Wiegman tasked with handling storm clouds of expectation over England

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Nick Potts/PA</span>
Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

The last time England met Austria they found themselves in the eye of a storm and eight months on there is a certain sense of deja vu.

Admittedly the weather forecast for Manchester on Wednesday night promises somewhat balmier conditions than last November when Sarina Wiegman’s players seemed in danger of being blown over as Storm Arwen struck Sunderland, but they are back in the midst of a whirlwind.

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If keeping their footing as Ellen White’s goal gave them a 1-0 World Cup qualifying win at the Stadium of Light proved tricky for the Lionesses, coping with the almost palpable sense of expectation in the Old Trafford air represents an entirely different challenge.

After 14 games, including 12 wins, with 84 goals scored along the way since Wiegman started work last September, the expectations surrounding this team have soared and no one is quite sure how England will react to the attendant pressure.

“It’s incredible, it’s really exciting,” the England manager said as she sat in Sir Alex Ferguson’s old seat in Old Trafford’s packed media theatre on Tuesday, surveyed the sea of faces and for possibly the first time during her tenure looked slightly nervous.

Controversial Uefa tournament regulations demand that journalists wear high‑grade medical masks in press conferences but Wiegman – who urged anyone questioning her to remove those coverings so she could properly hear them – knows there will be nothing to protect her should England somehow stumble in front of a 73,000-strong crowd at the Theatre of Dreams on Wednesday.

Indeed should her team struggle against Irene Fuhrmann’s sometimes underrated Austria in the impending Euro 2022 curtain‑raiser, the media inquest threatens to rival the sort of unsparingly forensic deconstruction which will greet Erik ten Hag’s first defeat as Manchester United manager.

As befits a former PE teacher, England’s manager is an extremely balanced individual – and not merely in a physical sense. Indeed the 52-year-old Dutchwoman’s enthusiasm for maintaining a perfect equilibrium has left her wary of what she terms the “pink cloud” currently engulfing her squad of tournament favourites.

“We’re not going to sit on a pink cloud [the Dutch term for cloud nine],” she recently said. “We’re going to stay grounded. We’re in a good place but there are many favourites for the tournament and we’re just one. It’s extremely hard to predict.”

Wiegman’s immediate challenge is to prepare her players for the intensity of Wednesday’s high-adrenaline occasion against an Austria team she describes as “tough and organised”. She limbered up her Netherlands squad for Euro 2017 – a tournament the Oranje won on home soil defeating Denmark 4-2 in a thrilling finale in Enschede – by memorably offering one of her bras as the prize for the player who won a training‑ground five-a-side.

The idea behind this ostensibly bizarre gift was that this piece of lingerie was all about support – and the team needed to properly harness the unexpectedly enthusiastic backing of the Dutch people as they progressed through the rounds.

Tellingly, when Mark Sampson’s England were beaten 3-0 by the Netherlands in the semi-final the Lionesses wilted in the face of a hostile crowd filling FC Twente’s home. Five years on England’s class of 2022 is appreciably more technically assured yet possesses considerably less collective experience of high‑pressure, big‑occasion games.

Back then Leah Williamson, who has replaced the sidelined Steph Houghton as captain in a much‑refreshed squad, was still awaiting her first senior call-up but on Tuesday Williamson sat alongside her manager at Old Trafford with an array of cameras trained on her every expression.

The Arsenal defender is a centre‑half by trade but excelled in a holding midfield role under Wiegman before reverting to her old position in the 4-0 friendly win against Switzerland last week.

Although the smart money is on Williamson rejoining Keira Walsh in a Lionesses engine room which, without her, can be vulnerable to counterattacks, England’s manager is keeping everyone guessing as to her precise deployment on Wednesday.

As the first woman to serve on the coaching staff at a Dutch senior men’s team (Sparta Rotterdam) Wiegman knew she had to weigh her words carefully and make them count and is now nothing if not concise. “I’m beginning to miss Phil Neville [England’s often emotional former manager],” joked someone. “She’s the queen of the short sentence.”

Should Wiegman’s choreography steer her Lionesses through this latest storm, all will be forgiven.

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