Sarina Wiegman likes to look on the bright side of things. In April, England’s 30-match unbeaten run ended with a 2-0 loss to Australia. But Wiegman, the team’s Dutch coach, is focused on the positives.
“It’s really strange, and you always want to win, but I think this defeat also brought us a lot of learning lessons,” he explained a few weeks later in an interview at England’s training facility in St. . George’s Park. “It has, above all, shown us the urgency to do some things better.”
It’s been an interesting season for the England women’s team, which comes into the Women’s World Cup as one of the tournament favorites but also perhaps in its most uncertain state after two years of mostly smooth sailing under Wiegman.
The Lionesses are the champions of Europe, a victory claimed on home soil last year that brought about a sea change for women’s soccer in England. Never seen figures. Record attendances and a vibrant national league. Last year’s victories were against the reigning World Cup champions (the United States) as well as World Cup opponents such as Germany, Sweden and Spain. And ever-increasing expectations this is just the beginning.
“With this England team,” Wiegman said, “everyone expects us to win.”
But England going into this World Cup were, arguably, a weak champion. In the months since claiming its European title, what started as the loss of one key starter to injury, striker Beth Mead, has turned into three. Midfielder Fran Kirby will also miss the World Cup, after surgery on his knee. Leah Williamson, who captained England when it conquered, has, like Mead, torn a knee ligament. His replacement captain, defender Millie Bright, has recently recovered from her own knee injury, and was a question mark when the team boarded its flight to Australia.
Recent results have proved equally worrying: The loss to Australia was followed by a lackluster 0-0 draw against Portugal, a game in which a frustrated England failed to convert any of its 23 attempts on goal . A goalless draw in a behind-closed-doors friendly against Canada, England’s last game before the World Cup, was the team’s third successive scoreless performance.
Still, Wiegman remains pragmatic and steadfast. Over and over in his recent interview, he returned to the same questions that have become touchstones for him and his team: “What do we want to do? How do we want to play? What are the roles and tasks in the team?”
He insisted on a game-by-game approach, and informed his players that tactics and, perhaps more importantly, minutes would be decided on a daily basis. That fluidity, Wiegman says, has its own motivating value, offering “opportunities for other players to play, take responsibility, and show who they are.”
“That’s why we went back to: ‘OK, this is our next game’,” he said. “And then we’re in now.”
Players, of course, have their own ambitions.
“We all have dreams, and we all want to win,” forward Lauren Hemp said. “Let’s see how the tournament goes. But it’s something we’re working towards obviously, coming off the back of the championships and winning the Euros. You’re hungry to win more.”
22-year-old Manchester City defender Esme Morgan is among the new faces vying for game time. “It really emphasizes that, to be honest, that there’s no set place in the squad,” he said after playing 90 minutes in the draw against Portugal. “There is so much competition in every position all over the pitch. You can really see it in training: The standard is so, so high.”
Lucy Bronze, one of the team’s oldest players, sees her own history as a guide. “I went into 2015 as a young player who wasn’t expected to play a lot and I ended up playing in every single game, scoring goals, and I forced myself into the spotlight and exploded a little bit,” he said. “Anything can happen in a World Cup.”
Wiegman harbors his own hopes for the squad. “We also have high expectations,” she said. But true to his instructions, he remains for now. He is not interested in discussing a potential rematch against Australia in the round of 16, or a possible clash with the United States, or Germany, or anyone else if England make it to the knockout stages.
“Let’s see first, ‘OK, we want to get out of the group stage,'” he said. “Then you go to the next stage and we see who is in front of us. It will be very difficult. And if we make it to the final, I hope we can make it.
“It really doesn’t matter who is in front of us. You just want to win every game.”