Straight-talking Sarina Wiegman could just be a tactical genius

Straight-talking Sarina Wiegman has taken England to the brink of Euro glory by picking the brains of fellow Dutch bosses Koeman, Advocaat and Van Gaal… and ‘tactical genius’ Arjan Veurink has proved a perfect No 2

  • Power suit wearer Sarina Wiegman has asked a FIFA official about her jacket
  • Media in her native Holland are talking about Wiegman and her £67 M&S outfit
  • Her on-field tactics have been instrumental in getting the Lionesses to Wembley 

It is not always just about the football for Sarina Wiegman. She does like a jacket and once described how, at an international conference, she approached a FIFA official, who anticipated a discussion on ‘an important football issue’, only to find she wanted to know about her jacket. ‘It was a beautiful brown jacket,’ Wiegman said. ‘And I love brown so much. Cheap, too. I wanted that jacket!’

The Dutch media are much taken with how England has embraced its new adoptive national treasure, who even wears a £67 Marks & Spencer power suit. The notion of her succeeding Gareth Southgate was jokingly floated in daily newspaper Volkskrant this week. The Dutch news agency ANP said Wiegman was bringing calm to Britain’s state of ‘bonkers’ political chaos.

The 52-year-old’s cool, rational management and reluctance to deliver a soliloquy when a sentence will do really does seem applicable to broader challenges than delivering the English nation its first international football title since 1966. What her players have been struck by in the knock-out games which have delivered the team to Wembley is the economy of her instructions.

Sarina Wiegman has been attracting attention for her fashion as well as her England tactics

‘I think that’s made the difference now,’ Lucy Bronze said after the 4-0 semi-final win over Sweden. ‘It’s just practical information she’s giving. I think that, being Dutch, she’s to the point.’

Wiegman frequently references delegation. The influence of her assistant, Arjan Veurink, in England’s tactical plan is significant. Veurink seemed set to succeed her as Dutch national women’s manager until she approached him to follow her to England. ‘A lot of that tactical input is Arjan,’ said Bronze. ‘Sarina gets the headlines but Arjan is a tactical genius as well.’

The brief shift from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-3, which turned the Spain quarter-final around, was certainly more nuanced than it seemed in real time. Sending centre half Millie Bright up front worked, though the roles of Georgia Stanway and Keira Walsh were slightly tweaked to provide vital balance in the middle and additional cover.

But perhaps more significant than Wiegman’s precision and relentless quest for information — she reads only non-fiction books — is the self-confidence which she has imbued in her players. She was always determined to make her players in the Dutch national team less reverential about the opposition. 

‘Some players were always talking about how good the players from other countries were,’ she said at that time. ‘We had to change how those players looked at themselves.’ Some England players say she has delivered the same message to them.

She can, of course, empathise with them in a way that Mark Sampson and Phil Neville — both hugely motivational managers — could not, as men. Though she is not one for making frequent big pronouncements about the struggle for sexual equality, she knows the journeys her players have made through a sport where resources and competence have been patchy.

She, like a number of this England team, had to make do with boys’ football as a child, playing in a team with her twin brother and even cutting her hair short to be sure to fit in.

Wiegman played football with boys growing up in Holland because of a lack of opportunities

‘Later on, I sometimes wondered if my parents weren’t worried about that,’ she said in an interview with the Dutch novelist Anna Enquist for Volkskrant a few years ago. ‘I mean, they perhaps thought I’d rather be a boy. But it wasn’t like that. When I had to run an errand and the butcher addressed me as “young man” I got angry. “I’m a girl!” I’d say.’

She was 11 when she started with a girls’ team in which her sister, who recently passed away, also played. When she joined a real girls’ club at 13, most of those she played with were much older.

In the Netherlands, she has articulated the need for a better quality of coaching for girls and she knows about that on a number of levels. She and her husband, Marten Glotzbach, also a football coach, have brought up two football-playing daughters.

But her awareness of the inequalities — which in this country include girls having to pay to be at elite club academies while the boys are paid to be there — has not stopped her mining information and methods from top Dutch male coaches like Ronald Koeman, Dick Advocaat and Louis van Gaal.

The influence of her assistant, Arjan Veurink (right), in England’s tactical plan is significant

There is also the genial Foppe de Haan, appointed by the Dutch FA to help her before the 2017 Euros, which her Netherlands team won.

The 79-year-old de Haan, who seems to have become something of a mentor to her, brought Champions League football to Heerenveen and success to Dutch national youth teams. He, like Wiegman, wants players to think for themselves and not be tied to a pre-set playing philosophy.

‘She can listen very well,’ De Haan says of Wiegman. ‘She has a good idea about football and she is always honest. She’s never talking behind your back.’

She realises no two players are the same and has an intuition about which training regimes suit which players.

‘Previously in England camps, we’ve all felt we’ve had to do the same thing all the time,’ says Fran Kirby, who has struggled with illness and injury for years. ‘But everyone’s body is different, everyone’s body reacts differently to different situations.

‘With my history, it takes a bit of time to recover from certain situations. Sarina has really taken that on board, not just for me but for everyone.’

As a child, Wiegman (right) played in a team with her twin brother and cut her hair short to fit in

When Wiegman took over as Netherlands manager in January 2017, she instigated a project in which her squad were asked to respond to the question of ‘What do you give up for success?’ Some players spoke to the group, others created a video or sang a song.

‘We laughed so much,’ Wiegman said. ‘This way they get to know each other in a different way. We have 23 of them all different in background, interests and education. We take this into account when we explain something. People learn in different ways.’

As usual, Wiegman will not be speaking volumes this weekend at press conferences in which she will correct her English and not answer until sure her comprehension of the question is right. She will not be willing to relate why she thinks she has made such an impact, either, though Enquist’s conclusions after an hour or so in her company do have a ring of contemporary relevance.

‘She is driven,’ Enquist reflected. ‘Fanatical perhaps. Where would that come from? Not out of envy towards men, because that would radiate a kind of feminism that immediately annoys you — and that is not the case.

‘It sounds tacky, but being in love with football inspires her to that single-minded ambition with which she does her job. The combination of modesty and ambition is fascinating. Both qualities are very natural. She also has a sense of humour. Can she please become prime minister?’

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