LONDON -- There were reminders of England's glorious Euro 2022-winning summer everywhere on Friday night. But this team isn't yet ready to be consigned to nostalgia as, in front of a packed Wembley, we got a first proper sight of what type of England side will be heading to the World Cup in 2023.
Their 2-1 win over the USWNT -- so often their nemesis at major tournaments -- cements England as one of the favourites for next year's competition. But don't expect them to be planning any celebrations just yet.
"The whole women's game is developing, and it's good to have a test against the USA as they've won so much over the years," England manager Sarina Wiegman said postmatch. "Hopefully we're catching up -- it's now October; it's not July yet. [But] we don't win a World Cup now."
This was Wembley's first chance to welcome back the Lionesses after a history-making summer on home soil. The place was still bubbling with euphoria from that momentous day in late July when England defeated Germany 2-1 in extra time to win the European Championships for the first time. Those memories were inescapable. The minute you walked out of Wembley Park station, you were met with a walkway of banners hugging Wembley Way honouring each Lioness who was part of the summer's squad.
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Two key players have retired since then: Jill Scott and Ellen White. Scott was England's second-highest-capped player. Her swansong in a 16-year international career was to help the country to its first major trophy since 1966, and she carried the European Championship trophy out onto the Wembley pitch before the game vs. the USWNT. The FA also honoured 12 of the England team from 1972 on the 50th anniversary of when the senior women's team played their first full international ("about time," Beth Mead said of their recognition.) They joined the current group of trailblazers in a team photo before the match, while another 100 or so former players paraded around the pitch at half-time as Shania Twain's classic "Man! I Feel Like A Woman!" boomed out.
Amid the celebrations was a match labelled a friendly but in effect a footballing barometer. Wiegman said in midweek that this was an essential test of where England are 10 months out from the World Cup. Although before the match she stopped short of crowning the USWNT the best team in the world, saying instead that the Americans were part of a group of leading sides with Europe quickly catching up, this was her team's sternest test since the Euros win and arguably the best team they've faced since Wiegman took over in September 2021.
The balancing act for Wiegman and England is to continue their 23-match winning run against the more straightforward teams, while maximising opportunities to test themselves to the maximum against sterner opponents. Since the Euros, they've won 2-0 against Austria -- which guaranteed qualification to next year's World Cup -- and then beat Luxembourg 10-0.
So, with White and Scott in retirement, the USWNT clash was meant to be the first true gauge of the next iteration of Wiegman's England. But injury robbed the side of both Alessia Russo -- likely the first-choice striker, having been a super-sub in the summer -- and captain Leah Williamson. The Americans were also missing several key players, but for England it needed to be a launchpad result geared towards next year's tournament rather than a halting reality check.
You can start locking in places for next year's competition. Mary Earps will surely stay as first-choice keeper, and it's going to take something out of the blue to dislodge Keira Walsh and Georgia Stanway as the midfield two. Fran Kirby remains integral to this team in her No. 10 role, but you feel England are still figuring out how to play to her strengths. Ella Toone will continue putting the pressure on there, while Beth Mead and Lauren Hemp are sure-fire starters -- it just waits to be seen where they'll be played.
If you're looking for areas where there are still a few question marks over England, then it's likely in defence and up front. Against the USWNT, Hemp led the line for most of the match, and her pace caused all manner of difficulties for the opposition. She took her opening goal well -- a neat finish from inside the six-yard box off Mead's cross -- and the understanding between Mead and Hemp is England's lifeblood in front of goal.
"She's played there before -- I saw that when I was working in the Netherlands," Wiegman said of playing Hemp up front. "We knew she could do it. Lately she hadn't played there too much. We wanted to give her freedom to play, but she did well. I think she really enjoyed herself."
Chloe Kelly was less effective out on the other flank, so there's still a little ambiguity over exactly what that front four will look like next year. Lauren James -- arguably the form player in the Women's Super League -- replaced Kelly on the stroke of full-time, so there were only fleeting glimpses of her ability, but she remains firmly in the mix to force a starting spot if she continues this trajectory and Wiegman opts to continue with Russo in the super-sub role and Hemp as their long-term striker.
The defence looked a little disorganised at times. Their tendency to continue passing the ball out and building the attack slowly from the back backfired against the USWNT as Millie Bright's pass to Stanway put her under pressure and the outstanding Sophie Smith gladly took the opportunity to draw the match level. While Bright is a certain starter, as are Lucy Bronze and Williamson (who will slot straight back in when fit), and Rachel Daly did well at left-back. There are times you wonder whether she'd be better used farther up the field, where she has played so well for Aston Villa this season. But as her goal-saving, crunching tackle on Trinity Rodman in the second half proved, she's still as dependable as ever.
England do still need to fine-tune their method of restarting from the back. There was a moment late in the second half when Walsh managed to play her way out of trouble after it looked briefly precarious. "I was not calm at all," Wiegman said afterwards, smiling. "We want to stay on the ball, but this is a little deep! I would prefer her to do it a little higher in the pitch."
Of the youngsters breaking through in defence, Jess Parker missed out on this match through injury, but she'll emerge to put pressure on Bronze at right-back, while Wiegman will use the next 10 months to try out different options, with the likes of Esme Morgan, Lotte Wubben-Moy and Maya Le Tissier waiting in the wings.
"We have 10 months [before the World Cup]. We have next Tuesday and then November camp and Arnold Clark in April," Wiegman said. "We took this moment [against the U.S.] to take another starting point. We wanted to see where we are and then take it from there. We want to add more to our game. We are in a pretty good place, but we want to add more to our game."
There were none of the anthems from the summer played at Wembley on Friday night. The only rendition of "Sweet Caroline" -- the song that accompanied England's win in the summer -- came from the stands, rather than prompted by playlist. It was like a clean break between one success and the process of ushering in another. When we look back on this match in 10 months' time, if England end up victors, this will be a key moment in their growth. This was a night when they proved to themselves they could beat the best in the world.
"It's a thin line between winning and losing," Wiegman said. "We showed ourselves that we can do it, and that brings confidence. "You are the best team in the world when you've won the World Cup, and we didn't. [But] it's so close -- there are so many good countries, and it's tight. You have to be a little lucky when you go into a World Cup -- you need to have everyone fit and available. You've seen our team grow very much, and that's nice to see -- but we take out some things out of this that we really need to do better."