Sarina Wiegman likes to look on the bright side of things. In April, England’s 30-match unbeaten run was ended with a 2-0 loss to Australia. But Wiegman, the team’s Dutch coach, deliberately focused on the positives.
“It sounds really strange, and you always want to win, but I think this defeat also brought us so many learning lessons,” she explained a few weeks later during an interview at England’s training facility in St. George’s Park. “It has, most of all, showed us the urgency to do some things better.”
It is an interesting time for the England women’s team, which arrives at the Women’s World Cup as one of the tournament favorites but also in perhaps its most uncertain state after two years of largely smooth sailing under Wiegman.
The Lionesses are the champions of Europe, a triumph claimed on home soil last year that has precipitated a sea change for women’s soccer in England. Never-seen-before viewing figures. Record attendances and a vibrant domestic league. Victories in the past year over the reigning World Cup champion (the United States) as well as World Cup contenders like Germany, Sweden and Spain. And ever-rising expectations that this is just the start.
“With this England team,” Wiegman said, “everyone expects us to win.”
But the England that enters this World Cup is, arguably, a weakened champion. In the months since claiming its European title, what began as the loss of one key starter to injury, striker Beth Mead, has become three. Midfielder Fran Kirby will miss the World Cup, too, after having surgery on her knee. Leah Williamson, who captained England as it conquered, has, like Mead, torn a knee ligament. Her replacement captain, defender Millie Bright, has only recently recovered from a knee injury of her own, and was a question mark when the team boarded its flight to Australia.
Recent results have proved similarly worrisome: The loss to Australia was followed by a lackluster 0-0 draw against Portugal, a game in which a frustrated England unable 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 straight scoreless performance.
Yet Wiegman remains pragmatic and steadfast. Again and again in her recent interview, she returned to the same questions that have become touchstones for her and her team: “What do we want to do? How do we want to play? What are the roles and the tasks in the team?”
She has insisted on a game-by-game approach, and communicated to her players that tactics and, perhaps more important, minutes will be decided on a day-to-day basis. That fluidity, Wiegman said, has its own motivating value, offering “opportunities for other players to play, to take responsibility, and to show who they are.”
“That’s why we then come back to: ‘OK, this is our next game’,” she said. “And then we’re in the now.”
Players, of course, have their own ambitions.
“We’ve all got dreams, and we all want to win,” forward Lauren Hemp said. “We’ll see how the tournament goes. But it’s something that we’re striving toward obviously, coming off the back of the championships and winning the Euros. It makes you hungry to want to win more.”
The 22-year-old Manchester City defender Esme Morgan is among the new faces vying for game time. “That’s really been emphasized, to be honest, that there’s no set places in the squad,” she said after going 90 minutes in the draw against Portugal. “There’s so much competition in every position across the pitch. Really in training you can see that: The standard is so, so high.”
Lucy Bronze, one of the team’s most senior players, saw her own history as a guide. “I went into 2015 as a young player not expecting to play much and I ended up playing in every single game, scoring goals, and I forced myself into the spotlight and broke out a little bit,” she said. “Anything can happen in a World Cup.”
Wiegman harbors her own hopes for the squad. “We have high expectations, too,” she said. But true to her instructions, she is staying in the now. She is not interested in discussing a potential rematch against Australia in the round of 16, or a possible collision with the United States, or Germany, or anyone else if England can navigate deep into the knockout stages.
“Let’s first see, ‘OK, we want to get out of the group stage,’” she said. “Then you come to the next stage and we see who is in front of us. It’s going to be very tough. And if we would get to the final, hopefully we do.
“It really doesn’t matter who’s in front of us. You just want to win every game.”