Whoever the Opponents, England Are Already Showing Progress Under Wiegman

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The Lionesses can’t choose the opposition — and if they could, it wouldn’t be Latvia. But Sarina Wiegman is right to insist there is always fine-tuning to be done.

A lot has already been written about the uncompetitive nature of the women’s European qualifiers. After the Lionesses’ 20-goal romp to victory against Latvia on Tuesday, a lot more will be written now. Are mismatches this stark doing so little for the betterment of women’s football in both countries that such a fixture is pointless? Or must qualifying campaigns be totally egalitarian meaning anyone can play anyone no matter how different their levels are? It’s a debate you could have long into the night.

One thing is for sure, the Lionesses can use matches like this to improve parts of their game. Can they practice defending? Certainly not — goalkeeper Mary Earps was ironically cheered by the buoyant Doncaster crowd with every rare touch of the ball she got.

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England can, though, practice speeding up play, crossing more accurately, and generally just being a lot more clinical. In her pre-match interview, manager Sarina Wiegman dared her team to be even more clinical than they were when they hit ten in Latvia last month. They rose to the task.

Asked why she set such a target publicly, she told EnglandFootball.org: “With the experience of the game in Latvia away, we created so many chances, but we did think we could do some things a little better. The crosses could be a little better, the communication between the players from the crosser and the receiver, also how to get players in the penalty box. So we thought we could do that a little better. I think that’s what the team showed.”

They certainly did. Whether or not this match should even have been happening — given the vastly different places England and Latvia are on the evolutionary cycle of women’s football — you could only commend the Lionesses for their eternal thirst for goals. Their intent was palpable from the first minute and it never, ever slackened.

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Alessia Russo came off the bench to score an 11-minute hat-trick, her first goals for her country. That in itself — and the fact she ended up one of four players to leave the pitch with a match ball — showed the difference in standards between the two sides. The Manchester United player was nevertheless delighted with her impact and admitted she could never have expected she would hit three goals when she was warming up on the sidelines.

“I think there’s a lot of work to always do,” she told EnglandFootball.org after the match. “Obviously tonight was a great result and a landmark for us as a team. But I think there’s a lot more to come, and we’ve got a lot more exciting games coming up as well. I just hope to carry on continuing performing at club and hopefully for country too.”

England’s star striker Ellen White perhaps hasn’t been performing as well as she’d like to for her club so far this term. However, for England she has been almost peerless among international goalscorers in Europe this autumn. Another hat-trick on Tuesday took her above Kelly Smith to become England’s all-time top scorer in the women’s game.

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But Ellen White seems to visibly cringe whenever she’s asked to talk about Ellen White. She is much more a team player — off the pitch and on. So much so that ex-England manager Phil Neville had to tell her to be more selfish on the pitch; he felt she wasn’t unleashing enough shots in games. There can be no suggestion of that now.

She feels England have taken a positive step in 2021, and that the team’s progress ahead of a home European Championships next summer is promising.

“I think we’ve accomplished what we wanted to, in terms of winning all our games so far in our qualifying for the World Cup, scoring a lot of goals. Obviously we’ve got a new manager, new staff, and [we’re] adapting to a slightly different way of playing as well. It’s exciting for us. We feel like we’re in a good place as players. We’re excited for the new year now.”

And so they should be. If England have learned one thing this autumn, they have learned what they can learn from their sizeable wins against meagre opponents. Wiegman’s words show that. If they can’t be tested in other ways, at least they can show progression in that sense. Less hesitancy. Better crosses. Smarter decisions. More intensity. That is what Wiegman demanded after September and October.

England just scored 20 goals in a single football match. You get the sense Wiegman’s perfectionism is paying off.

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