Sarina Wiegman seems fond of repeating two words in particular: ruthless and execution.
England’s manager invariably studs sentences with those favourites as she urges her players to display increased attacking incision but neither characteristic is exactly alien to a woman rarely prone to dithering indecision, let alone sentimentality. Wiegman’s ice-cool clarity of thought under pressure persuaded her to ignore some emotionally compelling reasons for including England’s former captain Steph Houghton in her 23 strong Euro 2022 squad.
In the course of an apparently difficult conversation on Wednesday, Phil Neville’s successor told the 34-year-old Manchester City centre-half her recovery from an achilles tendon injury was not sufficiently advanced to justify inclusion in that elite group and she had failed to make the final cut.
“The girls are feeling the pain Steph will be feeling,” said Leah Williamson, England’s new captain before kick-off against Belgium at Molineux. “We share it.”
At only 25 Williamson is a young captain but her maturity, articulacy and sheer emotional intelligence suggest Wiegman has picked a worthy successor to Houghton. Importantly, Williamson is also a highly adaptable footballer, well suited to the in-game positional rotation being gradually instilled by her national manager.
Primarily a defender at Arsenal, she has settled into a midfield role with England and impressed on a night when she not only forced Nicky Evrard’s own goal but often astutely dropped back to fill in at right-back as Lucy Bronze marauded forward down that flank.
With a Belgium side unbeaten in their previous seven games succeeding in isolating the usually influential Keira Walsh in central midfield, England were initially most dangerous down the wings. If Bronze’s final ball occasionally let her down and she sometimes seemed a little too unconcerned about creating alarming defensive gaps by overcommitting to attack, she proved instrumental in enabling Chloe Kelly’s heavily deflected shot to preface the opening own goal. On the opposite side, Lauren Hemp’s left-wing play consistently petrified Belgium.
Should England finally win a tournament next month, Hemp will surely have a lot to do with it. Along with Chelsea’s Fran Kirby, the Manchester City winger is arguably one of Wiegman’s two truly world-class players.
Kirby has been sidelined for months with a fatigue-related illness but she is finally fit again and her importance is such that an attacking playmaker who joins the dots between the frontline and midfield was always going to be given the benefit of the doubt by even the hardest-headed manager.
Sure enough Kirby was introduced in a second half which had already seen Manchester City’s Kelly, freshly recovered from a serious knee injury, return to the right of the front three where she suggested she could push Beth Mead very hard for a starting slot.
Belgium, ranked 20th in the world, will not be the last team to sit deep and smother the Lionesses’s midfield so it was not surprising to see Wiegman urge Millie Bright to try her luck in picking out Kelly, Hemp and co with balls over the top from centre-half.
The coach who led the Netherlands to Euro 2017 glory is, unlike Neville, a pragmatist unafraid to pursue perfectionism by mixing and matching intricate short passing with some unashamedly direct tactics. Typically her second half introduction of Alex Greenwood, a centre-half keen on stepping out of defence, finally liberated Walsh.
Small wonder Rachel Daly’s versatility appeals to England’s coach. Shortly after arriving at left-back as a substitute, Daly’s wonderfully assured technique in volleying the second goal reminded everyone that, of the assorted positions she has mastered, striker is possibly her forte.
Daly, like Kirby and Kelly, staked a claim for a starting place in a side which has won 10 games, drawn two and scored 75 goals on Wiegman’s watch. Significantly tougher tests beckon but, so far, that managerial ruthlessness is working.