There is something about the England women’s football squad and fire pits. Before the last World Cup, coach Phil Neville took the players out into the Qatari desert and sat them down around the flames at dusk to share stories and foster mutual respect.
Sarina Wiegman, the 52-year-old Dutch coach who leads them into the European Championship at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, employed the same method in less exotic surrounds. A large communal room was cleared at St George’s Park last October, and a video of flames projected into a drum created a virtual camp fire, as players lounged on beanbags, drank hot chocolate and related their journeys through the sport.
Wiegman’s more functional and spartan setting says much about the difference in the squad’s management between now and when Neville led them to a World Cup semi-final three years ago.
Sarina Wiegman (centre) is tasked with delivering England a first major trophy since 1966
Neville, who had spent the best part of his life amid the machismo of Manchester United and Everton, seemed to feel a need to convince he belonged in the sometimes bewildering world he had stumbled into. He could be self-deprecating, inspiring, emotional, unintentionally comedic and he expended a lot of energy in the process. ‘Grab it with both arms, both legs, all your body,’ was his message to the team before the semi-final against the United States.
Wiegman, whose Netherlands side lost to the US in the final in 2019, having won the 2017 Euros, feels no need to justify herself. She is the epitome of composure, who does not go in for grand gestures, never uses a sentence when a word will do and can be eye-wateringly direct. Though the players who operated under Neville are reluctant to offer any direct comparison, it is clear that they feel Wiegman represents progress.
‘She takes the emotion out of it,’ says Millie Bright, who will be one of the anchors of England’s central defence. ‘To be in the best football environment you have to have those difficult conversations.
Wiegman has a depth of players Phil Neville was not blessed with three years ago
‘It’s never a comment to me directly as a person, more as a footballer, and you have to be like that; have those difficult conversations. If you want to get from A to B you have to go up another level and have them. It’s not personal. It’s football. That’s been our mindset change.’
The bluntness extended to a final squad selection which entailed players waiting together for a text message calling them individually to Wiegman’s room, to hear their fate. We only have the selected players’ word for it, but Wiegman, who dropped former captain Steph Houghton, appears to have handled the process with an emotional fluency that Glenn Hoddle lacked as England manager in 1998, when the same method reduced a discarded Paul Gascoigne to tearful fury.
The Dutch coach led the Netherlands to victory on home soil at Euro 2017
It helps that Wiegman has a depth of players Neville was not blessed with three years ago. Above all, multiple attacking options including Lauren Hemp, the rapid left-sided 21-year-old forward who is surprisingly self-critical. She declares that her decision-making could be better and that she is too dependent on her left foot. ‘I think I just use the right one to stand on,’ she says.
Harsh, given that she will be a global name and possibly the star of the tournament. Her Manchester City team-mate Chloe Kelly, just back from an ACL injury, could also light up the tournament. Beth Mead, linking with the experienced Lucy Bronze, makes the right flank England’s most dangerous.
The flaw is a vulnerability to counter-attacking drives through central midfield, though this is a different landscape from Neville’s heavy dependence in 2019 on Ellen White, who still leads the line, and Nikita Parris, a fringe squad member now.
There was always an element of Neville bringing his playing experiences to the table and using them to convince his players that they could be dominant, ‘bad ass women’. He quoted that term after hearing Leah Williamson, a back-up defender in 2019 and now the captain, use it.
The Lionesses superbly warmed up for Euro 2022 with 4-0 rout of Switzerland this week
He urged them to believe in the passing game which was written into the St George’s Park orthodoxy and was an article of faith for the men and women’s teams. Wiegman is not having that. The players are struck by her insistence that they have the intelligence to decide what to do with the ball.
‘Sarina has a thing where the player on the ball is the one who makes the decision and you’re in control,’ says Bright. ‘That’s one thing I’ve really loved about her coming in. You don’t feel pressured to play a certain pass. If it’s wrong, you make a better decision next time. I feel free to be able to play and it gives me confidence.’
These are echoes of Wiegman’s compatriot Louis van Gaal — who, like her, was a PE teacher before a coach. ‘Play with your brain, not your feet,’ he always told his United players, though he put the fear of god in them too. Wiegman and Van Gaal are well acquainted.
England have won 12 in a 14-match unbeaten run under Wiegman before the tournament
Wiegman’s capacity to strip out the visible emotion was evident after England’s friendly against Belgium. She had just returned from the Netherlands after the death of her sister but unflinchingly answered a question about the players’ decision to wear black armbands in support of her.
Her intensity resides in such a relentless search for information to impart to players that she only reads non-fiction books. ‘You have to ensure you deliver quality. And you have to keep developing,’ she told Dutch newspaper Volksrant.
‘Read. Investigate. That applies to everyone, but perhaps even more so for a woman. 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. Football players and coaches become stupid if they don’t keep learning and just train, eat, sleep, train.’
The work ethic is inherited. Her parents ran a dry cleaners in a working-class district of The Hague in addition to other jobs, her mother serving coffee for civil servants at a government ministry, her father working at the Dutch Post Office. She has a twin brother who does not share her sporting intensity. ‘While I was playing football, he picked dandelions for our mother at the edge of the pitch,’ she said.
Her players should beat Austria at a sell-out Old Trafford and, with Northern Ireland also in their group, should only be taxed against a Norway side including Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen a week tomorrow. Then they will learn how good they are, with Sweden, Germany and Spain sharing England’s justifiable aspirations to lift the trophy.
Chelsea’s Bright, 28, has developed since 2019, her 40-yard diagonal passes to Hemp a significant part of the new England. ‘We all want to be the best on the ball and for each other,’ she says. ‘Football is never that simple. If only it was. But everyone has been pushed to new levels. We have the confidence to do new things.’