‘She’s not satisfied with victory’: how Sarina Wiegman transformed England

·9-min read

In 2012, the year Arjan Veurink took charge of Twente’s women’s team, Sarina Wiegman’s ADO Den Haag won the Dutch double – the now England Women head coach’s first Eredivisie title and first KNVB Cup as a manager. The following season Veurink got the better of the woman who he would later join as an assistant, winning the league with Twente. One week later, though, Wiegman’s side denied him the chance to match her exploits by beating his side in the cup final.

This was Veurink’s introduction to the woman with whom he has gone on to form a formidable coaching partnership. Initially they were adversaries, vying for the biggest domestic prizes. “We played against each other a lot,” says Veurink. “It’s always a lovely question to ask her [about that], I’m always joking a little bit about that.”

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When Wiegman was made head coach of the Netherlands women’s team in 2016, with Euro 2017 on home soil looming, after a stint as interim manager and an assistant coach, she turned to her former opponent, given he had worked with many of the players and understood women’s football.

“She invited me to speak about my philosophy, my vision for the game and my thoughts on a European Championship in our home country,” says Veurink. “I really liked the way she always tries to bring things back to the process. She has a really clear picture: ‘This is where we are now, this is where we have to improve, this is probably the way we can do it, and this is where I need you.’”

Clarity is an important theme when talking to England’s players about Wiegman’s impact as they prepare for the Women’s Euro 2022. Keira Walsh is no different. “Everybody knows where they stand so there’s no guessing games behind closed doors and I think that does take the pressure off,” says the midfielder. “The mentality now is just all about doing the best for the team and the team winning, rather than individuals. I think you can see that in the way we play.”

Walsh echoes her manager’s words: when Wiegman faces the press, she deflects from talk of individual performances. The Dutch manager smiles when asked why she diverts to being about the team. “In a team sport it all starts with teamwork, being connected and knowing each other,” says Wiegman.

“Sometimes you will have one individual that can be a gamechanger, but that’s short-term. If you want to perform longer-term, it’s all about playing as a team, in possession, out of possession and in transition. People like to highlight the strikers, but if the strikers don’t get the ball how are they going to score? It all starts with teamwork, that’s what I like so much about working with the team, with people.”

Veurink could see this focus when he was in the opposition dugout. “When I look back to her time at ADO Den Haag, the DNA of her team was always that they were really fighting for each other, it was a team where they mentally were very strong. That fight, the mental strength, the spirit, the motivation, the passion, are all things that she tries to bring to her teams.”

To protect her team, Wiegman has built an environment around the Lionesses that is unpressured in the most high pressure of major tournaments – a home Euros where expectations are the highest they have been. “I don’t know how she does it, to be honest with you,” says Walsh. “It’s easy for me to sit here and say it feels less tense, because it just does.”

Wiegman adds: “It’s also just the way I am. As a player sometimes I didn’t think I enjoyed it enough. I worked so hard. But you’re there, you’re doing what you love the most, you’re doing your best, so why don’t you just have fun, too?

The midfielder Keira Walsh, pictured in action against Switzerland
The midfielder Keira Walsh, pictured in action against Switzerland, says Sarina Wiegman has made the mood in the England camp ‘less tense’. Photograph: DeFodi Images/Getty Images

“As I grew in my personality, I really wanted to be relaxed more. Why do players start playing football when they’re seven years old? It’s because they love the game. Yes, it’s all about winning, but you perform better when you can be yourself and when you’re in an environment – and it sounds like school – an environment where you’re safe, where you will not be judged. Because when you’re on the pitch you’re being judged all the time and that’s uncomfortable and unsafe.”

The key to the calmness is that she “really trusts and believes in the process we are in at the moment” says Veurink. “That gives her the trust and the confidence to give us, as a tech staff, responsibility.” Wiegman is “not scared of strong people” and goes all out to “gets the best people around her”, says Veurink,.

Wiegman had been an assistant coach of the Netherlands before her promotion to head coach six months before the 2017 home Euros. The team lost four of five warm-up games but went on an unlikely run to the title.

During her time as an assistant coach, Wiegman had become the first woman to coach in the men’s professional game in the Netherlands when in 2016 she was asked to step in to help the assistant coach Ole Tobiasen, after a member of the coaching staff at Jong Sparta Rotterdam fell ill. It was a natural fit, with Wiegman having done part of her pro licence at the club, and she stayed on for the season.

“She was one of us from day one and there was respect for her because everyone already knew her,” says the former Denmark player Tobiasen. “For me it was a little bit surprising, because it was new. I didn’t know women coaches: ‘How good is she? What soccer language is she speaking? Are we thinking the same way? Is it a shy person? How can I use her, in a good way of course, in training and in the games?’

“She came in, the first day, and there was a ‘click’ between us. It was easy for me to see that I could trust her. She had the tactical view, she could see, we were speaking the same soccer language; we wanted to see players between the lines, we wanted to see not straight balls, we want to have special angles and stuff like that.”

One of her strengths was her flexibility, which has been evident during her 11 months in charge of England. “Yes, she is a very good and nice person, but if she can see that something has to change, then she’s doing that,” says Tobiasen.

“That’s a very strong part of her. In myself I see it, sometimes you wait too long with a substitution hoping that it will come good, but she sometimes was just like: ‘OK, no, this is no good, we have to change.’ She will be there for players, but if she has a feeling that a player is not playing well then she takes them out. For the player it is not always fun, but she’s doing that for the team, not for herself.”

Growing up in The Hague, Wiegman broke the rules to play in boys’ teams. She would go on to become the first player to reach a century of caps for the Netherlands women’s team, retiring with 104. But in search of a competitive environment that matched her ambition, as a teenager she moved to the US to be coached by Anson Dorrance, the University of North Carolina head coach and coach of the USA’s 1991 World Cup winners. Dorrance, who watched Wiegman coach the Netherlands to the 2019 World Cup final against a USA side that featured five of his former players, spotted Wiegman at an invitational event in China before the unofficial first women’s World Cup in 1991.

Wiegman joined an elite squad assembled at the Chapel Hill campus of UNC, alongside Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly. “Sarina came into a collection of American thoroughbreds and fitted right in, it wasn’t like she was a fish out of water, and we loved her,” says Dorrance. “She also had this sort of wry smile which, I guess, exposed a certain level of confidence but also a certain level of free spirit. It was like we had recruited one of our own and she just happened to be from Europe.”

Wiegman became the latest in a still growing list of Dorrance proteges. Her England squad includes three former UNC players in Lucy Bronze and more recent graduates Lotte Wubben-Moy and Alessia Russo. What sets UNC apart is the “competitive cauldron” where each player is ranked against each other in 28 categories making it, according to Dorrance, “an absolute meritocracy”.

“These players that we had were just the best of the best,” he says. “And she fought her way into the starting lineup. There’s no promises, no: ‘Sarina, you come to us and we will play you as a starter.’ She had to fight her way on the field.”

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The roots of much of Wiegman’s drive and style can be traced back to her time at UNC. Of Wiegman’s constant desire for improvement, even after England’s 20-0 defeat of Latvia, Dorrance chuckles. “That makes wonderful sense to me because a football game is fraught with error. I don’t think any coach is entirely satisfied with victory.

“We want to see consistent improvement. Obviously, we can measure certain things like fitness standards and speed and vertical jump and acceleration, but when the game is played, we want to see improvement in a game that’s fraught with error.

“What Sarina is saying after a 20-0 victory, is there’s always another level. And if players ever become complacent, it’s the first day of their decline. So, you’ve got to keep them on a razor’s edge in terms of ambition, in terms of commitment, in terms of everything else. She completely understands this.”