The defender Steph Houghton said England “really feel they have the potential to go and do something special” at next summer’s European Championship on the eve of their first World Cup 2023 qualifying match against North Macedonia on Friday night. Houghton, who will captain the team on Friday night and against Luxembourg on Tuesday while the new manager, Sarina Wiegman, takes time to decide on her long-term captain, added that this is a chance for the team to “start afresh”.
“It’s a clean slate for everyone,” Houghton said. “After the World Cup, results weren’t up to our standard and what was expected of an England team. There were some performances that were below par, but for me and for the rest of the players it’s about going out there, playing our football and showing everyone what a good team we are.”
Defensive stability has been a problem for the Lionesses and Houghton said that the team needs to fall back in love with keeping clean sheets. “The best teams are ones that really love keeping clean sheets,” she said. “Whether it’s against North Macedonia or one of the best teams in the world it’s important that we get in that habit of defending our goal and enjoying nobody scoring against us. It’s something we’ve needed to work on over the last couple of years and even if we do play low-ranked opposition there’s still things we can work on.”
Wiegman, who joined England after six years as manager of the Netherlands, during which time she won the 2017 Euros, was more coy when asked about England’s chances as hosts next summer. “You never know,” she said. “What I have seen is that we have a very good team and the players are very willing to get better, to work together and are eager to learn. The ingredients are here to perform really well but as I said earlier in the week, the competition will be really strong and so I don’t know where we will be next year. But I know that the start is really good.”
One of the things that has most impressed the new manager is the work rate of her new charges. “I’ve seen many things, first of all an enormous, great work ethic so I’m very excited,” the former midfielder said. “But they work so hard that sometimes we have to ask them to slow down a little bit.” The players took that well. “It’s just the energy and enthusiasm in the team, sometimes there are moments when you need to drop it and start over again to get control of the game,” Wiegman said.
Against North Macedonia, who are ranked 131st in the world and who lost 11-0 to France last year, Wiegman wants the team to be “very strong”.
“We will have possession of the ball for most of the time,” she said. “We want to have a good match and score a lot of goals.”
The Manchester City captain Houghton has enjoyed the similarity with the style of play at club level. “It’s all football-focused, which for me and the girls at Manchester City is like music to our ears,” she said. “That’s how we like to play, with the ball at our feet. We are really impressed and excited. We have so much to learn from Sarina.”
Wiegman also said the appointment this week of Dr Kate Hays from the English Institute of Sport as head of women’s performance psychology will help the team’s resilience. “She’s a very good practitioner, I talked to her and we really clicked,” she said. “What we want to do is get more team resilience, more identity and values, and then continue to work on that.”