WIENER NEUSTADT, Austria — A goal in each half in Austria was more than enough for England, when the newly crowned European Champions returned to competitive action with a 2-0 win that secured their berth at the 2023 World Cup with a match to spare in their qualification group.
England’s record under Sarina Wiegman has been, in a word, breathless. Or, if you’d rather: irresistible. When the former Netherlands’ boss was brought in by the FA at the conclusion of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — to officially start the job in September 2021 — even they could not have hoped for the unbridled success she and the team have enjoyed.
Each time England have taken to the pitch in the past 12 months, there has been a threat of the bubble bursting and the team finally being beaten over 90 minutes, yet their unbeaten streak has endured. From the first ball kicked against North Macedonia in qualification last September, the Wiegman era has only ever known victory.
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The important caveat that they’ve largely played teams ranked on FIFA’s outer edges, with just a handful of elite opposition, over the course of those 21 games does stand out. Some of those games told a story, such as a friendly against a COVID-ridden Germany team at the Arnold Clark Cup at the start of the year, but others have been rote and routine: just a long list of goal scorers and a reminder of the amateur status of their opposition. When you’re a team putting 20 goals beyond Latvia, questions have to be asked of just how much you can take from those 90 minutes, yet it all seems to have been a step on the path to the European success the Lionesses enjoyed at home over July.
Despite the lopsided nature of many clashes, those big wins have given England an air of the invincible. It’s a team that can boast lady luck in their ranks as much as they can incredible investment from the FA, all of which has been done in the pursuit of filling a barren trophy cabinet save for one Cyprus Cup and one SheBelieves Cup, two friendly tournaments contested before Easter.
In Wiener Neustadt, a sleepy southern suburb of Vienna, England continued to show the polish that has become so synonymous with the Wiegman era. With or without the ball, the players were free to mill about, always seemingly having at least one white shirt spare as the ball moved from one end of the pitch to the other.
An early goal from Alessia Russo — scored with a slice of luck as the ball found its way to the Manchester United attacker via deflection off teammate Georgia Stanway — allowed England to relax further. Manuela Zinsberger’s net rippled in the seventh minute after Russo swept the ball low with her back to goal.
Austria, a small nation in women’s football terms, has improved in leaps and bounds over the past six or so years, and their recent record was one most teams could be proud of, with England (twice), Germany and Denmark their only defeats in their current run of games. But it was of course, again, England as the thorn in their side. Still riding high after a dreamlike summer, the visitors counter-pressed with ease, showing their athleticism to chase down every ball and win one foot race after another.
It was that same team which had the heady mix of fortune, fitness and unquestionable talent when surviving a scare at the start of the second half as Julia Hickelsberger-Fuller chased down Mary Earps’ wayward clearance and turned it toward goal. In the end, the ball trickled wide, all but scraping a layer of paint off of the upright on its way. It was the type of play that would have resulted in a goal had Austria been playing any team other than England but, of course, they were playing England.
When Nikita Parris arrowed a ball into the back of the net seven minutes after entering the match, there would be no way back for Austria who, with the loss, saw their hopes of automatic World Cup qualification dissolve.
As Wiegman had said in her prematch news conference the day before the group decider: “When you’re satisfied with what you’re doing right now, you’ve lost.” That said, they’re clearly not showing any signs of complacency after the Euros triumph that ended so many years of English hurt. It would be easy enough for her charges to look down on the rest of Europe from the throne they took at the end of July, but there is a clear understanding the work is far from finished ahead of next summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
There is a sense we still have not seen the very best out of this England team, that there are more gears the team could go through with the pedal not flat to the metal yet, but as they demonstrated against Austria, they do all that in necessary. Maybe that might read as being happy to rest on their laurels, but it gives a sense that there is always more left in the tank and that they are being smart with their energy.
England will have to eat up more ground if they are to have another fantastical summer (well, Australian winter) next year and close the gap to the very best in the world, but we’re still waiting to see this team’s extra gear that promises something special.
For Wiegman, whose first match after winning the Euros with the Netherlands in 2017 was a 2-0 win away to Austria, history is threatening to repeat itself. The reminder that her Dutch team from 2017 went on to lose the World Cup final in 2019 to the United States is a timely one as the world’s No. 1 ranked team come to play England at Wembley in October.