How England’s Lionesses turned things around in 2021

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December 2, 2021
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    England celebrateStriker Ellen White became the Lionesses' all-time top scorer with a hat-trick in the win over Latvia

    At the start of this year England were on a run of four defeats in five games, had not played a competitive fixture in 11 months and would soon be without a manager when Phil Neville left the post in January.

    But the Lionesses end 2021 with their biggest ever competitive victory, a 100% record in World Cup qualifying and with no goals conceded in six matches.

    A lot has changed.

    When Norwegian Hege Riise took over as interim manager following Neville's departure, England's form was disrupted by cancelled fixtures, Olympic preparation and changes to staff personnel.

    Performances were lacklustre too – England beat Northern Ireland in February but suffered back-to-back friendly defeats by France and Canada.

    However, England's 20-0 thumping over Latvia on Tuesday, on top of 10-0 wins away to the same side and in Luxembourg, typify a positive start to a new era under Sarina Wiegman and promise real optimism for 2022 and the summer's home European Championship.

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    How have England turned it around?

    Sarina WiegmanSarina Wiegman won the European Championship with the Netherlands before taking charge of England

    In the three months since Wiegman took over, England have won all their games and scored 53 goals without reply to lead their World Cup qualifying group by five points.

    It could not have gone any better, and Wiegman said earlier this month she was "proud" of the progress made.

    Amid the team's progress, individual players such as Arsenal's Beth Mead and Leah Williamson have flourished, while Manchester City striker Ellen White has become the Lionesses' all-time top scorer.

    In September, Williamson said the "energy was through the roof in camp" and the players enjoyed working with Wiegman.

    "The mood is high. We're all ears for whatever new comes our way and everyone is eager to put it out on the pitch," she added.

    Plenty of young talent has made progress too – Manchester United's Ella Toone, 22, and Alessia Russo, 22, have both scored hat-tricks in the past month, while Manchester City's Lauren Hemp, 21, got four goals on Tuesday.

    "It has been a very special period. A good start with the team," said Wiegman. "It has been such a pleasure to work with everyone.

    "I have had a very warm welcome from the Football Association, the staff and all the players. I'm really enjoying it."

    White added: "We have accomplished what we wanted to in terms of winning all of our games to help qualify for the World Cup.

    "We have a new manager, new staff and are adapting to a new style of play too. We are in a good place, it's exciting for us and we're just looking forward to the new year now."

    A platform to build on in 2022

    England celebrateEngland have scored 53 goals in six games under Sarina Wiegman

    A more cautious reading of England's rampant start to World Cup qualifying – they have also put eight past North Macedonia and four past Northern Ireland – is to note that they have not faced opposition ranked higher than them since April.

    Wiegman has encouraged competition and said England "need to be exposed to top, top opponents" to gauge their true progress this year.

    That opportunity will come in February when England host a new invitational tournament, coming up against Germany, Spain and Canada – all of whom are in the world's top 10.

    "We've done a lot in possession because we have the ball a lot. We really need some top-level games now which we're going to have because then we'll really know where we are," said Wiegman.

    "I do think we have done very well but we know we need those high-level games to really know where we stand. I'm really positive about that."

    But despite playing "non-competitive games", it is clear England are playing with confidence and Wiegman, who won the Euros in 2017 with the Netherlands, is instilling a winning mentality.

    She has selected strong starting line-ups for all of England's World Cup qualifying matches, saying consistency in performance is key to their preparation for the summer.

    "We only have five international periods to prepare for the Euros," she added. "It is about performing and getting the best team on the pitch.

    "At times we can of course change a little but it starts with performing."

    And Wiegman's options will only improve as they head towards the summer, England's dramatic upturn in form having come despite the absence of key players Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton and Ellie Roebuck – all of whom are expected to return before February.

    All in all, the January blues are a distant memory – and there is plenty to be excited about with eight months to go until England host the Euros.

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