06 Jul Formula for success? Inside Wiegman’s plans for England at the Women’s World Cup
As the players celebrated their Euro 2022 win, England coach Sarina Wiegman was, amid the euphoria, dancing with her team. But at the back of her mind, she knew the players’ lives would never be the same again. Over the course of those five weeks last summer, the Lionesses made history, and with it came a spotlight brighter than ever on that group of players.
Wiegman remembers the celebrations, the party at the Lensbury hotel and getting cajoled into dancing, but she also recalls moments of clarity that evening where she processed the experience and thought about what lay ahead.
“When the final whistle went, and we were partying, I thought, okay, now life is going to change for these players,” Wiegman tells ESPN. So the two sides of Wiegman clicked: you had the manager enjoying the success, but also the manager looking ahead to this year’s Women’s World Cup and the intervening period, knowing that for some players they were facing unchartered waters. “Winning the Euros was incredible but most of the world around the players changed a lot and you have to manage that.”
But there was a plan. There’s always a plan with Wiegman, and a solution. They had reached the summit of winning the Euros, but on the horizon, thoughts were already turning towards winning the World Cup and navigating anything and everything thrown their way.
It was the media day at St George’s Park on June 20. All 26 players were present, answering questions on everything from their club situation, to how much Lego they’re taking to Australia, to squad dynamics. The answers were varied, subjective to the player. But ask the England squad, “What’s Wiegman like?” and you get similar responses. In short, they talk about how much they think of her and about the importance of clarity, how she manages to find the right thing to say at the opportune time, but also how welcoming she is.
Striker Alessia Russo says Wiegman “puts trust in the players,” while another player told ESPN that Wiegman is “direct” but is a “leader” and “someone who is very caring and wants the best for each of us. She really pushes us to be the best.”
This approach is partly inherent to her, but also drawn from her coaching journey which has taken us to this point where she’s leading England to the World Cup with the expectation of winning the tournament on their shoulders.
It’s a calm afternoon at St George’s Park when ESPN talks with Wiegman. She’d recently seen star players ruled out of the competition, while there were ongoing debates behind the scenes on release dates from clubs. But she was calm. There was one recurrent word which ran through each of her answers, how she’s prepared for the tournament, navigated the turbulent blow of injuries and what she’s expecting to be lying in wait as favourites. Everything comes back to finding solutions; whatever problem on or off the field, or unexpected event, it’s about finding an answer.
So when Wiegman was watching star players Beth Mead, Leah Williamson and Fran Kirby pick up their World Cup-ending injuries, her brain switched into solution mode. “It is really devastating, very sad for the players who can’t join, but other players step up and show their qualities,” she said. “We’ll find solutions and some will step up and take leadership too and take responsibility.”
You have this vision of Wiegman watching the last few rounds of the WSL through her fingers. But it’s not like that. “You can’t control things,” she explained. “When someone goes down you’re like, I hope they’re okay. But you’re watching the games, we have plans, we have scenarios. But things can happen in training sessions, and in the tournament things happen, too. So you have to be prepared and see, okay, what will be the choice now? What will be the technical choice? What would we do in this scenario? And what will be the solution and just make it work.”
It’s perspective and experience garnered from her time as a hugely successful Netherlands player where she won 104 caps from 1987 through to 2001, and then embarked on a managerial career which started by taking charge of Ter Leede and ADO Den Haag. In 2014 she was appointed assistant coach of Netherlands under Roger Reijners, a post she held through to the end of 2016. She took interim charge of the team after the departure of Arjan van der Laan and was given the job on a full-time basis at the start of 2017. Also during that time she acted as assistant at men’s side Jong Sparta Rotterdam, but it was on the international stage, in charge of her country, where she developed a reputation as one of the finest managers in world football.
And in 2017 her reputation skyrocketed when she masterminded Netherlands’ triumph at their home Euros. She won FIFA coach of the year award that year (she’d finish second in 2018 and 2019 before winning again in 2020 and 2022.) In 2019, she guided Netherlands to the World Cup final, where they lost to United States 2-0 at the final hurdle. She’d been offered jobs previously but politely turned them down. But when Phil Neville announced in January 2021 he was leaving England, the FA turned to Wiegman and she accepted the challenge.
So, it’s that whistlestop tour which has given her the understanding of how to overcome any issue. “All those experiences make who I am right now because you always review and say ‘okay, we could do this,’ ‘this was really good,’ ‘we can do this better,'” Wiegman says. “It’s another situation, another team, but you take the experience of a tournament with you and that’s what makes me a better coach.”
It hasn’t been a straightforward year for the Lionesses since they won the Euros, but in Wiegman’s words “we kept going.” They’ve had to deal with the retirement of mainstays and glue players Ellen White and Jill Scott. Kirby, Williamson and Mead are all missing this summer. There have been other injury doubts.
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While World Cup qualification was straightforward, and they breezed through the Arnold Clark Cup — beating South Korea, Italy and Belgium — they faced sterner tests against Brazil and Australia. They needed penalties to get past Brazil in the Finalissima and fell to Australia 2-0, a defeat in April which ended their remarkable 30-match unbeaten run.
