Euro 2022: Sarina Wiegman proves her class leading England from the abyss

Six minutes plus stoppage time. So close were England to the abyss, how close were they to squandering a chance to win their first major international tournament and win it on home soil. In fact, at times at Amex, particularly in a one-sided first half, they couldn’t have strayed much further from the standards of their quarterfinal opponents. Spain had done little to live up to their pre-tournament hype up until then. Suddenly, the Lionesses didn’t live up to the title of favorites their group stage performances had earned them.

And yet, in those moments when time is ticking and something needs to change, the presence of a quality coach can make all the difference. England’s greatest asset at Euro 2022 isn’t Georgia Stanway, despite her spectacular winner from 25 yards out that secured a place in the semi-finals. It’s not Ella Toone, the diminutive super-sub who equalized and arguably deserved a decent run on the grid. It is instead the manager who selects that lineup and – more importantly – corrects it if necessary.

Sarina Wiegman plans for all eventualities. Just ask her assistants, who took charge when she was crushed by Covid-19 last week and ahead of this quarter-final. Were it not for the luck of a negative test result, confirmed just hours before kick-off, she would have been watching from England’s Teddington training base and issuing instructions over a telephone line, but not seen and analyzed the proceedings in quite the same manner. Maybe then she wouldn’t have made the same bold decisions that turned that tie in England’s favour.

Because especially in the moments immediately after Esther Gonzalez’s breakthrough at the beginning of the second half, there were courageous decisions that gave the Spaniards the deserved lead. Eliminated was Beth Mead, still the tournament’s top scorer despite England needing an equaliser. Ellen White was also sacrificed, no sympathy for the Lionesses’ all-time top scorer. Fran Kirby, the source of so much of this team’s ideas, soon followed them onto the bench. England’s approach also had to change drastically, and it did.

Wiegman made a series of brave calls when the lionesses stayed behind

(The FA via Getty Images)

During the clean group stage, Wiegman kept talking about the importance of rhythm. All England line-ups, unchanged up to this point, should retain the momentum generated not just during this Euros so far but since the beginning of their unbeaten career. Ideally, they would be able to maintain the same playing patterns, twists and repetitions, and relentless momentum of a runaway freight train all the way to Wembley.

Unless there’s one team in this tournament that can bend the tracks under that runaway train, throw leaves on the line, or do anything to bring it to a halt, it was their quarterfinal opponent.

Keeping the ball is the enduring principle of the Spanish game, perhaps the only one that is non-negotiable. Jorge Vilda’s side play like possession is ten tenths of the law, like they have a divine right to it. And despite a stunning start to Euro 2022 by one of the pre-tournament favourites, despite never having won a knockout game in a major tournament before, they – not England – have probably always been the protagonists of that game.

Wiegman accepted this. “It’s okay not to have the ball sometimes,” she reiterated before kick-off, after preaching the same thing in her pre-game press conference. That was the sensible, pragmatic and correct approach, but it was also quite a departure for an England side who had enjoyed the vast majority of play in their three group games. They would not enjoy the same level of scrutiny and authority as they have in recent weeks. Something else would be required.

Wiegman can now make changes for England’s semi-finals

(Getty Images)

The idea was to counter Spain’s patient handling of the ball with patience – maintaining form, waiting for the right moment and only then striking and pressing to hit them hard on the counterattack when the ball was won back. It was a solid plan, but it was a departure from what had come before and unsettled Wiegman’s players. Whether it was Rachel Daly appearing early at times, the rushed and overtaken passes from behind, or the ominous sight of the midfield slowly being overrun, it was clear this new approach wasn’t quite working.

As Spain took the lead, thanks in no small part to Athenea del Castillo’s electric wingplay, Wiegman reverted to the more proactive frontfoot methods her players are more familiar with. She had to. England had to. They had to chase the game. But the courage to replace Mead, White and Kirby to instead count on Toone’s off-ball movement, Chloe Kelly’s menacing dribbling and Alessia Russo’s backstab shouldn’t go unnoticed. It was the kind of bold call that English managers – both men and women – have hesitated to make in the past. The guy that could backfire.

But instead, England rebuilt and rediscovered that momentum that Spain had successfully slowed down. Toone’s goal, volleyed in from close range after a Russo impact from a Lauren Hemp cross, was the catalyst but there was a new purpose in the game that led straight to it, a rush that England previously lacked would have. From then on the wind was at my back again. Wave after wave of attacks followed, culminating in Stanway being the winner. Showing respect for Spain’s possession game was the right decision on paper, but maybe not in practice. Wiegman, to her immense credit, recognized this and returned to the exciting forward drive that has now carried England to the semi-finals. Euro 2022: Sarina Wiegman proves her class leading England from the abyss

Fry Electronics Team

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