England go into this summer’s European Championship with a brilliant manager and options beyond what seemed possible in 2021.
In March 2020, England limped to a third-place finish at the SheBelieves Cup and didn’t look like a team remotely capable of successfully negotiating a pivotal 18 months, with an Olympics and home Euros approaching in successive summers.
But the Covid-19 pandemic intervened, delaying both tournaments by a year, and as a result England look in a vastly different place one month away from the European Championship than if everything had unfolded as expected.
Phil Neville had been the man originally tasked with leading the Lionesses at Euro 2022, but the tournament’s delay meant it no longer coincided with the former Manchester United defender’s contract, and he departed the job early for the bright lights of Inter Miami.
In September 2021, in came Sarina Wiegman. Handling the pressure and expectation of a home European Championship with just 10 months to prepare is a pretty daunting task; fortunately Wiegman had done just that with the Netherlands at Euro 2017, with just a six-month preparation period, and won the whole damn thing. Pretty promising credentials thus far.
Wiegman has been able to quickly stamp her mark on the Lionesses squad, encouraging an exciting brand of attacking football and creating a more robust, defensive unit. England look more of a multi-faceted threat than they have under previous regimes, capable of adapting depending on their situation and opposition.
Coming up against the Olympic Champions? Line up with a holding midfield two.
Facing a team who can pass you to death? Play an energetic midfield three to harry and frustrate them.
Need a goal in the final 10 minutes? Stick Millie Bright up front.
The personnel that now form the backbone of the Lionesses squad has also transformed over the last 12 months. Had Euro 2022 taken place last year, Steph Houghton would have captained the side and been a nailed-on starter, Ellen White would be the primary source of goals, Jill Scott would be a shoo-in to line up in midfield and the team would likely still have a slight over-reliance on Lucy Bronze.
Houghton now faces a race to be fit for the tournament after undergoing surgery on her Achilles, but will do well to force herself back into the starting XI, with Alex Greenwood and Millie Bright forming a sound defensive partnership at the Arnold Clark Cup. The pair have both enjoyed impressive seasons with their clubs, and complement each other’s style of play nicely with Bright’s robustness and Greenwood’s pace and reading of the game.
England’s central midfield shortage has been addressed by moving Leah Williamson up the pitch, and a midfield double pivot alongside Keira Walsh is how England will likely line up against stronger opposition at the Euros. Having only made her England debut in February 2021, Ella Toone has forced herself into the reckoning to start after another strong season, adding further midfield depth.
Right-back Bronze is no longer England’s most potent attacking threat, having been heavily relied upon as the source for any attacking inspiration at the last three major tournaments. The Euros being pushed back by a year has allowed Lauren Hemp’s development to continue to soar. The City winger’s cutting edge in front of goal had been the one slight question mark hanging over her game; she promptly finished the season with six goals in her final six matches. Every time she got on the ball against Germany in the concluding fixture of the Arnold Clark Cup, the noise level from the crowd seemed to go up a level.
Hemp terrorising fullbacks in front of packed out home crowds this summer could be a sight to behold. It wouldn’t have happened a year ago.