SUNDERLAND, England -- As England's players reconvened this week, it had been more than a month since they had last taken the pitch together in their first ever Women's World Cup final, but the disappointments of Sydney had fallen away, left behind somewhere between time zones. After the World Cup there had been scant time for physical recovery before players joined up with their club teams, readying themselves for domestic commitments, but the focus was already, so rapidly, back to a major tournament -- or specifically, qualification.
With a berth at the 2024 Olympics on the line for two of the 16 European nations competing in the inaugural women's UEFA Nations League, England were drawn into a group with northern neighbours, Scotland. It offered an opportunity for a rarely played geographic rivalry, but also created a conundrum for the Scottish players. If the Scots have dreams of representing Team GB at the Paris Games, a win would hamper England's chances of topping the group -- no England in the Nations League semifinal would mean no hope of a Team GB at the Olympics as the Lionesses are the nominated nation for the British Isles.
But complications aside, there was to be little in the way of holding back for Scotland on Friday, whether or not it dented the hopes of those eligible to join the rarified ranks of Kim Little, Caroline Weir and Ifeoma Dieke, who had represented both Scotland and Team GB. The Lionesses, however, fended off their rivals anyway to win 2-1 on Friday at the Stadium of Light and boost Team GB's hopes of competing in Paris next summer.
For England manager Sarina Wiegman, who has earned a reputation during her spells with both England and Netherlands for being economical with changes, she had her hand forced with an injury to midfielder Keira Walsh as well as limiting Alessia Russo's minutes. It prompted Wiegman to shuffle her players, advancing full-back Rachel Daly into the front two alongside Lauren Hemp (who scored what turned out to be the match-winning goal near the end of the first half) while Lauren James was recalled into the starting XI in the No. 10 role.
These new look European qualifiers for the Olympics -- supplanting the automatic qualification that came with World Cup progression for the best European finishers -- gave Wiegman even less room to play about with her formations and players. However, she continued to favour the back three she had begun using during the group stage of the World Cup, with Katie Zelem an easy replacement in midfield whilst Walsh -- an ever-present for Wiegman -- was out.
There were plenty of bright moments for the Lionesses early. They overran the midfield, attacking across the whole width of the pitch rather than looking to progress the ball centrally, although James shone when on the ball despite her central starting position. Yet as the match wore on and Scotland, who had seen their own sizeable development since their last meeting at the 2019 World Cup, found more joy in attack as Weir and Kirsty Hanson began to hound the English back line. The use of the back three was a double-edged sword for England that smarter teams had been able to exploit over the summer.
But just as this wasn't the same Scotland from 2019, it most certainly wasn't the same England either, and they came into Friday's match not just as World Cup runners-up but reigning European champions who had learned how to navigate most banana peels without slipping up along the way. Indeed, maybe that was the biggest difference between the two nations, England not just having mastered how to find wins through ugly performances but Scotland, the perennial masters of their own demise, routinely finding marginal moments go against them.
A win for Belgium at home to Netherlands -- assumed to be the team battling for the top spot with England in the group -- put the Lionesses in an advantageous early position. But there were deeper questions to be asked, not just about the 90 minutes at the Stadium of Light but about what the road ahead looked like for Wiegman and her bid for a third successive memorable summer with England.
The question of where Wiegman could take the squad hung heavy with the coach having failed to evolve her 2017 Euro-winning Netherlands team. With England, she has shown more flexibility but was still often hamstrung when it came to offering a game-changing Plan B. The back three, for instance, was a solution that needed its own solution to free up an extra player and stop the coach from shoehorning players like Chloe Kelly into more defensive roles that stunted how the team could get forward.
The return to form for Hemp and Russo was a boost for the Lionesses and the coach who had continued to pick the attacking pair through their patchier form but the creative players on England's bench remained onto their seats throughout the match as they so oft had during the World Cup. And the game in Sunderland fell into a flat sag after the break with Wiegman even noting in her post-match press conference that the one change she had made (Ella Toone for Kelly with a positional shift for Daly and James) failed to work, but nevertheless, England found a way to win.
With matches against lower-ranked nations off of the docket in qualifying due to the advent of the Nations League, there is less room for Wiegman to bring younger and fringe players if she wanted. That leaves the coach at an impasse, only able to see those outside of her starting XI in training but historically unwilling to give them meaningful game time.
This means the future for the team is about those on the pitch continuing to do as they have under the Dutchwoman, problem-solving their way through games, finding moments of magic as well as the ugly wins to keep powering them through. It may just be the lasting legacy of the Wiegman era.