Sarina Wiegman’s tactical tinkering is giving England the edge at Euro 2022

Even in the euphoric aftermath, Sarina Wiegman was fixing on the small detail, trying to be precisely sure of the question she was being asked to answer.

It had been put to her in the post-match press conference room that the BBC’s decision to delay the News at Ten until the conclusion of England’s quarter-final against Spain perhaps proved the nation was finally cottoning on to her team. 

At the third time of asking, she grasped the question and replied. A peak TV audience of 7.6million tuned in.

Sarina Wiegman led England to the semi-finals of the Euros as they beat Spain on Wednesday

England gathered in a team huddle after celebrating their 2-1 victory in Brighton

England gathered in a team huddle after celebrating their 2-1 victory in Brighton

This is how it is with her. Before the 2017 European Championship in her native Netherlands, she was so absorbed by the task of leading her country to the title she would leave her family on days off and head to the woods to concentrate.

‘I go through all possible scenarios before the game, so I always have a Plan B,’ she said after her team had won the trophy. ‘During the game I already think about what I’m going to say during the break. Never more than three things or it won’t get through. I am not alone, I can consult.’

The sounding boards include Foppe de Haan, the 78-year-old former Netherlands Under 21 coach known for his one-to-one work with players including Ruud van Nistelrooy, whom he turned into a goalscorer at Heerenveen.

De Haan’s philosophy — fundamental to Wiegman’s own — is that players should think for themselves and not require a dictator ordering them around from the sidelines. Germany manager Hansi Flick also credits De Haan as a major influence.

Wiegman’s tactical shifts were implemented rapidly and without fuss on Wednesday.

Removing Beth Mead before the hour, despite her stellar displays in this tournament, and replacing her with Chloe Kelly, who operated more narrowly, making England more compact. Establishing a far greater presence in the box with substitutes Ella Toone and Alessia Russo, who combined to score the equaliser. 

One of England's stars of the tournament, Beth Mead, was taken off early on Wednesday

One of England’s stars of the tournament, Beth Mead, was taken off early on Wednesday

Fran Kirby was also withdrawn in one of Wiegman's many clever tactical tweaks on the night

Fran Kirby was also withdrawn in one of Wiegman’s many clever tactical tweaks on the night

The notion that Spain could be deconstructed by long balls over the top of their high line was dispensed with.

Some of Wiegman’s other switches were more obvious. Fran Kirby was not a good fit for a game in which England were so frequently out of possession. Rachel Daly, a right winger, was not a good fit for left back against a team of technical class.

Wiegman might actually have replaced her with Alex Greenwood earlier than the 82nd minute, by which time Athenea del Castillo, a Spanish half-time substitute, had overwhelmed her.

Greenwood entered the fray two minutes before England’s equaliser, ferrying Wiegman’s instructions that Millie Bright should head up into the penalty area, where her presence proved enough of a distraction to create split seconds of time for Toone to score. Briefly, England went to three at the back, as a result.

‘It was just communication coming on from the side — that’s just Sarina from the sidelines,’ Bright said of why she was up there in that advanced position.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. England won by extremely small margins and might well have lost had Jorge Vilda’s side not dropped deeper after scoring.

Vilda’s removal of Teresa Abelleira, one of his holding midfielders, gave England more space to operate. But Wiegman’s composure in those enormous moments of jeopardy has not gone unnoticed among her players.

Wiegman had previously managed her native Holland, with whom she won Euro 2017

Wiegman had previously managed her native Holland, with whom she won Euro 2017

This scrape with elimination will serve them well. The group stage had been too easy for their own good. There was not enough edge in evidence during their pre-match warm-up on Wednesday, with the players high-fiving before retreating to the tunnel. Spain had a far greater look of intent.

The Spanish players reflected after the defeat that they had the impression England were convinced they were going to win 4-0, or 5-0.

‘They came out very confident, thinking they’d beat us heavily like in their games in the group stage,’ said midfielder Aitana Bonmati. This was clearly a major motivating factor.

It is hard to argue against Greenwood, the Manchester City player, maintaining the left back position at Daly’s expense in Sheffield in Tuesday’s semi-final, given her distribution and defensive work in extra time.

Russo is hammering with increasing conviction on the door for a starting place, too, and frankly looks more dangerous than Ellen White. She has scored a goal every 49.1 minutes for England since her debut in March 2020 — the best of any Lioness.

Manchester United's Alessio Russo is pushing for a starting place in England's team

Manchester United’s Alessio Russo is pushing for a starting place in England’s team

Forward Ellen White, who has scored two goals this tournament could make way for Russio

Forward Ellen White, who has scored two goals this tournament could make way for Russio

White has scored once every 74.7 minutes, and Russo makes more things happen. But it is safe to say that Wiegman will have no anxiety over difficult conversations about her semi-final selection.

After the Dutch FA had asked De Haan to work with her, six months before that victorious 2017 European Championship campaign, Wiegman found he was shouting so loudly in the dugout during games that she couldn’t make herself heard.

‘She came to me after a game and said, “It’s not OK that we are sitting together because you are shouting and I’m shouting and that’s not OK”, De Haan explained. ‘We came to an agreement: I would watch games from the stands.’

Meanwhile, Germany became the second team through to the semi-finals last night as they beat Austria 2-0 at the Brentford Community Stadium. Goals from Lina Magull and captain Alexandra Popp sent the eight-time winners through to play France or the Netherlands in Milton Keynes on Wednesday.

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