We will have a better perception of England’s Euro 2022 chances after they have played Norway on Monday night. I believe the depth of talent in Sarina Wiegman’s squad will be enough to reach the final but this is their toughest group game. If they are to frustrate Ada Hegerberg and the rest of a Norway team adept at playing between the lines, England’s defenders must be solid and remain in constant communication. Their focus at set pieces needs to be 100%.
A lot of people ask if I’m envious of England’s players and regret being retired but my overriding emotions are happiness and pride at seeing how far women’s football has progressed. The scale of this tournament is something many of us in the game have worked towards for a long time. Even so, as happy as I am to be watching, I’d have really enjoyed marking a striker as good as Hegerberg.
You always want to see how you match up against the very best players and those were invariably the challenges I enjoyed most. It’s strange but against top teams and top players you can almost feel a bit less fear and end up playing with more freedom than usual.
After beating Norway in the last 16 of the 2015 World Cup in Canada and the quarter-finals of France 2019, England are favourites on Monday. But seven years ago Hegerberg was 17 and three years ago she was in self-imposed exile from the national team in protest against her country’s treatment of female footballers.
I admire Ada’s stance. It’s tough for any player to step away from the game they love to make a point but she recognised her status and power and used them to change things for the better, not just within the Norway team but globally. When a player as good as that walks away from a national side people start taking notice and begin realising things aren’t quite right.
Some people don’t think she made her point in the correct manner. It’s a difficult debate but what is the right way? What do you do if you can’t protest? Of course, change is never guaranteed but sometimes you have to be brave and use your voice.
Now, though, Ada is back in a team many people in Norway feel gave England too much respect three years ago. The memories of both 2019 in Le Havre and 2015 in Ottawa will be on their minds and they will make things difficult.
Some people feel Ada is in need of a tournament goal but I don’t think she will be feeling too much pressure. Remember this is a player who has won six Champions Leagues and is that competition’s record scorer. She got in some really good positions in Thursday’s 4-1 win against Northern Ireland. She’s aggressive, she’s hungry and she’s also acquired the resilience that comes with experiencing a long layoff after rupturing an ACL in 2020.
Having had the same injury I know it leaves you with a long time to reflect on yourself. I think Ada’s spent it looking at the little details of her game and deciding she wanted to come back even better than before. She will also have realised the preciousness of a football career. When you play a sport like this, no day is promised to us; there’s a fine line between being 100% healthy and suffering a bad injury.
It will be interesting to see how Wiegman balances her defence because it is not just about Hegerberg but high-calibre forwards including Caroline Graham Hansen and my old Chelsea teammate Guro Reiten, too. While Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby attract the headlines, Guro’s the sometimes underrated assist merchant. Her passes and crosses create so many goals; I felt she was one of the WSL’s most in-form players last season.
Defensive selection could be tough for Wiegman. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Alex Greenwood, a natural left-footer, return alongside Millie Bright at centre-half, with Leah Williamson reverting to the key midfield background where Wiegman could also consider introducing Jill Scott, a natural, very experienced No 8.
Whoever plays, Millie’s calmness, composure and varied passing range will be key in a game full of exciting individual battles between players often very familiar with each other.
England’s attack will find themselves renewing battle with WSL defenders who know all about their strengths and weaknesses in my former Chelsea teammates Maren Mjelde and Maria Thorisdottir (now at Manchester United).
While video analysis helps, completely new opponents still require fathoming out on the pitch but when players know each other well there’s much less scope for surprise.
Whatever happens, I expect Wiegman to maintain her low-key technical area approach. She’s not a shouter so doesn’t stress players out. Wiegman doesn’t try to coach England through matches because she trusts her team; I like that. Although football isn’t chess it involves a lot of problem solving and if you don’t allow players the freedom to make their own decisions they’ll never improve.