GLASGOW, Scotland -- England spent the final moments of their 2023 schedule huddled 'round a phone, in the middle of a freezing Hampden Park pitch trying to work out what was going on in Tilburg, where the Netherlands were playing Belgium. It capped a roller-coaster year that saw them reach the final of the Women's World Cup, but also lose out in a spot in the semifinals of the Nations League by the narrowest of margins.
On Tuesday evening, for the second match running, England scored late goals and secured impressive wins, but the players' celebrations were nonexistent. That's the situation they put themselves in after defeats to the Netherlands and Belgium saw their Nations League hopes hang by the narrowest of threads ahead of two blockbuster matches. But in the end, they lost out on top spot in their Nations League group by a single goal, and with it, Team GB's hopes of making Paris 2024 were over.
Their journey since the World Cup has seen them battle burnout, injuries but also make some uncharacteristic errors which sat alongside a couple of barnstorming performances like the second half against the Netherlands and their 6-0 win over Scotland.
"This team has experienced so many things," Wiegman said. "The World Cup was really intense. We had a lot of things thrown at us, and I feel we performed at a really high level. After that we had hardly any rest, we went into the Nations League -- it's good it's there -- we had some moments we struggled and were punished, but that's part of football.
"It's not easy to come back from the World Cup with a few injuries. As I say all the time, the players are not robots. And that's why I'm so proud of how they showed up."
The disappointment was etched on Wiegman's face. This group isn't used to falling short, albeit by the narrowest of margins. So the question is, what were the contributing factors behind England just falling short?
On Monday, in the heart of Hampden Park, Sarina Wiegman was not in a retrospective mood. All her focus was on the next 24 hours; it was not the moment to reflect on the team's journey since the World Cup final defeat to Spain.
However, when it happens it will prove to be a fruitful exercise. The England team have endured a turbulent few months. Ahead of the match against the Netherlands on Friday, England had lost three of their previous five games, including that 1-0 defeat to Spain in the World Cup final in Sydney. They closed out their Nations League group stage campaign with a 3-2 win over the Dutch and that commanding victory in Glasgow, but it proved to be not enough.
The schedule in the second half of the year always looked difficult on paper. Just 33 days after the heartbreak of that World Cup final, England were back playing again, with the match against Scotland on Sept. 22 coming just nine days before the 2023-24 WSL season had started.
Sarina Wiegman had been sounding the alarm about burnout back then. "I am very worried," Wiegman said at the time about the international calendar. "I was worried before the World Cup and we knew it was a short turnaround. We really have to get connected with Fifa and Uefa to make that better. The game is growing, which is really good, but it has to grow together and players need some rest too."
Forward Alessia Russo, who moved from Manchester United to Arsenal on July 4, had just nine days between the World Cup final and preseason training. Defender Lucy Bronze, who played every second of the World Cup aside from the final 20 minutes of their big win over China in the group stage, was back at Barcelona training on Sept. 2. Midfielder Georgia Stanway was at Bayern Munich 10 days after the World Cup final, and played for them a week later.
It was the same quick turnaround for the majority of the Lionesses. One source told ESPN bluntly that "the women's calendar is a joke." To her credit, Wiegman put it more diplomatically, saying: "Players are not robots." She repeated this again after their 6-0 win in Scotland, and it was a recurring theme throughout the campaign.
England started their Nations League campaign by beating Scotland 2-1, but for those playing, it felt too soon. "The tournament was mentally and physically exhausting, and then coming back and some [players] only having a week off, which is ludicrous, and some only having two [weeks off], it's really tough to reset and get ready to go again in that time," England defender Jess Carter said after the Scotland match.
England pushed their luck at times, with Scotland hitting the bar. They travelled to the Netherlands next, switching to a 3-5-2 formation, but Chloe Kelly struggled in an unfamiliar position and they switched to a more normal 4-3-3 at half-time. Though they dominated the match, they failed to convert chances and they'd end up losing 2-1, with the Netherlands scoring a 90th-minute winner.
"The first half was very poor. You can see that we weren't up to our standard," Georgia Stanway said. The players looked more assured with four at the back, but Wiegman was concerned about some of their errors. "It's just a silly moment where we made a wrong decision and they counter-attack," Wiegman said. "Those are silly moments. We just need to manage the game and those moments better."
After the match, Bright talked about the mental fatigue players were experiencing. "It's definitely something that needs to happen and I'd really like people to speak to players so that we can actually say how hard it is for us," the England captain said. "Ultimately, we want to give the fans [a show], and we want to play at the best level possible and for the longest amount of time. We want lengthy careers, we want to impress the fans: that's how we're going to grow the crowds, which is still on our agenda every single week to keep improving the game.
