England’s only problem? They have forgotten what adversity feels like
It has reached the point where possibly the biggest concern about England is that they are still to lose under Sarina Wiegman’s charge.
After 12 wins, two draws and 84 goals scored since her installation it is clear the Lionesses are a force to be reckoned with but, as Euro 2022 hurtles towards us, no one is quite sure how they will react in adversity.
While Germany, Spain, Sweden and France all hope to re-introduce England to defeat in the knockout stages, Switzerland became the latest team to be swatted aside by the tournament favourites, losing this dress rehearsal 4-0 in Zurich.
Old acquaintance was renewed in adjacent technical areas, where the sight of Wiegman and Nils Nielsen revived memories of the Euro 2017 final.
Wiegman’s Netherlands won that one, beating Nielsen’s Denmark 4-2 in a thrilling tournament denouement. Five years on the former is hoping to repeat that feat with a second country, while the Greenlander intends to somehow steer Switzerland out of a strong Euro 2022 group including the Netherlands, Sweden and Portugal.
The general sense of deja vu was only heightened by Alex Greenwood’s reversion to left-back and Leah Williamson’s return to centre-half as Wiegman seized a last chance to experiment. While Greenwood was originally a full-back but now regularly partners Millie Bright in central defence, Williamson has largely been deployed as a holding midfielder under England’s Dutch manager.
Yet Williamson is a natural centre-half who often operates there for Arsenal. Like Greenwood – who, incidentally no longer sees herself as a left-back, now plays in the heart of defence for Manchester City and sometimes looked ill at ease on Thursday night – she is comfortable on the ball and complements Bright well.
Both are fine passers, with Greenwood’s distribution so good she sometimes effectively serves as a central defensive playmaker. Williamson, meanwhile, is, perhaps crucially, the slightly better defender.
She certainly looked at home restored to the rearguard but the only problem was that Georgia Stanway, her replacement in midfield, gave away too many fouls, alongside fellow anchor, the influential Keira Walsh. After starting out as a striker Stanway, newly recruited by Bayern Munich, has impressed in assorted positions but harbours an unfortunate penchant for conceding free kicks.
Given that Wiegman is very big on the importance of transitions and considering that, in the first half, her side were not quite as good at winning the ball back in midfield as usual, there is a certain case for seeing Williamson back alongside Walsh against Austria in the Euro 2022 opener at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
Wiegman should surely resist this temptation and, instead, stick with Stanway or, even better, offer Jill Scott, so effective as a late substitute, a shock recall to the starting side alongside Walsh. With the Lionesses well equipped at left-back, Greenwood may have a few sleepless nights in store.
If Williamson’s excellence at the back must have left a Lionesses’ coach with a serious defensive dilemma it will be no surprise if Alessia Russo starts in an attacking role on Wednesday. Not content with understudying superbly at centre-forward as England’s recently Covid-hit record scorer Ellen White rested on the bench, Russo combined scoring the opener with bringing Fran Kirby and Beth Mead into things with some smart link play.
She was so good White may even be feeling slightly anxious as to whether her name will be on the team sheet against Austria.
Even so, some of Russo’s teammates started slowly. Although Wiegman’s side spurned some decent early chances, a Switzerland ensemble demolished 7-0 by Germany in their previous friendly missed two excellent first-half chances.
Unsurprisingly Nielsen’s team had tightened up appreciably and succeeded in keeping the catalytic Manchester City winger Lauren Hemp much quieter than normal. Or at least they did until Russo’s goal prefaced multiple, game-plan disrupting, substitutions.
The switches included a quadruple change on Wiegman’s part. Perhaps most notably Chloe Kelly once again made a convincing case for starting wide on the right although Scott’s contribution surely gave her manager something else to ponder.
With Hemp battling on with a heavily-strapped wrist, an injury which had twice required extended treatment and Switzerland’s star player, PSG’s Ramona Bachmann off and in tears nursing a suspected broken wrist, England began showing their previously latent superiority.
Shortly after Hemp had helped win a somewhat contentious penalty converted by Stanway, substitute Beth England compensated for an underwhelming first half display at centre-forward during last Friday’s 5-1 win against the Netherlands in Leeds by registering the third goal.
All that remained was for Scott to head England’s fourth. It served as a reminder that, even at 35, she can still play a bit. Scott’s suspension for England’s Euro 2017 semi final defeat by the Netherlands possibly cost her country dear; can Wiegman really afford to leave her on the bench in the coming month? Should she drop the previously near ever-present Greenwood? Dilemmas, dilemmas.