Sarina Wiegman now belongs in the pantheon of great football managers. If that sounds like a knee-jerk reaction after 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 either the women’s or men’s game.
Wiegman was dealt a decent hand, managing two host nations and with excellent players to choose from, but neither Netherlands nor England had won a women’s title before she took charge. The Netherlands have slumped since her departure, while England’s transformation in a relatively short period of time has been remarkable when you consider how gloomy things seemed towards the end of Phil Neville’s tenure.
How Wiegman has triumphed can be viewed in contrasting ways.
On one hand, she has more determinedly stuck to Plan A than any manager in tournament 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.
It’s highly unusual and almost unbelievable considering England’s third game was a dead rubber.
On the other hand, she clearly had a late change of heart about the positioning of her captain, Leah Williamson, who played as a box-to-box midfielder in one of England’s pre-tournament friendlies and then shifted back to center-back for the tournament itself. A centre-back wearing No 8 looks wrong, but in Williamson’s case it tells a story; this wasn’t always Plan A.
And Wiegman really won this game with the use of her bench. But then, even her use of the bench was consistent. In the games against Norway, Spain, Sweden and Germany, Wiegman used the same five players as her (first) five substitutes.
Alex Greenwood, Ella Toone, Alessia Russo, Chloe Kelly and Jill Scott.
Both the goals in the final were scored by substitutes. The semi-final victory over Sweden was made to look far more comfortable than it was because England had better strength in depth.
The quarter-final win over Spain was the best example; it wasn’t just that England had quality players in reserve, it was that Wiegman knew how to use them. Her decision to introduce Greenwood in place of Daly, throwing Bright forward and switching to a back three, worked in three ways. It shut down Spain’s most dangerous attacker, Athenea del Castillo. It caused Spain’s defense problems because Bright is a useful target player. And then, after Toone’s equalizer, it allowed England to revert to a back four. It’s difficult to remember a previous England manager, for the women’s or men’s side, being so capable of winning games tactically.
In the two games that went into extra time, allowing her a sixth change, she twice introduced Nikita Parris for Hemp, probably with penalties in mind. Only once, when Jess Carter made a cameo appearance in the Northern Ireland game, was there any variation in this approach. It means that Demi Stokes, Lotte Wubben-Moy and Bethany England, plus back-up goalkeepers Ellie Roebuck and Hannah Hampton, didn’t get a single minute.
That’s tough considering those players have been in a training camp for the best part of two months, with tougher restrictions on seeing friends and family than they initially expected when Covid threatened to cause issues. It’s worth remembering that Roberto Mancini, Italy’s Euro 2020-winning manager, determinedly gave minutes to almost everyone, even bringing on back-up goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu in the last minute of Italy’s final group game.
But Wiegman couldn’t care less about all 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 — her mentality has been that it’s better to give playing time to the players you might need as game-changing substitutes later on. Maybe that’s proven crucial. Were Toone and Kelly, the two scorers in the final, more prepared to make an impact having been used as a substitute in all six games? Were they more attuned to those roles than if they’d been handed a start against Northern Ireland?
Wiegman’s use of a 4-3-3, with some elements of 4-2-3-1 at times, has suited England’s squad well. That’s no coincidence; it’s worth recalling that when Hope Powell was England manager, she was also given overall responsibility for the youth teams, too. She got all the coaches at every age level to use a 4-3-3.
“The theory was that players would find the rise to the next age level more straightforward if they were playing within that system,” she later recalled. “I wanted players who were comfortable playing in one particular system, along one pathway through the under-17, under-19 and under-23 to the senior squads.”
It’s the type of long-term planning English football has often lacked, and it’s notable that Powell cites historic German, Dutch and Brazilian (men’s) sides as her template, rather than considering what England traditionally did. It is no exaggeration to say that you can see this generation of English attackers are 4-3-3 players. Kelly and Hemp are obviously proper wingers rather than wide midfielders. White and Russo know how to play up front alone; despite both making a good case for a place in Wiegman’s XI, there has never been any consideration of them being a partnership.
Wiegman has repeatedly said throughout this tournament that she has a plan for every situation. That has been obvious by her calmness on the touchline and England’s cohesion after she has made changes.
It’s 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 German Otto Rehhagel has done so before, with Greece in 2004. And for all the discussion about these players inspiring the next generation of potential players — even the Queen joined in — what England really needs is for the manager to inspire the next generation of potential managers.
In terms of both the women’s and men’s teams, England have a squad that few others can match but aren’t producing a stream of good managers. Perhaps the legacy of England’s first successful foreign coach will be that there’s less reason to appoint another.
(Top photo: Richard Sellers/Soccrates/Getty Images)