Football is a game of fine margins and what ifs.
England have spent much of the past seven years being on the receiving end of a mountain of what ifs. What if Laura Bassett’s freakish own goal had cannoned off the crossbar instead? What if Ellen White’s toe hadn’t been offside? What if Steph Houghton had scored that penalty?
But at Euro 2022, a big what if fell in the Lionesses’ favour. What if the pandemic hadn’t shifted the Euros back a year and Sarina Wiegman was in charge of the Netherlands and not England?
Wiegman was appointed in August 2020 after Phil Neville announced he would not be extending his contract, and she took up the post in September 2021. Despite being in the hot seat for less than 11 months, she has quickly moulded England into an exciting, composed, resilient side and guided them to their first major tournament final in 13 years.
The 52-year-old is typically calm, measured and composed on the touchline. Her celebrations at the final whistle following England’s victory over Spain – where, by her own admission, she went ‘a little crazy’, was a rare showing of raw emotion.
It’s this approach that has helped Keira Walsh – who struggled to enjoy her maiden major tournament at the 2019 World Cup – thrive and play some of her best football at Euro 2022.
“It’s just that she’s so relaxed – she doesn’t really put pressure on anyone,” Walsh explained. “When you make mistakes at training or in a game, she’s not barking at you on the sides. It’s kind of as long as you’re trying to do the right thing and it’s what she’s asked you then she’s never going to shout at you.
“I think that’s really important, it gives you the confidence to try things. Some of the goals we’ve scored we probably wouldn’t have done in the past.
“Just her presence; she’s so calm, and she’s always really positive. Even at half time, we know she’s not going to come in and start screaming; she always says the right thing at the right moment. She’s been massively important for us.”
Wiegman has consistently named the same side at Euro 2022, refusing to alter her approach depending on the opposition, rather making the opposition deal with England’s strengths.
There have been shrewd tactical moves – continuing to utilise the dynamic Alessia Russo as an impact substitute when the game is stretched and opposition legs are heavy, and throwing centre half Millie Bright up front in the dying stages against Spain when searching for an equaliser – but she has shown an unwavering confidence in her starting XI.
It is this belief that Wiegman breeds that has encouraged her players to attempt the extraordinary; Georgia Stanway successfully trying her luck from 20 yards out against Spain the most obvious example.
“Georgia’s always been confident to shoot it’s fair to say, and she’s got an unbelievable strike on her – I think Sarina does bring that,” Walsh added. “She wants people to be confident, have shots, play forward passes. The team talk was always on what we could do and the confidence she had in us.”
Her measured approach has been crucial for not only confidence, but in managing the crunch moments, and this calmness has extended to the players.
“Sarina’s been brilliant,” said Jill Scott. “She’s an incredible woman. She’s very logical and I think that’s what’s very good. She doesn’t allow us to overthink, she just keeps everything to the task and focused with what’s happening in front of us.
“I don’t even think she realises how good she is actually. But in them moments you’ve seen against Spain and it’s going to extra time, she’s just so calm on the side because she’s got her processes and she knows what we need to do to win every time we step out onto that pitch. She’s the driving force behind the reason the team’s now in the final.”
Wiegman has earned a reputation for being reluctant to answer questions about individual players during press conferences, preferring to place the emphasis on the team as a whole. However, behind the scenes she takes a very individualised approach, and the trust she instills has been praised by multiple members of the squad.
Chelsea’s Jess Carter came into the pre-tournament camp off the back of the first season where she has consistently started every week at club level, and felt she initially needed to be on a slightly different training programme for a few days to enable her more recovery time. This was a conversation she found very easy to have with Wiegman.
“The staff have been great about it,” said Carter. “Sarina is a winner, she knows that everybody needs to be treated individually in order for us to do our best. Ever since Sarina has taken over she’s emphasised about how everyone is individual.
“There’s players here that have had a big history of injuries and they need to be managed a bit differently to someone else. Sarina has not hidden the fact that she’s happy to individualise things for people and she made that easy for me.
“I didn’t hesitate at all in going to have the conversation with her to tell her how I was feeling and I think that’s down to me because that’s my character, but equally for her to be so accepting and open with it and so easy with it.”
Fran Kirby was a doubt heading into the Euros after missing the home stretch of the 2021/22 WSL season with fatigue. She not only made the squad but has been instrumental to England’s success, starting all five matches and chipping in with two goals and three assists.
The forward highlighted the importance of recovery in returning to her best, with Wiegman’s understanding of her individual situation integral to this.
“Sarina has always been great with me in terms of making sure that I’m managed and making sure that I’m ready to play,” Kirby explained. “She’s always put that trust in me that she knows that I will do everything if I feel good, but if I need to take a little bit of a step back then that’s absolutely fine as well.”
England’s post match scenes have become synonymous with the tournament, with the Lionesses completing a celebratory lap of the pitch, joining in with a chorus of Sweet Caroline and dancing away to Freed from Desire.
The celebrations extend to the changing rooms, with Celine Dion and ABBA regulars on the post-match playlist. Wiegman has encouraged the team to savour each win.
“We had a few tunes on, bit of singing and dancing,” Ella Toone said following England’s victory over Spain. “And I think Sarina knows and she says to us we have to celebrate the little moments, they don’t come around often.
“Everyone loves it and everyone was getting involved because it was a special night and one we’ll remember for a long time.”
What if it’s another moment to celebrate on Sunday?