Next up was the doubleheader against Belgium. They won the first meeting 1-0, but bemoaned their wastefulness in front of goal. "We need to be more clinical," Lucy Bronze said afterwards. They then fell to Belgium 3-2 as they struggled with the pace of Tessa Wullaert, with Belgium exploiting space behind Bronze and Niamh Charles.
However, it was up front -- England had 18 shots on goal to Belgium's five -- where they were left to rue missed opportunities. "We did create lots of chances, we just at the moment are struggling with getting the ball in the back of the net," Wiegman said. "We need to be tighter on the ball. We have to be more connected, the final pass needs to be better or the final pass through that will become a big chance, and then the decision-making, too. It's a combination of things. It wasn't good enough."
"It's not like we are looking at it going, 'god, how are we going to do this?' We know that is something that we can control and we have to put right," Earps said afterwards. "There are lot of little things that didn't quite go right and as a team we have to get those details right at this level, because you get punished."
Wiegman tried new things for the Netherlands' visit to Wembley on Friday. Wiegman opted to start Lauren Hemp in the striker spot with James, Fran Kirby and Kelly supporting, saying it was a quartet picked on "form." But it needed the introduction of the returning Beth Mead to kick-start their attack as they headed into the break 2-0 down, only to pull it back late on to win 3-2.
Again it was a match where defensive lapses saw Netherlands profit. Their opener through Lineth Beerensteyn came from a mix up from Lucy Bronze and Carter, while a trio of uncharacteristic errors from Carter, Alex Greenwood and Mary Earps saw her score a second before half time. Wiegman said these lapses weren't indicative of a bigger problem, and just unfortunate moments. "No, this was a totally different game against a very good opponent. The first goal was just a great counterattack. For example, in the Belgium game we lost the ball at moments we absolutely didn't expect to. We had much fewer moments like that. We did a lot better [at that] than the other games."
Without Bright, it was an unfamiliar defensive unit that hits upon another question mark over this team: do they have enough established strength in depth? There's a lack of international experience waiting in the wings, something that could be an issue in goal -- Hannah Hampton has two caps, Khiara Keating yet to make her debut -- at right-back and defensive midfield.
Millie Bright's injury and Leah Williamson's continued recovery from an ACL injury meant they had to deploy a new-look centre-back partnership vs. the Netherlands. Wiegman turned to Carter and Greenwood, just the third time they'd played centre back alongside each other for England in a four-player defence. Around them, the other options -- Esme Morgan, Lotte Wubben-Moy, Millie Turner and Maya Le Tissier -- had just 17 caps between them.
But they still found a way to win, and after the match, the team were in a bullish mood. "We've had injuries, we've had disruptions but I think the team has built amazingly still under Sarina," Mead said after the Netherlands match. "She's kept us very close-knit as a unit and moving forward we can keep pushing and being better and no team is perfect. We will always push to keep developing."
And so, the Lionesses took the field on a baltic Tuesday evening in Glasgow. Without relying on Belgium preventing a Netherlands win, England needed a big win against Scotland to top the Nations League group.
In the end England scored six, but it was not enough. A dominant first half saw James scoring a brilliant goal alongside another deflected effort, a headed goal from Greenwood and one from Mead. Kirby scored early in the second half, with Bronze grabbing the sixth in the 91st minute.
For about two minutes after the full time whistle in Glasgow, England were top of their Nations League group, only for Damaris Egurrola's two goals in second-half stoppage time to halt bubbling celebrations. "We were waiting -- those were long minutes and we thought we'd done it," Wiegman said. "And then it was obvious we didn't make it. And I said I don't know what to say: I could only say I was proud of the performance and what we did and this whole week, but it wasn't enough."
Wiegman's disappointment was clear. "Maybe we let ourselves down earlier in the group," she told media after the match, later adding, "if you don't get through on goal difference, it's not enough. I still think what we've done -- the Euros, getting to the final in the World Cup, having hardly any rest, going into the first Nations League campaign -- and yes, we had moments we struggled, but we had moments where we did really well, but that's football."
Wiegman was proud of her team, but ultimately, their overriding emotion was disappointment. Instead of a Nations League semifinal in February, they'll be putting together a couple of friendlies.
Despite this setback, Wiegman will have a plan. It's why she's one of the best coaches in world football, and you imagine as she walked out of the media conference room in Hampden Park on Tuesday evening, she was already thinking of what comes next for this remarkable group of players. Ironically, for the long-term prospects of some in her squad, perhaps a summer off isn't the worst thing to happen. But that will come as scant consolation in the immediate aftermath of a roller coaster few months.
"Things happen, we're working hard, and we're trying to get the game to the next level and improve," Wiegman said. "That's what we showed this week, again. We're gutted now, but this will take some time, but I'm convinced we'll keep growing."