Personality contest: Wiegman favours using trusted lieutenants over England players in their rightful positions, but is it square pegs in round holes?

The Lionesses manager could do with being more flexible over team selection in future after sticking rigidly with the familiar characters and her innovative interpretation of players’ best positions during the international break, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

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Throughout the Euros, there was a sense of anti-climax around Sarina Wiegman’s teamsheets. As people on Twitter argued furiously about who England should be starting, for every game the manager calmly put out the same list of names. You could set your watch by her substitutions, with the who and the when carefully planned out. But little focus was placed on how lucky Wiegman was to be able to do this. As other competitors saw their star players miss out through ACL injuries or Covid-19, England were fortunate to have a clean bill of health for all of their starters for the four weeks of July.  

The recent October friendlies posed an interesting conundrum for Wiegman then, as she found herself without captain Leah Williamson and striker Alessia Russo for the matches against both the USA and the Czech Republic. A further blow was to come as Georgia Stanway missed out on the latter game with a knock too. 

Wiegman has never been shy to innovate when it comes to how she interprets players’ best positions. The most obvious example of that was her prior decision to use Williamson in a midfield double pivot with Keira Walsh. This month she decided to use Lauren Hemp as her central striker, not for lack of options. You could arguably have put Hemp as low as sixth in terms of ranking potential English strikers in the squad below Rachel Daly, Ebony Salmon, Nikita Parris, Beth Mead, and Fran Kirby. 

Yet the choice speaks to something that has become clear during Wiegman’s time as England manager: personalities matter more than positions. To understand how she sets up England, you have to understand who she wants to set up England with. Players are selected based on how much she trusts them to do what they are asked to do, rather than where they might supposedly be best suited to play. 

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The problem is, however, that it is not always the case that those personalities will work wherever she wants. Clearly Wiegman can recognise that. After all, she famously reversed her decision to play Williamson in midfield on the eve of the Euros and she appeared alongside Millie Bright in central defence for the competition itself.

In the 0-0 draw against the Czech Republic, Wiegman used Kirby and Ella Toone in her midfield, with the two playing as eights, rather than the more usual formation where the Chelsea forward plays higher and Stanway is closer to Walsh. England are not blessed with midfielders right now – Katie Zelem was the only other squad option who could obviously have been considered – and Toone is clearly someone who Wiegman has valued highly, even before she scored the opener in the final at Wembley on July 31st.  

But it was clear that the combination was limiting England’s ability to create attacking opportunities. Stanway is a player who loves to drive with the ball, and whilst both Kirby and Toone both tried to drop closer to Walsh to affect that, neither of them looked truly comfortable doing so. 

Arguably the player who might have best imitated what Stanway does in that role for England was Lauren James, making her first start out on the left wing. England looked at their most threatening when they managed to get her on the ball, with the Chelsea youngster hitting the post in the third minute having danced through the Czech penalty area.  

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James’ inclusion shows that Wiegman’s unwillingness to plug the gaps in her England team with certain players ‘just’ because that is where their clubs use them does not come from only having a choice set up. This England side is not a closed shop, even though there is undeniably a hierarchy. Esme Morgan came on for her debut later on in the match, whilst Salmon finally got her first minutes under Wiegman, ensuring that her trips from Houston were not just about clocking up the airmiles. 

But the truth is that England have simply not looked that good without their first-choice players. Perhaps there was always to be a natural return to earth after the euphoria of the Euros win. It is easy to forget that prior to July, there had been tight wins against Austria and tepid draws with Canada and Spain. International football is not always going to be exciting; Wiegman has clearly shown that she can make it work when it matters.  

The match against the Czech Republic finished with former Houston Dash striker Daly and the American side’s current one, Salmon, playing as a front two. As the minutes ticked down, there was a sense around these past two weeks of the England camp that neither of those two players had really got a fair chance to show what they could do. They were not the only ones. 

Wiegman’s consistent rigidity around who she selects has brought England incredible success. But sometimes if you have a round peg, it is worth trying it in the round hole. Even if you trust the square ones more. 

Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph

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