BRISTOL, England -- Three games, a trio of wins, Arnold Clark Cup retained. Job done for Sarina Wiegman's England over the course of seven days on their road trip around the country as they saw off South Korea, Italy and Belgium to make it 29 unbeaten games under their master manager. Goals scored: 12. Just two conceded. A third trophy in the Wiegman era secured.
On the face of it, it's been an idyllic few days for the Lionesses who've forgotten how to lose. But was the 6-1 win over Belgium flawless? Far from it. And that room for improvement, and the areas they need to tweak, the work they need to do if they are to win the World Cup means this is as near a perfect outcome as possible for Wiegman.
Wiegman wanted to use this tournament -- one where she helped pick the teams who England faced to use them as practise for the group stages awaiting them in the summer -- to work on connections and combinations. She wanted it to be competitive within the squad: the young guns to force their hand, the established players to keep their spots in the starting line-up, and those on the outskirts to gate-crash the party. And that's what's happened.
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"When you go into a tournament, whatever one it is, you want to win it," Wiegman said. "We wanted to try out some things, try out lots of players, try combinations of players and manage loads. I'm happy with the week, the win and what we've done this week and how we've worked together in taking the next steps together ahead of the World Cup."
Taking last year's tournament into account, of the 27 players England named for is competition, you can expect 20 or so to feature in the 23-player squad for the World Cup. Last year 20 of the 23 made the cut for the Euros, with one of the three additions sidelined at the time. The players will be aware of this, and though Wiegman has long been one to avoid changing for changing sake -- look at the unchanged team through the Euros -- she has enjoyed the chance to juggle her pack over the past eight days. She made a total of 18 starting changes from the 4-0 win over South Korea to the 2-1 win over Italy to Wednesday's stroll against Belgium in Bristol.
England will have far sterner tests than Belgium awaiting them in the summer. While it gave them the practise of playing against a low block, Belgium offered next to nothing in attack, until their late, injury-time Elena Dhont wondergoal. For 90 minutes keeper Mary Earps got her steps up for the day by doing her shuttle runs in her own half while doing her utmost to play as a makeshift libero to get a touch on the ball. The Belgium defence did well to hold England to just six goals but it needed some sharp goalkeeping from Nicky Evrard, some scrambled defending after losing possession to England's press, and some last-gasp blocking. In short, England dominated.
Chloe Kelly was at the forefront of their relentless attack. Kelly ended with close-range goals in either half, Leah Williamson also grabbed a brace -- a first-half header, and a late placed shot for England's sixth -- while Lucy Bronze and a Julie Biesmans own goal brought up their six.
Chloe Kelly becomes the leading goalscorer in the Arnold Clark Cup. 🔥— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) February 22, 2023
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Kelly was the player of the match and ended up with the Golden Boot with three goals in the competition. She played down the left in the first half, and the right in the second and had Belgium constantly back-pedalling. They simply couldn't handle her. And then on the other flank you have Lauren James -- arguably the player of the Women's Super League this season -- whose balance, poise and skill rivals any in world football. She was named Player of the Tournament and will be a star of the World Cup.
Leading it all was Alessia Russo, who wreaked havoc in Belgium's defence and looks set to be England's starting No. 9 come the summer.
But despite their form, there's no guarantee that'll be the starting front three come the World Cup. Wiegman will hope to have Beth Mead available (she's recovering from the ACL injury she picked up in December) while the world-class Lauren Hemp is also there. And then there's Rachel Daly. Though she was a left-back in England's Euros win, she's equally adept as a striker. She's been ruthless for Aston Villa in the WSL, and got the nod up front in England's 2-1 win over Italy. She took her chance, scoring both their goals through smartly judged headers and will keep the pressure on Russo. It's a beautiful headache for Wiegman.
The scary thing? Look at the players who missed out on this tournament. Fran Kirby was named in the original squad but suffered an injury on the eve of the competition. She's nailed on for the World Cup and should start. Mead could yet make it. And then you have those on the fringes, established internationals who are hoping to catch Wiegman's eye: Beth England, Lucy Staniforth, Nikita Parris and Esme Morgan. Phew.
"We have grown in depth and we have more than 11 players who could start and we have more players who could compete the selection of 23," Wiegman said. She admitted there are some players who have already played their way into the starting XI and it's their spot to lose, but there are still some spots up for grabs.
But peek into the weeds and you can see where Wiegman will want improvement. England should've scored more. They were wasteful at times. Some of their passing was wayward. There were opportunities missed in transition -- Bronze bombed forwards at moments, but passes were seldom played into her path. Had Belgium had more about them in attack, they could've picked off the space behind England's full-backs. Then there was the goal they conceded. Okay they've only conceded nine under Wiegman, but they wanted a clean sheet. Yes, it was a wondergoal, but Wiegman will look at how they let Dhont get a shot off in the first place.
Perhaps this is nit-picking, looking for issues when there were few given England were dominant as they retained the Arnold Clark Cup.
The image was familiar, the sounds the same. Williamson holding a trophy aloft, "Sweet Caroline" blaring out over the stadium's loudspeakers. But the celebrations were short and sharp. Memories of Wembley are an age ago, they're looking forward, now. They're building in confidence game on game and will back themselves against anyone. With Brazil and Australia awaiting in April, they'll offer further, sterner tests. But equally, it's the next step for Wiegman to finetune plans to ensure there are no grey areas when they start their World Cup campaign against Haiti on July 22.