Monday 14 February 2022, 08:00

Wiegman: England’s squad even better than I thought

  • Sarina Wiegman has strolled through her first six months as England coach

  • The two-time winner of The Best FIFA Women’s Coach now faces three major challenges

  • Wiegman spoke to FIFA about her work so far and the upcoming meetings with Canada, Spain and Germany

Having won her first six matches by an aggregate score of 53-0, Sarina Wiegman has enjoyed the smoothest of starts to life with the Lionesses.

But despite watching her England side race clear at the top of their FIFA Women’s World Cup™ qualifying section, racking up remarkable results en route, the former Netherlands coach has been yearning for more.

Wiegman is savvy enough to appreciate that those lopsided scorelines – including two 10-0s and a 20-0 – reflect not just the ruthlessness of her team, but the absence of demanding opposition.

England, she knows, need to be challenged as they seek the elusive, final improvements to a formula that has taken them to the semi-finals of their last three major tournaments.

Fortunately, with an eagerly awaited home UEFA Women’s EURO looming large, the Lionesses are preparing to take on the Olympic champions (Canada), international football’s form team (Spain) and the European finals’ most successful side (Germany) – all within the space of a week.

It was, therefore, an excited Wiegman who sat down with FIFA to discuss her first six months in the job and the tough tests that await.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 09: Sarina Wiegman is unveiled As New Senior Head Coach Of The England Women's Team at Wembley Stadium on September 09, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

FIFA: Sarina, you have Canada, Spain and Germany coming up in the Arnold Clark Cup over the next 10 days. How excited are you by what should be great games against high-quality opposition? Sarina Wiegman: I’m really looking forward to these matches and I know the players are too. Since I started with England we’ve had six very nice games, but they weren’t against top, world-class teams. So we need these kind of tests to gauge where we are. It’s also such a good opportunity to develop our style of play, develop individual players and really step up our preparation for the EURO.

Is it tough to assess the progress and impact you’ve made as coach until after these matches, given what you’ve mentioned about the level of opposition you’ve faced so far? To some extent, although I really feel sure that we have already progressed and developed, especially with our play in possession. But even against Austria, when we only won 1-0, there was only a ten-minute period when I felt that they were really dangerous. It’s different when you play the likes of Canada, Spain and Germany because you’re tested in all aspects of the game, and there’s no doubt we need these kinds of tests to see where we really are as a team.

Canada surprised most of us by winning gold at last year’s Olympics. Is what they did in Japan a good example of what can be achieved at a tournament if you get the right team structure and chemistry within the group? Yes, and that atmosphere is something we put a lot of importance on; creating an environment where performing is very important but so too is being connected and getting to know each other. That applies to both players and staff. The good thing about Canada as an opponent for us is that they also have a good playing style and they’re very structured, so it’s an opportunity to see how we can set up against that and implement our playing style against theirs.

Your second match is against a Spain side that, given their recent performances, the success of Barcelona and the strength of their squad, are no longer being seen as dark horses. Do you agree that they’re now among the favourites for the likes of the EURO and the World Cup? It’s true that Spain can’t be seen as dark horses anymore. They’re a world-class team and, although they haven’t shown that in a big tournament yet, I think it’s just a matter of time. They’re playing really well. As we know, they have many players who play and train every day together at Barcelona, and I think that shows. In possession they play such a great game, and I can completely understand why they’re now seen as one of the favourites.

When you first took the England job, you mentioned an excitement at stepping into the unknown by coaching outside your home country. How has the experience matched up to your expectations? First of all, I must say that I received such a warm welcome and everyone here really helped me settle in. As for the squad, I knew already that it was good but when we started training I saw that it was even better than I thought. And the tempo of the training, the willingness to work, the incredible commitment – it was all so good. We actually had to slow the players down sometimes, and that’s a really nice situation to be in as a coach. For me, it was just about adding something to a team that I knew was already really strong – principles more than anything – and I feel I was able to do that pretty fast. The organisation, our colleagues at the FA, the team – everything has been what I hoped for. Now we just need to see how we match up against top-level opposition, when the pressure will come on us a little more.

Although England were established as one of the top teams in world football when you took over, there had seemed to be a lull after the 2019 World Cup, with poor results and flat performances. Did you sense a need to re-energise the team when you took over? Not at all! There was so much energy from our very first camp and, as I said, if anything it was a case of getting them to take it down a level because everything was really 100 miles an hour. The commitment and willingness to work from day one was absolutely fantastic.

You went to play in the US at a time when it was unquestionably the centre of the women’s football world. Do you feel that Europe has now taken on that role, and that England specifically is now at its centre? I think that the development in Europe has been so fast that there has definitely been a little shift in this direction. Here in England, I see a lot of the Women’s Super League of course, and it’s a really world-class competition. There are so many competitive games that are being played at a really high level. But you’re seeing development elsewhere in Europe too, and facilities are also improving, which will only help to continue to develop players and develop the game. I’m sure if you look at women’s football again in five years’ time, it will have progressed a lot.

Sarina Wiegman celebrates with her coaching staff after winning the UEFA Women's EURO 2017

A lot was made when you first took the job of the fact you had enjoyed success in a home EURO with the Netherlands. How does the challenge of doing the same with England compare? It’s different because, with the Netherlands, no-one expected it of us. England in 2022 is in a different stage of its development in women’s football to where the Netherlands was back in 2017. On the field, when you go into a tournament like this, you want to get as much as you can out of it and play the best tournament you can. That’s what we’re working for every day and where that takes us, given the strength of the opposition, we’ll need to wait and see. There’s an English phrase about ‘leaving no stone unturned’, and that’s what we’re looking to do here. We know already that the opening match of the EURO is sold out and that this is going to be the biggest women’s sports event in Europe. It’s going to be massive. What I want to see is that all of us – not only England, but the other teams too – really make it an event to celebrate and become enthusiastic about. We want to catch eyes across the world and bring the women’s game to the next level.

On that note, and although your focus is understandably on the EURO, you must also be excited at the prospect for growth offered by next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand? Well, we don’t want to get too excited because, although we’re doing well, we haven’t qualified yet! (laughs) But we want to be there so much because we know that will be another fantastic tournament. The level keeps on rising and, because of that, I really think we’ll see an even better World Cup than the last one in France.