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Published 22 December 2023 7 min read
England Women's Senior Team

Looking back on another historic year with Sarina Wiegman

Written by:

Frank Smith

England Women's head coach reflects on 2023 and looks ahead to 2024

We have not even finished the action-packed 2023 which saw the Lionesses compete on four fronts yet Sarina Wiegman has already set her sights on helping English football reach new levels.

In her first two years and three months as head coach, Wiegman has guided England Women to a first major trophy at UEFA EURO 2022, reached a maiden FIFA Women’s World Cup final, lifted the inaugural Finalissima and claimed back-to-back Arnold Clark Cups.

It has been ‘another very busy and incredible year’ for the Lionesses, with 19 matches in total between mid-February and early-December.

It all began with the defence of the Arnold Clark Cup, which came courtesy of victories over South Korea (4-0), Italy (2-1) and Belgium (6-1).

Wiegman said: “The most important thing when kicking off the year with the Arnold Clark Cup was that we could try out things.

“We had three games in a week and we could see a lot of players and could try out things to get prepared for the World Cup, which is exactly what we did.

“We got a lot of information from the team and where we stood at that point.

“It was really nice that we won the three games because you approach every game to win it and a lot of things came together in that week.”

27 Dec 2023 5:48

Sarina's year in review

Lionesses boss looks back on a historic year for England's women

They only had to wait six weeks to get their hands on another trophy, this time the first-ever Women’s Finalissima, which pits the European champion against the Copa America Femenina winner from South America.

Another incredible night of drama inside a packed-out Wembley Stadium saw Brazil cancel out Ella Toone’s stunning team goal in the third minute of injury-time to send the match to penalties, which England won with the help of Mary Earps and an emphatic Chloe Kelly spot-kick.

“Wembley has a very special place for us,” said Wiegman.

“With the game going to penalties, it ended up being good practice for the World Cup because we needed that against Nigeria.

“There were a lot of things to take away from that Finalissima game against Brazil and of course a prestigious prize.

“So we really enjoyed winning that and we took a lot from it in our preparation for the World Cup.”

England won the inaugural Women's Finalissima in dramatic fashion
England won the inaugural Women's Finalissima in dramatic fashion

More history was made five days later, although on this occasion the unwanted kind, as Wiegman suffered her first defeat as England head coach.

World Cup hosts Australia beat England 2-0 at a drenched Brentford Community Stadium and Wiegman said: “I thought it was an unnecessary defeat. But we had spoken with the team a couple of times about the urgency of some moments in the game and we weren't punished until then.

“Australia punished us in a couple of moments in that game and I think that it was really necessary for the team to grow, and that's what we did.”

The final friendly before the World Cup saw England held 0-0 by Portugal but the Lionesses found the victories they required when it mattered most as they defeated Haiti and Denmark 1-0 in the group stages before a memorable 6-1 victory against China.

That set up a round-of-16 clash with Nigeria and they almost caused one of the shocks of the tournament as the Super Falcons pushed the Lionesses all the way to penalties.

In the end, Kelly was to score the deciding spot-kick once again as England booked their place in the quarter-finals against Colombia.

A 2-1 victory over the resurgent South Americans sent the Lionesses on a collision course with hosts Australia in the semi-final and Wiegman’s side produced arguably their best display of the competition to win 3-1.

England Women's players celebrate their World Cup semi-final win over Australia
England Women's players celebrate their World Cup semi-final win over Australia

A first Women’s World Cup crown was not to follow as the excellent Spain team emerged victorious by a solitary goal in the Final but Wiegman was left incredibly proud of her team’s efforts on their way to the final.

“The World Cup was one of the most intense periods I've ever experienced,” she said.

“It was a huge tournament, with every record broken on the pitch and off the pitch, and you could feel that, and you could see that we experienced that on the pitch, too, with our team. It was so intense. It was incredible.

“It was a long way from home but we created a home away from home, with lots of family and fans coming over.

“I think the team dealt with so many challenges over the tournament, and even before the tournament (with Leah Williamson, Fran Kirby and Beth Mead all ruled out with injuries).

“I thought we really adapted in the tournament all the time and we showed a lot of resilience.

“Of course, you want to win it and we were really disappointed we didn't win the final. But when I look back and I see the bigger picture, I think we had a tremendous tournament and we performed at a really high level.”

Even though it ended in heartbreak, Wiegman said playing in the final was still a very special moment.

The head coach ‘hasn’t really had the time to reflect’ on the historic achievement of guiding England to a first Women’s World Cup final – something she expects will happen when she stops being a coach.

And it is hardly surprising considering the first Nations League match was just a month after the final in Australia.

England Women's players united after their World Cup final defeat to Spain
England Women's players united after their World Cup final defeat to Spain

The 2-1 victory over Scotland in the first match was followed by a 2-1 loss in the Netherlands and after beating Belgium 1-0 at Leicester City, the Red Flames secured revenge four days later by winning 3-2 on home soil.

That left England with an uphill battle to qualify for the last four of the Nations League and keep their hopes of Olympic qualification alive.

But despite a memorable comeback win over the Netherlands at Wembley Stadium and being a minute away from securing qualification with a 6-0 win in Scotland, the Lionesses just missed out, with the Netherlands progressing to the Nations League semi-finals.

Wiegman said: “It shows how close it is and that's hard to take but I can only be proud of the team, how we stepped up in December and how we showed who we are, what we want to do and what level we can reach.

“Unfortunately, now we are not going to the final or qualifying for the Olympics but I am still very proud of the team and what we did.

“It is unfortunate we don't have a tournament in the summer but I'm already looking forward because it gives us an opportunity to see lots of players and then go straight into qualification for the EUROs and get ready for those qualification matches and come back very strong.”

The Lionesses faced the Netherlands, Belgium and Scotland twice - home and away - during the Nations League
The Lionesses faced the Netherlands, Belgium and Scotland twice - home and away - during the Nations League

England will find out who they will face in UEFA Women’s EURO 2025 qualification on 5 March, as the Lionesses start their bid to retain the title they won in 2022 with matches in April, June and July.

The senior team were not the only England women’s side to impress in 2023, with the WU23s going the whole calendar year unbeaten.

The reintroduction of the women’s under-23s was important for Wiegman when she started the England job back in September 2021 and it has already paid dividends, with several players making the step up to the senior squad.

The improvements of England women’s teams have come hand-in-hand with the continued growth of the Barclays Women’s Super League, as records continue to be broken both at stadiums and with television viewing figures.

Wiegman said: “I’m very positive [about the future]. We're in a good place and young players are coming through, which I think is necessary too because we're being chased now because of winning the EUROs and reaching the final of the World Cup, plus winning the Finalissima.

“Everyone's looking at us and the world is changing too, with other countries developing quickly as well. So we really need to be front-footed, we need to take the next step and improve every day.

“As staff, we want to do things better too and with the whole FA and the clubs in England, we want to go to the next level.”

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Wiegman ended the interview with a message for the England fans, who have continued to pack out stadiums across the country and have literally travelled to the other side of the world in support of their team this year.

She said: “Thank you so much for your support. Wherever we play, whether it's in Wembley, Sunderland or Australia, everywhere we go, you are there supporting us and I want to thank you so much.

“You absolutely are the 12th woman for us and I would like to wish you a very happy Christmas and I hope you have a very good 2024.”