And then there were 23. England’s squad for their home European Championships is set – and with it, a record-breaking summer for the women’s game is suddenly now right around the corner. These are the days, the sign-posted occasions, when the build-up and hype begins to feel very real and a major international tournament swings into view.
Not that you would have been able to tell, judging by Sarina Wiegman. The England manager remained cool as she discussed the decisions that led to her final 23-player squad for the tournament, even as she appeared a little agitated at the continued line of questioning surrounding the omission of former captain Steph Houghton. This may have been the first step of England’s journey this summer, but for Wiegman it was just another step in her process.
Beneath the initial noise over Houghton there were few surprises in the final group announced at St George’s Park on Tuesday, and you would expect that is just how Wiegman likes it. Much of the debate was about whether there would be a place for England’s captain at their last three major tournaments and, although the 34-year-old Houghton remained the headline, there is merit in wondering whether her inclusion would even have made that much of a difference either way. Houghton was simply not ready.
“It’s emotional but the best thing is to give the honest answer,” Wiegman explained. “Yes she has lots of experience, but in this squad there are lots of experienced players.” The former Netherlands manager would not be swayed. Wiegman’s plans have appeared to be too calculated and too organised for there to be any last-minute alterations of significance.
Indeed, although the final announcement of Wiegman’s squad was pushed back by a week due to a close family bereavement, one would suspect that the England manager had landed upon the core of her group some months ago.
While the embarrassingly one-sided World Cup qualification victories that marked the start of Wiegman’s reign appeared little more than a formality, she has been consistent in her selections even when the level of opposition did not require her strongest line-up.
By the time England arrived at the Arnold Clark Cup in February and their first fixtures against top-10 opposition in Spain, Canada and Germany, she had narrowed to a group of 20 players to use across the three fixtures.
Of that group, only the injured Jordan Nobbs is unavailable for the tournament, and the rest have retained their places. The return of Chloe Kelly from injury is a boost to the forward line but, apart from that, those other players to be drifted in and survive the cut from the long-list, the likes of Beth England and Lotte Wubben-Moy, are unlikely to be viewed as more than back-up options.
The rest, the core, is too settled. The formation is set, and key partnerships have been forged in defence and midfield. Whether Houghton was selected or not, Millie Bright and Alex Greenwood would have started England’s opening game against Austria. In front of them, Leah Williamson and Keira Walsh have developed the midfield axis that is set to be England’s guiding point throughout the tournament.
Wiegman’s management of Williamson, in particular, is illustrative that this has all been plotted many months ago. England are set to head into a major tournament with a new captain, who will play in a different position than at club level, but it is not a talking point.
Wiegman took both decisions early and has stuck by them. It has never been allowed to be an issue and Williamson has carried herself impressively in both duties so far.
There will be decisions to make in a couple of positions, and also potentially with star players in Ellen White and Fran Kirby depending on form and fitness respectively. Wiegman has an impressive record after guiding the Netherlands to victory in the 2017 European Championships and then the World Cup final two years later, and will be prepared for the unforeseen twists and turns that accompany a major tournament.
Nine players, including Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly, will be getting their first taste of a major tournament while Wiegman was suitably impressed by the experience of players such as Lucy Bronze, Ellen White and Jill Scott that she did not feel the need to include Houghton, even in a non-playing role.
“The 23 is the 23,” Wiegman said of her squad. “The balance is good. But it’s also about quality. I think we’re in a good place.”