat

Wiegman’s record as England coach 

Matches 18

Wins 16

Draws 2

Defeats 0

Win percentage 88.89

Goals scored 100

Goals conceded 4

Goals per game 5.55 

‘Read, investigate. That applies to everyone, but perhaps even more so for a woman,’ she told Dutch newspaper Volksrant.

‘At such a men’s meeting, for example at my trainer courses, I wait until I really have something to add before I speak. Then you will also be heard.’

Few words but a clarity of mission and purpose. You can imagine Wednesday night’s half-time team talk at the Amex Stadium was straight to the point.

‘I have met her a few times and seen her journey through the Dutch team,’ added White.

‘She was very quiet, she didn’t really impose herself initially but you can see she lives it and breathes it, she meticulously plans and has a great knowledge of the game as a former player with nearly 100 caps.’

The turnaround preserved Wiegman’s unbeaten record as England coach – 18 matches, 16 wins, two draws and still no defeats. Only four goals have been conceded and 100 scored, an average of 5.55 per game.

Of course, we must add the caveat that those 18 games have included two against Latvia (30 goals scored), two against North Macedonia (18), two against Northern Ireland (9) and a 10-0 rout of Luxembourg.

But while the minnows have been mauled, England have also dug deep to win the bigger games. This win over Spain joins February’s 3-1 win over Germany in the Arnold Clark Cup as indicators of real progress.

Their fighting spirit is reflected in the fact this is only the second time England have come from behind having conceded the first goal at a Euro finals. The other was a 3-2 win over Russia in the 2009 group stages.

The win gave credence to the old maxim that while individuals can win you games, only squads win you tournaments.

There was some criticism of Wiegman’s decision not to select Steph Houghton, capped 121 times for England, in her squad of 23 after the Manchester City defender hadn’t played since January because of an achilles injury. 

‘I felt sorry for Steph in the way that was handled. She was brought in to try [to make the squad] but not given any minutes to try to prove her case,’ said White.

Wiegman had to make the difficult call to leave experienced Steph Houghton out the squad

Wiegman had to make the difficult call to leave experienced Steph Houghton out the squad

‘I thought, why bring her in if you aren’t going to give her the chance?

‘But with hindsight was that a way of making a signal to the squad? These decisions do ripple and they do have an impact of the squad’s perceptions of her – she’s ruthless, she means business, we have got to perform.

‘She has shown throughout the tournament she isn’t going to shirk decisions and all praise to her for that.’ 

But Wiegman did have the grace to tell Houghton face-to-face, as she did with all members of the extended provisional squad having sent each a text to summon them to her room at St George’s Park.

Wiegman can be intense on the sidelines but gets results and England are feeling the benefit

Wiegman can be intense on the sidelines but gets results and England are feeling the benefit

Leonne Stentler, who played under Wiegman at Dutch club ADO Den Haag, said Wiegman’s eyes ‘can spit fire’ when giving a player a dressing down.

But it gets results and there must have been relief in the England camp when Wiegman returned a negative Covid test to take her place on the touchline on Wednesday night.

Her presence is a reassuring one and a second consecutive European Championship success for Wiegman has now moved tantalisingly within view.

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