The Lionesses’ 5-1 comeback win over the holders is the latest in a string of impressive results against higher-ranked opponents this year, which will have given Wiegman’s side a huge psychological boost ahead of their bid for European Championship glory, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.Embed from Getty Images
You don’t arrange to play the defending European champions less than two weeks before the competition begins unless you want to be tested. If Sarina Wiegman was looking to find out whether her England team could rise to the occasion — against elite opposition in front of an expectant home crowd — she certainly got her answer. Having gone 1-0 down to the Netherlands — the first time in any of the manager’s 13 games that the Lionesses had been behind — they got themselves back into the game before demolishing the Dutch in the second half to walk away 5-1 winners. It was about as brutal a scoreline as you could expect against a team that reached the final of the World Cup only three years ago.
That is not to say it was all plain sailing, though. For the opening half an hour, England were under the cosh, and they looked rattled. Lieke Martens delighted in tormenting Lucy Bronze, the big-name player Barcelona signed only last week as the PSG star went out in the opposite direction. The Dutch press, pushing Victoria Pelova up alongside Lineth Beerensteyn to target Alex Greenwood and Millie Bright, left England’s defence looking confused, unable to access the huge amounts of space Rachel Daly had been left in. Lauren Hemp barely touched the ball.
Yet England embraced the difficulties posed in matches against high-level opponents and responded in their own way: to bend but not break. Despite conceding to Martens’ header from a corner, the Lionesses dug in, with Daly showing extraordinary recovery speed at one point to stop Beerensteyn from going through one-on-one against Mary Earps. Gradually, they settled and while Bronze’s equaliser was entirely accidental, it gave England the foothold that their play had indicated.
England have had similar moments like this in other games against top-10 opposition. Against Spain, with a weakened team at Carrow Road during the Arnold Clark Cup, they held firm to walk away with a 0-0 draw. Likewise, when Germany equalised against them in the final match of that tournament, they pushed through the nervy moments to score two goals at the end of the game and win the trophy.Embed from Getty Images
This does not mean that these moments of suffering do not reveal a need for improvement. It was a fantastic header from the former Barcelona winger, but England’s set-piece coaches should have questions for how such a tall team allowed her to get a relatively free shot on goal, while Earps will be disappointed about how she failed to set herself properly. Equally, Leah Williamson felt like she was trying to do too much in the midfield, looking for the more complicated pass when an easier one would do.
But teams can learn more about themselves in those games where they are forced to come up with solutions to the problems posed by the opposition. Wiegman certainly found solutions. The introduction of Beth Mead for Chloe Kelly at half-time gave England more fluidity in attack, with the Arsenal star willing to drift more centrally compared to the Manchester City forward’s more traditional touchline-hugging wing-play. That allowed Fran Kirby to peel out towards the left and provide the two forwards with the support they needed to properly build up along that side of the pitch. Daly, Hemp and Mead all combined for England’s second goal which came just a minute after Sherida Spitse missed a penalty on her 200th appearance for the Netherlands.
From there on, the Dutch looked exhausted as England seemed to bring on an indefatigable number of attackers, with Ella Toone and Alessia Russo both impressing with their cameos. On the other hand, Vivianne Miedema spent more time forlornly floating around at full-back, prompting the same questions about her positioning that Arsenal fans are familiar with. But England showed they were able to turn the screw against top-level opposition. Mark Parsons pointed to the deficit in fitness that the Dutch had but the hosts still had to take advantage of it. The Lionesses will consequently walk away with a significant psychological boost.Embed from Getty Images
Playing games against opposition at this level is risky. Parsons himself said this was exactly the kind of outcome they wanted to avoid when the match was first arranged. But for England, it has given them an advantage of feeling like they have proven themselves at the highest level. Of Wiegman’s 13 games in charge, four have come against teams ranked in the top 10 in the world. All of them place above England. She is yet to lose any of them.
Other favourites for the Euros have taken a more mixed approach. In the same time frame, France have played two top-10 sides (the Netherlands and Brazil) and have beaten them both. However, their pre-Euros friendlies are against Cameroon and Vietnam. Germany have played three (England, Spain and Canada) but failed to win any of those games. Sweden have played none.
No one wins the Euros based on the fixtures they play ahead of the tournament. England have taken risks with their preparations and they have undeniably paid off. They have picked up the experience of playing the best teams without the psychological damage of having lost to them. Step by step, Wiegman is turning England into a team that everyone else will know always poses a threat.
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