Sarina Wiegman must find answer to England’s fragility at set pieces

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:England;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">England</a>’s vulnerability was exposed twice by <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:France;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">France</a>, with Marie-Antoinette Katoto scoring the winner.</span><span>Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images/Reuters</span>

Sarina Wiegman seems so taken with north-east England that she has talked about booking a family holiday in order to properly explore the region.

Yet if the Lionesses’ Dutch coach was originally thinking in terms of touring Northumberland’s castles, coastline and perhaps the Roman Wall, she might now want to divert to a restorative health spa.

A 2-1 defeat that threatens to exert a disastrous effect on England’s hopes of automatic qualification for Euro 2025 in Switzerland proved beyond stressful as Wiegman’s players suffered a full-on relapse of the alarming dead-ball disease that derailed them during the latter days of Phil Neville’s tenure.

Related: Katoto caps France comeback to hurt England’s Euro 2025 qualifying hopes

Admittedly France’s goals were two exquisite finishes from Élisa de Almeida and Marie-Antoinette Katoto but, damningly, they both originated from poorly defended corners.

If the Lionesses want to have any hope of avoiding the playoffs they will need to sharpen up appreciably at such set pieces in time for Tuesday’s return against Hervé Renard’s impressive side in St-Étienne. Otherwise the odds will be on Sweden, not England, finishing second in the group and securing a direct ticket to Switzerland.

On an evening of firsts on Tyneside, St James’ Park staged its inaugural senior England’s women’s match with the atmosphere so good the only puzzle was how it had taken so long for the FA to transport the Lionesses to Newcastle’s superbly atmospheric Cathedral on the Hill.

Locals do not normally look kindly on Mackems, past or present, here – just ask Jordan Pickford – but when Beth Mead, a former Sunderland player, propelled England into the lead she was cheered to the rafters.

Not that Friday night’s was your entirely typical St James’ audience. Yet although it was younger and more female than usual there were still plenty of men. It is legitimate to hazard a guess that a fair percentage would not have been seen dead at a women’s international as recently as five or so years ago.

Yet now they were looking on anxiously as an injured Mary Earps swiftly hobbled off to be replaced by Hannah Hampton in goal and enthusiastically cheering Lucy Bronze – another former Sunderland player – on as she rampaged forward from right-back. And to think the north-east was once known as Andy Capp country.

England’s defence retains a strange vulnerability at set pieces at the most inopportune moments. A prime example of this arrived when a France corner resulted in De Almeida’s sumptuous volleyed equaliser after she stepped adroitly away from Keira Walsh.

Unfortunately for Wiegman, modern defensive history quickly repeated itself as her backline declined two generous invitations to clear another visiting corner.

It left Katoto to remind everyone of how much her country missed her after she ruptured a cruciate ligament during last summer’s World Cup in Australia by giving Renard’s high intensity and, sometimes, distinctly physical side a deserved lead courtesy of a fabulous swivel and first-time half volley as the ball bounced around the area.

Chapeaux off too to the excellent Kadi Diani for a smart assist but, worryingly, the Lionesses’ set-play angst came at a moment when Wiegman’s first-choice central defensive pairing of Leah Williamson and Millie Bright were finally back in tandem. The benched Alex Greenwood was arguably the biggest winner on a night when France were slightly reminiscent of Eddie Howe’s Newcastle men at their heavy metal best.

A natural left-footer, Greenwood has previously balanced England’s defence when in tandem with the right-footed Bright, while Williamson is capable of anchoring midfield – a department sometimes overrun here – superbly.

The other option would be for the Lionesses coach to revert to the back three that served her side well as the reigning European champions reached last summer’s World Cup final in Sydney.

A touchline ban deprived St James’ of the invariably dashing sight of Renard – no relation to France’s defender, Wendie – patrolling the technical area. Up in the stands, though, the coach who led Saudi Arabia men to a landmark victory over Argentina at Qatar 2022 looked almost as happy as two years ago in Doha.

When Bright was thrown up front, Wiegman’s default desperate measure, a half smirk of satisfaction crept across his face.

Across the city centre Girls Aloud were playing down by the Tyne but, in the course of a statement performance, France had made an even bigger noise.

As Renard put it: “We weren’t here to just visit Newcastle.”