England manager Sarina Wiegman has been clear about her desire to test out the strength of her squad this month, and not just in the opposition she hand-picked for the Arnold Clark Cup, but in the personnel she called into camp. Ahead of the matches, the Dutch coach talked about wanting to test out not just different players, but different combinations and partnerships as she begins to finalise her squad for the World Cup this summer.
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As she said in her postmatch news conference after England's opening match against South Korea on Thursday, "there are lots of plans in the game you can't plan, but in this tournament we are really trying out some things, looking at some things. We do watch the first half and say 'OK, we can look at this option and this option' with the technical staff, we see how the game goes and we do it or we don't if we decide it's not the right moment to try out things."
The coach showed her willingness to test out her options in England's win over Italy on Sunday afternoon, making nine changes to her XI from the previous match including giving Manchester City's number one, Ellie Roebuck, the nod in goal ahead of her regular goalkeeper, Man United's Mary Earps.
The idea for the Lionesses in their three friendlies this month is to face teams who sit deep, those who play in defensive banks or who flood the midfield to stifle England's ability to pick out passes. As seen against England, Italy's willingness to get numbers around Keira Walsh -- which meant the Barcelona midfielder could no longer be the architect for the hosts -- meant the Lionesses simply looked for other ways to get the ball into the attacking third. The simple options were to ping the ball over the top, circumvent the clogged midfield or use their wingers to advance the ball in wider areas.
Although the football from the hosts wasn't the best or most heart-racing they'd played under Wiegman, England were getting the job done against the Azzurre, taking the lead via Rachel Daly after the half-hour mark. However, their inability to put the ball away for a second time despite abundant chances opened the door for Italy who took advantage to grab an equaliser just after the hour.
A long way from being England B given a clear number of starters in the mix, the problem seemed to stem more from a lack of connections between players who rarely played for England together or, at least, who rarely started alongside each other for their country. Yet the biggest problem seemed to be the lack of creative ideas: even as the game opened up in the latter stages, the chances England created tended to be sub-standard or wasted.
After the South Korea game, Wiegman joked that the type of headaches the squad gave her were the type she liked to have and despite it being a cliche, especially in international football, there is a wealth of depth available to the coach despite some raised eyebrows over a few key omissions.
Although Jordan Nobbs was called up to replace Fran Kirby, fellow internationals Lucy Staniforth and Bethany England, who also moved clubs in the January window as they try to get minutes and make a claim for the World Cup squad, have both hit the ground running at Aston Villa and Spurs respectively. Whether Wiegman will be able to find room in her April squad for the likes of Staniforth or England remains to be seen, but both have a fair claim, further deepening any selection headaches.
The bigger problem for England, on the balance of the Italy game, is about finding the partnerships between the players who don't play together regularly. There's no simple solution for how to expedite a process that takes hours upon hours of group work. Yet the coach remained unfazed when asked by ESPN about the need to grow new partnerships; Wiegman instead emphasised the balance in the team, praising the collaboration between those she selected.
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The relaxed demeanour from the coach and air of calm she carries is clearly something that is translated across the team and felt by every member of the Lionesses squad regardless of the combinations on the pitch, or the headache thumping away at the coach's temples.
As Wiegman said after finally beating Italy via Daly's second of the game: "Yes, we have more questions [than answers], but that's good in this stage of our preparation."