England were fantastic at Brighton on Monday but I was still shocked by Norway’s capitulation. It’s rare for teams at that level to lose 8-0 – and going into Euro 2022 Martin Sjögren side’s were ranked 11th in the world, only three places behind the Lionesses – but, crucially, it’s far from unprecedented. And, no, that record scoreline hasn’t damaged the tournament, let alone its credibility.
Remember that during the 2014 men’s World Cup something similar happened to Brazil when they were thrashed 7-1 by Germany. As recently as 2020 Aston Villa beat Liverpool 7-2 in a Premier League match, while Southampton, widely regarded as a decent mid-table top-tier side, lost 9-0 at home to Leicester in 2019 and were subsequently sunk by the same scoreline at Manchester United last year.
So it can, and does, happen. On Monday everything clicked for a relentless England at the top of their collective game and nothing went right for a Norway side that lost far too many individual battles.
There’s a difference between working hard and actually competing, between running stats and going for that 50/50 header or making the challenge that will put an opponent off balance. That’s where Norway fell short.
Heavy, totally unexpected defeats are so unusual they can seem like enigmas but they happen for lots of reasons. Sometimes they’re triggered by a single incident; England’s first goal came from a rather soft penalty, but from then on Sarina Wiegman’s side gained incredible momentum.
On and off the pitch, there was a lack of leadership on Norway’s part. Their manager looked a bit lost and there was possibly a lack of trust between the defence and the (internationally) inexperienced goalkeeper Guro Pettersen.
When teams start losing control of games and goals begin flying in, they can deploy damage-limitation tools to buy the time, maybe 10 or 15 minutes, needed to work out how to solve the wider problems. Among other tactics, the goalkeeper can slow things down while a new plan – perhaps involving a change of formation and use of substitutes – is worked out. But that’s where you need leadership.
Another problem was that some of Norway’s world-class talents were not used to being in that sort of situation and perhaps had never previously experienced how it feels. At times they looked as if they couldn’t believe what was happening.
It also didn’t help Sjögren that, these days, Wiegman’s team concentrate much more on hurting the opposition rather than stopping them.
When I played for England we would regularly adjust ourselves to different opponents and used to spend a lot of time working on how to nullify them. Psychologically that’s not always too good; when teams which are set up primarily to stop the opposition end up getting into promising positions in the final third, they can almost wonder what to do next and perhaps lack the mental bravery needed to make the right pass.
In contrast, Wiegman has given England the confidence born of having freedom of expression on the pitch. Her players know it’s now OK to make mistakes and have learned how to solve problems themselves. The manager’s demeanour is all about calmness and trust, and that’s transferred to a team whose impressive positional rotation during games leaves opponents struggling to cope with their movement.
Players also know their exact purpose. Take Beth Mead: she’s always looking to attack. That automatically makes the opposition go backwards, leaves markers off balance and pulls defenders out of position.
If teams double up, or even treble up, on Mead and Lauren Hemp, it creates gaps for players such as Fran Kirby to exploit. Fran’s movement is so intelligent and her vision so assured she can pick out all the right passes and ensure everything clicks between midfield and attack. We’ve all been willing her to shine at a major tournament and now she’s showcasing her talent on the European stage.
So, too, is Germany’s Alexandra Popp. Past injuries dictate that this is her first Euros but she’s making up for lost time. I’ve played against Popp and she’s always so competitive, so good in the air and so sharp. She’s a forward with a real physical edge and the sort of belief that Martina Voss-Tecklenburg is imbuing in a team she’s turned into strong Euro 2022 contenders.
Germany are super ruthless. They’re also extremely diligent at doing the basics well, make very few mistakes, don’t switch off and know when to be patient. They are top players and, as we saw when they beat Spain, they are extremely quick and deadly in those all-important transition moments.
A potential semi-final between Germany and France would be a clash of the titans. France, too, look very good indeed. Wendie Renard is the complete centre-half, Grace Geyoro a brilliant midfielder and Marie-Antoinette Katoto an incredibly dangerous striker while Corinne Diacre’s bench is so strong her substitutes all have powerful cases for starting.
Diacre divides opinion but she’s been in the spotlight since becoming the first woman to manage a French men’s professional team (the Ligue 2 side Clermont) and I wonder if some of the criticism she attracts is because she’s a woman.
Admittedly I was surprised when Amandine Henry and Eugénie Le Sommer were omitted from her squad but, looking in from the outside, we don’t know what’s really gone on behind the scenes. France have had the talent to win major tournaments in the past but lacked the right mentality; might this year be different?