Sarina Wiegman likes to look on the bright side of things. In April, England’s 30-match unbeaten run came to an end with a 2–0 loss to Australia. But Wegman, the coach of the Dutch team, deliberately focused on the positive.
“It feels really strange, you always want to win, but I think this defeat also brought us a lot of educational lessons,” she explained a few weeks later during an interview at England’s training facility at St George’s Park. “It showed us, most of all, the urgent need to do some things better.”
It’s an exciting time for the England women’s side, who arrive at the Women’s World Cup as one of the tournament favorites but also in perhaps the most uncertain state after two years of largely smooth sailing under Wigman.
The Lionesses are European champions, a victory achieved on home soil last year that radically changed women’s football in England. Never seen before numbers display. A record attendance and a vibrant local league. Last year’s victories over the reigning World Cup champions (USA) as well as World Cup contenders Germany, Sweden and Spain. And growing expectations that this is just the beginning.
“With this England team, everybody expects us to win,” Wegman said.
But it can be said that England entering this World Cup are weak champions. In the months since claiming their European title, what began with the loss of one regular starter through injury, striker Beth Meade, has become three. Midfielder Fran Kirby will also miss the World Cup after undergoing knee surgery. Lea Williamson, who captained England when they invaded, had, like Mead, torn knee ligaments. The team’s alternate captain, fullback Millie Bright, has recently recovered from a knee injury and was a question mark as the team boarded the flight to Australia.
And recent results proved similarly troubling: a loss to Australia was followed by a lackluster 0-0 draw against Portugal, a game in which a frustrated England were unable to convert any of their 23 attempts on goal. A goalless draw in a behind-closed-doors friendly against Canada, England’s last match before the World Cup, was the team’s third consecutive negative performance.
Nevertheless, Wegman remains pragmatic and steadfast. Time and time again in her latest interview, she returns to the same questions that have become the focus of her and her team: “What do we want to do? How do we want to play? What are the roles and tasks on the team?”
She insisted on a game-by-game approach, telling her players that tactics and perhaps most importantly, minutes would be decided on a daily basis. This liquidity has its own motivational value, Wegman said, providing “opportunities for other players to play, take responsibility and show who they are”.
“That’s why we then go back to: ‘Okay, that’s our next game,'” she said. “And then we’re now.”
Players, of course, have their own ambitions.
“We all have dreams, we all want to win,” said striker Lauren Hemp. “We’ll see how the tournament goes. But it’s clearly something we’re going for, which is to get out of the back of the championship and win the Euros. It makes you want to earn more hungry.”
Manchester City defender Esme Morgan, 22, is among the new faces vying for match time. “It has been emphasized, frankly, that there are no fixed places in the team,” she said 90 minutes after the equalizer against Portugal. “There is a lot of competition for every position across the field. Really in training you can see that: the standard is very high.”
Lucy Bruns, one of the team’s biggest players, saw her history as evidence. “I entered 2015 as a young player not expecting to play much and I ended up playing in every game, scoring goals, forcing myself to focus on the spotlight and exploding a bit,” she said. Anything can happen at the World Cup.
Wegman pinned her hopes on the team. “We also have high expectations,” she said. But as per her instructions, she lingers for the time being. She is not interested in discussing the possibility of a replay against Australia in the round of 16, or the possibility of a clash with the USA, Germany or anyone else if England can cruise deep into the knockout stages.
“Let’s see first,” she said, “OK, we want to get out of the group stage.” “Then you come to the next stage and see who’s in front of us. It will be very difficult. And if we get to the final, I hope we can.
“It doesn’t really matter who is in front of us. You just want to win every game.”