Sarina Wiegman now belongs to the pantheon of great football managers. If that sounds like a knee-jerk reaction to England’s victory last night, it’s worth considering that no one has ever won two European Championships – or World Cups, for that matter – with different nations in the female or male game.
Wiegman was given a decent hand, managing two host nations and with some great players to choose from, but neither the Netherlands nor England had won a women’s title before she took charge. The Netherlands have fallen apart since his departure, while England’s transformation in a relatively short period of time has been remarkable considering how bleak things looked towards the end of Phil Neville’s term.
How Wiegman triumphed can be seen in contrast.
For one thing, she’s stuck to plan A with more determination than any manager in the tournament’s history, naming the same XI for six straight games.
Mary Earps, Lucy Bronze, Millie Bright, Leah Williamson, Rachel Daly, Keira Walsh, Georgia Stanway, Fran Kirby, Beth Mead, Ellen White, Lauren Hemp.
This is highly unusual and almost unbelievable considering England’s third game was a dead rubber.
On the other hand, she clearly changed her mind late on the positioning of her captain, Leah Williamson, who played as a box-to-box midfielder in one of the pre-tournament friendlies. in England and then returned to centre-back for the tournament itself. A centre-back wearing the No.8 looks fake, but in Williamson’s case it tells a story; it wasn’t always plan A.
And Wiegman really won that game with the use of his bench. But then, even his use of the bench was consistent. In the games against Norway, Spain, Sweden and Germany, Wiegman used the same five players as his (first) five substitutes.
Alex Greenwood, Ella Toone, Alessia Russo, Chloe Kelly and Jill Scott.
Both goals in the final were scored by substitutes. The semi-final win over Sweden felt a lot more comfortable than it was because England had better strength from deep.
The quarter-final victory against Spain is the best example of this; it wasn’t just that England had quality players in reserve, it was that Wiegman knew how to use them. His decision to introduce Greenwood in place of Daly, launch Bright forward and switch to a back three, worked in three ways. He stopped Spain’s most dangerous striker, Athenea del Castillo. This has caused Spain defensive problems as Bright is a useful target player. And then, after Toone’s equaliser, it allowed England to return to a four-man defence. It’s hard to remember any former England manager, women’s or men’s, being so capable of winning games tactically.
In the two games that were extended, allowing her a sixth substitution, she twice featured Nikita Parris for Hemp, likely with penalties in mind. Only once, when Jess Carter made an appearance in the Northern Ireland game, was there a variation in this approach. That means Demi Stokes, Lotte Wubben-Moy and Bethany England, along with substitute goalkeepers Ellie Roebuck and Hannah Hampton, didn’t get a single minute.
It’s difficult given that these players have been in training camp for the better part of two months, with tighter restrictions on seeing friends and family than they originally expected when Covid threatened to cause problems. It’s worth remembering that Italy’s Euro 2020-winning coach Roberto Mancini resolutely gave minutes to almost everyone, even bringing in substitute goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu at the last minute of the final group game of Italy.
But Wiegman doesn’t care about any of that – even when England had the dead rubber against Northern Ireland, plus games against Norway and Sweden where they were cruising in the second half – his mentality has been that it’s better give playing time to players you may need later as game-changing substitutes. Perhaps this turned out to be crucial. Were Toone and Kelly, the two scorers in the final, more prepared to make an impact after being used as substitutes in all six games? Were they more tuned into these roles than if they had started against Northern Ireland?
Wiegman’s use of a 4-3-3, with occasional elements of 4-2-3-1, suited the England side well. It is not a coincidence; it’s worth remembering that when Hope Powell was England manager, she was also given overall responsibility for the youth teams. She convinced all coaches of all age levels to use a 4-3-3.
“The theory was that players would find moving up to the next age level easier if they played under this system,” she later recalled. “I wanted players who were comfortable playing in a particular system, along a path through the Under-17s, Under-19s and Under-23s to the senior teams.”
It’s the type of long-term planning that English football has often lacked, and it’s worth noting that Powell cites the historic German, Dutch and Brazilian (men’s) teams as a model, rather than considering what England were doing. traditionally. It’s no exaggeration to say that you can see this generation of England strikers are 4-3-3 players. Kelly and Hemp are obviously true wingers rather than wide midfielders. White and Russo know how to play alone in front; although the two have strong arguments for a spot in Wiegman’s XI, it was never envisioned that they would be a partnership.
Wiegman has said repeatedly throughout this tournament that she has a plan for every situation. This was evident in his composure on the touchline and England’s cohesion after making changes.
It is relatively rare to see a major tournament won by a foreign coach — in the history of the World Cup and European Championships, men and women, only Germany’s Otto Rehhagel has done so before, with Greece in 2004. And despite all the talk about players inspiring the next generation of potential players – even the Queen has joined in – what England really need is for the manager to inspire the next generation of potential managers.
When it comes to women’s and men’s teams, England have a team that few others can match but which are not producing a flow of good managers. Perhaps the legacy of England’s first successful foreign manager will be that there will be less reason to appoint another.
(Top photo: Richard Sellers/Soccrates/Getty Images)
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