Faster, fitter and a sharper unit: England are becoming the real deal

It is almost five years since a bomb scare in the eastern Netherlands left England’s team bus completing seemingly endless circles of the dual carriageways surrounding Enschede.

By the time the local police confirmed it was a hoax, Mark Sampson’s Lionesses were behind schedule for their Euro 2017 semi-final against Sarina Wiegman’s Netherlands and arrived at FC Twente’s stadium much later than intended.

It rather set the tone on a night when everything went wrong for the-then tournament favourites and the Oranje ultimately cruised to a 3-0 victory en route to glory in the final against Denmark.

Fast forward to Friday night at Elland Road and Wiegman was patrolling the Lionesses’s technical area while Mark Parsons, an Englishman, led the Netherlands out.

Just to add to the confusion, England wore orange and their opponents a predominantly white kit with the role reversal theme even extending to the action. Following a stodgy start the home team eventually pummelled their guests into almost total submission.

By the end Wiegman had passed her toughest test in a Three Lions adorned tracksuit with aplomb, simultaneously reinforcing England’s credentials as Euro 2022 favourites while dampening her old team’s expectations. Hats off for her series of judicious substitutions as she cleverly juggled a squad very big on strength in depth.

As outstanding a coach as the 52-year-old clearly is, it is though tempting to wonder whether she would have been in West Yorkshire choreographing a stunning 5-1 win against her former players had that security incident never happened and Sampson’s class of 2017 played to their true potential in Enschede.

No one will ever know the answer but 13 games, 11 wins and 79 goals scored into Wiegman’s Lionesses tenure fate seems to have played into the Football Association’s hands. Only three of those who began the semi-final back in 2017 – Lucy Bronze, Millie Bright and Fran Kirby – featured in her starting XI at Elland Road while Parsons’ team sheet included a quintet of their Oranje vanquishers.

Now though it was Lieke Martens, Sari Van Veenendaal, Stefanie Van De Grant, Sherida Spitse and Jackie Groenen who kicked off with a brimful ofoptimism but departed fully chastened.

Granted Parson’s players began well with Ajax’s Victoria Pelova showing off some incisive movement and Spitse cueing Martens up to head the Netherlands in front.

England's Dutch head coach Sarina Wiegman (left) speaks with defender Lucy Bronze during the Women's International friendly match against the Netherlands.
Sarina Wiegman talks tactics with defender Lucy Bronze. Photograph: Nigel Roddis/AFP/Getty Images

Admittedly Bronze’s equaliser was a total fluke but by then the frequently positionally rotating Kirby (whose pass prefaced that leveller) and Lauren Hemp were finally beginning to cause the Netherlands’ defence sufficient problems to suggest Wiegman really has two potentially top drawer attacking catalysts at her disposal.

Meanwhile Houston Dash’s Harrogate-born, Leeds supporting, Rachel Daly shone at left-back.

Despite Chelsea’s Beth England huffing and puffing through an audition as a principal understudy for the Covid-hit Ellen White, Wiegman had plenty of positives to contemplate through her trademark round, gold rimmed, glasses during a first half she spent plotting substitutions and tactical tweaks.

Sandra Bastos, the Portuguese referee, was left peering anxiously into the pitchside monitor after initially failing to award a penalty after substitute Danielle van De Donk cleverly tricked Alex Greenwood into conceding a spot kick.

When Spitse, winning her 200th international cap, missed it, a switch seemed to flick in English heads. Indeed there was barely time to blink before Hemp’s wonderful cross and Beth Mead’s smart finish offered England a then perhaps slightly unlikely lead. As Mead celebrated, it will not have been lost on Wiegman that Kirby played a vital role in the preamble.

As he stood, arms folded, in his smart suit, Parsons suddenly looked every bit the frustrated business class airline passenger who has just learnt his flight has been cancelled. The 35-year-old former Chelsea Women reserve coach and Washington Spirit and Portland Thorns manager commutes to the Netherlands from Surrey while his predecessor passes through Schipol airport in the other direction en route to St George’s Park from her home in The Hague.

The similarities between the pair extend beyond frequent flier status. Neither coach is afraid of their teams playing directly or imposing themselves physically and they both share a penchant for mixing up short patient passing with high calibre crossing and rapid counter-attacking.

The difference here was that England were much better at sustaining it.

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With her side the faster, fitter, sharper unit this was very much Wiegman’s night. After Van Veenendaal uncharacteristically misjudged Ella Toone’s curler, Hemp’s stellar, highly technical volley both emphasised her importance to the Lionesses and gave the 19,365 crowd a fourth England goal to celebrate.

“We want five” they chorused and Mead was happy to oblige before Elland Road swayed in unison to “Sweet Caroline” at the final whistle. Wiegman’s sole real worry may be that her players have peaked too early.

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