MILTON KEYNES, England -- There are numerous ways to quantify the successes of England last summer, and the impact their success on the pitch has had on women's football at home, but maybe one of the easiest ways of seeing just how the Lionesses captured the imagination of the public is by comparing the first day's matches from this edition of the Arnold Clark Cup with those from last year.
There is, of course, the caveat that there were COVID-19 protocols in place in 2022 that led to lengthy waits between the first and second matches each game day, but simply getting 21,030 number of fans to Milton Keynes for Thursday's evening kickoff -- a 4-0 win over South Korea -- is a success in itself.
Although a far cry from a sold-out Wembley, there was still the same hungry anticipation in the air from the fans, those in the stands excited to see the players who lit up the pitches across the country last summer on way to winning the Euros. And of course, just like the year before, those in the stands proudly and unironically sported their free yellow Arnold Clark Cup sunglasses despite it being dark and noticeably nippy out -- some things really never do change.
From being a quiet favourite to challenge at their home Euros to champions, it wasn't just England that had changed over the intervening 12 months. But from facing 2022 Arnold Clark Cup opponents Germany, Spain and Canada -- three teams in the upper echelons of FIFA's ranking -- the Lionesses would then face three teams at the Euros on the next rung down the standings. If England could go out and win the inaugural four-team tournament (and then the Euros), then they could certainly repeat the feat this year -- against three teams (South Korea, Italy, Belgium) perceived to be lesser opposition.
Once again, the weight of expectation on the shoulders of those wearing the three lions on their chests was increased. With South Korea sitting deep, England were free to attack at will, but the Lionesses failed to get the better of Kim Jung-Mi with the goalkeeper making a raft of first-half saves to keep the hosts out, much to the frustration of the crowd. But there was little panic from those in white, who stuck to their task and continued to fashion chances, from Millie Bright's drive from distance to Alessia Russo's curler that lashed against the inside of the upright and flew away from danger.
Just as it was looking like it was going to be one of those nights, Lauren James cut into the box only to be felled by Jang Selgi leaving the referee no option but to point to the spot. There was little Kim could do to keep Georgia Stanway's powered penalty out, the goalkeeper left to grasp at air again on the other side of the break when Chloe Kelly let fly a pearler. With England moving the ball at pace and their opposition looking worse for wear, the goals began to rain in with Russo adding a third less than five minutes later.
It was an England far removed from the team who, not so long ago, struggled to break down stodgy defences, often looking lost when asked to get at a team who sat back. Heading into a World Cup, it's not just the new silverware in the trophy cabinet at St. Georges Park that is different for England but, rather everything about the Wiegman era is so different from what preceded it. Almost as if England are just running through the mental checklist, the starts with staying calm and ends with "balling out" and is born of the clarity Wiegman has brought into the group.
In Milton Keynes, the nerves from the crowd dissipated after the Kelly goal, replaced with excitement and delight, the possibilities of the team in front of them suddenly endless. Even on a cut up pitch that the Lionesses' manager would go on to call "unacceptable" in her post-match news conference, the team managed to find the rhythm to dominant the game as the players began to find each other, slowly at first, shaking off the three months they'd been apart at international level.
Finding each other and finding joy in playing in front of a wanton crowd, simply continuing on from what they started last summer. South Korea shaking off their own winter rust and long-haul flight might not have been the toughest opposition but it was just another team on the long list of those England have faced who the Lionesses have beaten, again, seemingly just ticking one off after another.
There will be bigger tests for England, not just this month but at the World Cup this summer but there is a sense that there is always a plan for the hurdles that may lay ahead, even if they're down some dark unseen corner, the momentum being built by Wiegman and her teams -- both on and off the pitch -- doesn't look like it will ever wane. The team have clearly come along leaps and bounds since the last Arnold Clark Cup but they're barely recognisable from the England side that left for France in June of 2019.