Sarina Wiegman is told to make herself at home when she arrives for an end-of-year sit-down with journalists at Wembley and she doesn’t miss a beat in reply. “I am home,” she says with a wry smile that points towards the venue of the Lionesses’ Euros triumph in the summer.
Wiegman believes it is hard to compare a historic Euros win in 2017 for the Netherlands, its home nation, on home soil, with guiding England to a first major trophy because England were at a “different stage” in their development and expectations in the Netherlands “were a lot lower”. What is even harder is to try to compare how England can better an unbeaten year with a Euros win at its centre.
“You can’t beat that — you can only get equal on that,” says Wiegman of 2022. “We actually don’t talk about these results all the time. We want to win every game, but we talk about how we can improve the next game. How can we make sure that we perform at the highest level in the next game? How can we develop our style of play, making our chance of winning the next game as high as possible? Of course, we want to break all the records, but breaking a record doesn’t say what you have to do. We always bring it back: how do we stick together as a team? I truly believe that’s where it starts.”
Wiegman has her players truly believing that too. The England squad and players on the fringes have been taken to the manager.
“We have to give clarity about the style of play, what’s expected, what role and task players have, and then give them the freedom to make their own choices on the pitch,” Wiegman says. “The players feel very comfortable with that.”
The new year brings the next challenge: the World Cup trophy that eluded Wiegman in 2019 when the Netherlands lost to the USA in the final. “I’m not about revenge; I’m not really vengeful,” she says. “I don’t really think that way. At that time, they were the better team, although I thought after half-time we could have won that game until the penalty. No, I don’t really think of revenge, I just want to do better in the next game and I want to win.”
She will not be telling her new charges what it feels like to lose a World Cup final.
“If you play your best game, like the England men did against France, [it could] be a win, could be a tie, could be defeat, but you can be proud of yourself because you played at your highest level. You’re going to be devastated by not winning, but at the end you can be proud because you did everything that’s in your control and that’s the level you have. That’s how I approach it all the time because you can’t always control the outcome because the other teams, the best teams in the world, are really, really, good.
Don’t always think of the outcome. We’re not going to a World Cup just to play, we’re going there to win. But that’s not always what you can control. I was devastated against the USA, but I did think they were better at that point. I was even more devastated when we didn’t win with the Netherlands against the USA in the Olympics because at that point we were absolutely the better team; we should have won that game.”
The task of bettering 2022 and winning a World Cup was made a bit harder with the announcement that Beth Mead, the Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner at the Euros, had joined a growing list of players to rupture an ACL, likely ruling her out of the tournament in Australia and New Zealand next July and August.
“It’s so sad — I really feel for her of course,” says Wiegman, who is not sentimental when it comes to keeping items related to her victories but does have the shirt she was given by Mead. “Everyone who gets an ACL injury, you feel for them. She did so well, she was in such a good place… I hope she just will recover. It’s too early to say whether she will be [available for the World Cup]so we just take it easy now.”
Mead has been joined in the treatment room by her partner and teammate at Arsenal Vivianne Miedema, who ruptured an ACL in last week’s Champions League tie against Lyon.
“In general, for the top, top-level players the schedule is too much,” Wiegman says, when asked whether the growing fixture list was piling too high, before Fifa announced ambitions of launching a Club World Cup. “For the top players worldwide, we have five consecutive tournaments in a row, hopefully with the Olympics … The growth has gone so quickly so players also need a proper rest to get things settled down and they don’t have that rest.
“After the Euros, for example, the Manchester City players only had a couple of days off because they went into the Champions League again. That is not good. You can have that sometimes, but they need a rest. They need some rest just to get some head space and get the head and body right. I think Fifa, Uefa and the federations just need to do a better job and all think of the players.”
Fifa’s rejection of requests to increase squad sizes from 23 players to 26 for next year’s World Cup to help lift the load is “very disappointing”. “We’ve been told that there had been some that did not want it to increase but the group of coaches I talked with at the draw all wanted it to increase,” says Wiegman, who adds that she will take extra players to camps before the tournament in case of late injuries.
The situation is not straightforward because whereas “in Europe our infrastructure is really well [set up] … other continents are really struggling with getting good internal matches, so their need is to get more international matches. We don’t need more international matches because we have very good domestic competitions.
That makes it complex, and still I think we can do a better job and just talk to each other and try to make it good for all. It’s the same here when we talk about the schedule of the Women’s Super League.
“You have to look at what your philosophy is, what’s your vision and then you have to prioritise and you have to make choices. And you have to dare to make the choices too.
And then you can’t keep everyone happy – that’s impossible in life. As long as there’s a vision behind it, you can argue [for the choices] you make.”