MANCHESTER, England – After rehearsals, the real deal came before a sold-out Old Trafford.
Despite all the preparation, tactical shifts and talk of responding to the pressure of the situation, to date it has been the definitive test of Sarina Wiegman’s tenure at the helm of England, as she won this summer’s home European Championships in front of a record crowd for the tournament of 68,871 opened . And thanks to Beth Mead’s 16th-minute winner, they passed their first test with a 1-0 win over Austria but will be aware of where they need to improve.
It was far from perfect, but opening games don’t have to be – they’re rarely feats worthy of the chosen champion. The Euro 2022 trophy will not be won tonight but aspirations can take a monumental dip if points are lost or injuries sustained. Luckily for Wiegman, their side came through unscathed and they held Austria in check to take the full three points. But Wiegman will be scrutinizing the second half – Austria dominated possession, England had clear chances despite moments when they had open players and passes didn’t find a footing.
But that test can wait until morning as England needed this win not only to calm nerves but also to maintain expectations as favorites at this Euro.
“I’ve been to a few big tournaments and what you’ve been drummed into is getting those points on the board,” Georgia Stanway said. “It wasn’t the level we wanted to reach. There was a bit of relief after the final whistle – but we got points on the board.”
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What this win proved once again was Wiegman’s understanding of their picks, their ability to make timely substitutions and how crucial a champion’s mindset will be. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t throw up an unusual surprise.
In all order, Wiegman, who made a late move into the heart of England’s defence, went against the grain in their first 14 competitive games. Having used the preferred centre-back partnership of Millie Bright and Alex Greenwood for much of her tenure with Leah Williamson in midfield, she scrapped that for her biggest game yet. She pushed Williamson back to Bright’s side and introduced Stanway to partner Keira Walsh as a pivot in midfield. She also went in at No. 10 with Fran Kirby as England’s pivot.
The England players and Wiegman often say that pressure is a privilege, but with the pre-game selection going against the team they defaulted with, the bold decision boiled down to one of two options. Wiegman was either: A) an attempt to tap into the champion’s mindset that the FA was so keen to tap into, or B) a sign that that pressure was clouding previous clarity. But of course the call turned out to be the former.
As the players walked out early in the game, they were greeted by a wall of white and red. There were no norms at Manchester United’s home ground – the sound of the Liverpool anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, played at various points in the television commercials, was shrill – but for tonight that was the lionesses. Hometown.
You could have forgiven some players for being surprised by the noise – it was the kind that reverberate through you and no amount of preparation can prepare you for it. But amid the magnitude of the occasion, the underlying mission was to get this off to a successful start. They appointed Wiegman to win this tournament and make the changes and selection decisions at the right time.
She did so even before today when she included Kirby in the 23-man squad for Euros despite not having started a competitive game since February due to fatigue ahead of the announcement. While Wiegman’s lack of game practice was enough to knock out ex-captain Steph Houghton, she saw enough of Kirby to know that given enough time to build up her game fitness, she would turn things around.
Both the trust Wiegman had in Kirby and Kirby’s own resilience to make another successful comeback from a ban paid off. It was her assist that got Mead in England’s opener – a decent effort when she threw it over the onrushing Manuela Zinsberger – and again it was her pass to Lauren Hemp who then crossed for Ellen White to go wide. Toward the end of the first half, Kirby again shattered the Austrian defense with a perfectly weighted through ball to Lucy Bronze.
While Kirby was influential in the No. 10 role, the call to start Williamson as a central defender allowed Wiegman to play an axis of Stanway and Walsh, and the former – who will be at Bayern Munich next season – was instrumental in disrupting of the Austria attack. Staying close to the dangerous Laura Feiersinger, Stanway excelled in that seated role and was crucial to England’s transitional game.
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As they tried to regain ball, Mead played back at times as a third central midfielder alongside Stanway while Walsh worked with Hemp at the other end. As they moved to the center of the pitch, Bronze and Rachel Daly kept an eye on those areas, allowing England to edge the ball past Austria causing them to run through dead ends and then with Stanway putting the ball into the Aus led, and Bright countered her teammates with those perfectly weighted cross-field shots. Stanway was England’s preeminent player.
Up front England’s front four worked well with White, Mead, Hemp and Kirby and it must be a nightmare to play against their movement as Mead and Hemp switch crosses and Kirby comes up with those clean through balls or halving runs. This was White’s first start for England since contracting COVID-19 in mid-June, during which she missed friendlies against the Netherlands and Switzerland. But while she hasn’t managed to increase her record haul, it’s her ability to draw away defenders and make room for her teammates that is so invaluable. She had half a chance in the first half when she headed over the goal from close range.
White’s frustration was indicative of that performance and one of the areas where Wiegman will improve. The England manager often speaks of the need for ruthlessness and wished England had scored earlier in the second half to erase any Austrian optimism. White kept finding space in the penalty area, but the pass was missing. England’s chances mostly came from individual skill and tricks rather than structure.
England also looked a little shaky in the early changes – reminiscent of the game a fortnight ago against the Netherlands in a pre-tournament friendly – where England had a habit of putting pressure on themselves but not clearing their lines. But while they needed a restart at half-time to reconsider their ability to play from behind and apply significant pressure against the Netherlands, here they braced themselves early for the Austrian threat.
“I think we rushed a bit in the last third,” said Wiegman. “We created a lot of chances, but that last touch of the ball, or whether we shoot or cross – we can do better than that. I think we lost the ball too quickly. We didn’t hold the ball well enough and then that’s what it looks like. We were very quiet in the last few minutes.”
The England side also seemed vulnerable to crosses – Bright on a phased head to clear under their own crossbar – while Wiegman at times called for England to press more when Austria had the ball in their own third. And Mary Earps needed a great save to ward off Barbara Dunst’s curling effort in the 76th minute. Austria dominated much of the second half, but substitutions on the hour weakened Austria’s attack. Chloe Kelly provided a valuable outlet to relieve the pressure and she created what was probably England’s best chance when she fired wide.
On the hour, the whistle “Sweet Caroline” boomed through Old Trafford. But the celebrations were muted – there was a look of relief, but you can also imagine they were quick to look back at lessons learned and areas for improvement.
Still, this was just what England needed as the opening days rolled by. From here the target on her back gets bigger and bigger as the games progress, but this was a tough first test. Winning that was key and England delivered and gave them a platform from opening night but now they have to build on that.