But there were no smashed plates, or raised voices after the defeat, just analysis of where they went wrong, pragmatism and learning.
“The whole technical staff talk about [how to solve problems] a lot. And what’s exciting is the players on the pitch in training sessions, we talk about that and how we can find solutions from our principles. Then when they find solutions in different ways, they take responsibility and recognise that in the game. That’s the exciting part of what we do.”
At the top of Wiegman’s to-do list ahead of this World Cup is working on England’s tactical variety, and how to play against teams who will sit back and try to hit the Lionesses on the counter — like Australia did in that 2-0 victory.
“What we want to do is go to the next stage. Of course we’re being analysed very well,” Wiegman says. “So what you want to be is very dynamic, trying to be unpredictable and playing with lots of energy, too. And in that we always talk about principles in our style of play and you have different solutions in that.
“We’ve played many opponents who sit deep, so that’s why it’s really good that you play different opponents. We had that against Czech Republic and that was really tough. We had it against Australia too. So we know that the spaces are tight, that will be in the position and we need players up front to get to break that line or to break the defense. So that’s why it’s really good to have, for example, the experience we had against Australia that it showed us we really need to be tighter on the ball and prevent the counter attack because then they can harm us.”
There’s also adding that dab of unpredictability to the mix and varied styles. “You have some principles in your style of playing,” she added. “We’re now talking in-possession and you have a goal, you want to get behind the defense, score goals and how you do that is different. It also has to do with how does the opponent defend? How high or how deep do they defend? What shape do they have? Where do they press or don’t they press? Then on your terms, you want to have solutions to get in behind the defence or have a shot from the edge of the box, things like that.”
The players have bought into it, appreciating the clarity. “[The coaches] have a way they want to play and we all get on board with that,” England defender Jess Carter says. “It makes it easier going out onto the pitch. When we are trying to get different players from different squads to gel together, she’s like this is how we want to play, these are our values. It’s that directness, she knows what she wants and she lets us know that really well.”
Wiegman’s talked over various scenarios with men’s manager Gareth Southgate. The two meet at the FA office in St George’s Park catching up over a coffee. “We share experiences and always take something out of it,” Wiegman says. “We know all the different styles of play and you see things in a lot of games, like how the full-back that comes inside. We talk lots about teams and the team dynamics, things like that.”
Those positive team dynamics underpinned their triumph at the Euros and is a recurrent theme of Wiegman’s tenure. The role of her assistant, Arjan Veurink, is also key. “Arjan is great. He thinks he’s quite funny. Thinks he’s a jokester,” Carter says. “He and Sarina work really well together.
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“For us it’s important to have good team togetherness. That can make or break a tournament, in my one experience of tournament football, I think that’s important and it’s important to me. It’s a respect thing, trusting everyone’s individual actions, everyone will do what they need to do to help the team.”
With the team 9,500 miles away from home, England have put a tonne of work into fine-tuning their camp in Australia. Players’ families will be welcomed, players will be encouraged to escape the bubble and explore, but it’s all geared towards the group switching on and focusing when required.
“We know we are all human beings and we are social,” Wiegman says. “So we know the team and staff, everyone who’s involved, also wants to connect with family at home. So we have been thinking about it. And if there’s family or friends over in Australia, we’ll find ways to create some family moments so they can connect.
“I think that’s very important too, to refresh a little bit to get out of the bubble for a second and then go back into our bubble for a second. We are not robots. So I think finding the balance in that, working really hard, but also sometimes just get some head space too.”
Everything, though, is geared towards delivering on the field. And that includes how they handled the post-Euros fallout. The players had to juggle new commitments, pressures and expectations, but guiding them through it was Wiegman and her team. “We had some support in place and we talked through things about expectations but what we say all the time, performing made us where we are right now. So keep the focus on performance will keep us where we are because hopefully we keep performing at the highest level.”
That laser focus will be needed again at the World Cup. England know they have a target on their backs in Australia. Wiegman wants the team to embrace that pressure and expectation, rather than freeze. She predicts the group stage will see odd one-sided results, but overall, the standard will be formidable. “The level of the game will be really, really going way up because I think so many countries develop so quickly and I think the level of the game is just improving and keeps improving.”
But amid all the noise, there’ll be a plan with all eventualities mapped out. “You can plan the controllable parts, and you can think of scenarios for the things you can’t control, but in preparation you try to turn every stone,” she says.
Wiegman’s always had the World Cup at the back of her mind since she took the job. It’s that looming target on the horizon, aiming to take England places they’ve never been before. And at the centre of it all, aiming to be as out of the spotlight as possible, is Wiegman drawing on the experience gained through previous World Cups and Euros but anchored in self-belief and trust in a philosophy that has delivered on the sport’s biggest stage.
“You have to embrace [the favourites tag],” she says. “I think it’s logical that we’re one of the favorites. I think England has been one of the favorites over the past tournaments anyway, they’ve done historically really well I think.
“But I think there’s so many more favorites in this tournament because the countries developed so quickly. It was at the Euros too; the games were so tight. And that I think for the fans it’s going to be exciting. I think sometimes for the coaches and the people at the side of the game, it’s going to be stressful, but it’s all good.”