The England women’s football team is currently under the interim leadership of Norway legend Hege Riise, who replaced former boss Phil Neville earlier this year, and who has led the team to a convincing win against Northern Ireland and losses to France and Canada. However, following the conclusion of this year’s Olympics, current Netherlands boss Sarina Wiegman will take over the Lionesses.
The question fans are asking is what to expect from her? Having built the Dutch national side into one of the best teams in the women’s game, Wiegman’s reputation precedes her, and many are expecting her philosophy of attacking football to excite fans and bring in a new era for English women’s football. In this tactical analysis, we will examine Wiegman’s preferred tactics in closer detail, as well as comparing the statistics of the Netherlands and England from this year, seeing where Wiegman can improve the team.
Under Sarina Wiegman, the Netherlands have played an attacking style of football, always looking to get players into dangerous areas of the pitch and ask questions of opposing defenders. The first aspect of this is their use of the wings to help move the ball up the pitch.
This is a regular feature of their play, and ensures they always have options to move the ball to when the central areas have been closed off. It also forces the opposing defenders to stretch out, meaning they will leave gaps open between themselves, as Norway have in this image. The defensive line is set up to occupy the central spaces, but the Dutch attack has given them a difficult choice; either allow them to dominate the wide channels, or get out to them and give the central attackers the opportunity to break through the middle of them. The indecision this creates is the reason that teams always look to have width in attack, and Wiegman is yet another coach who encourages her team to play this way.
When the Netherlands do find spaces out wide, they look to transfer it into dangerous areas as quickly as possible, ensuring they make the most of the space they have created. However, they don’t tend to cross the ball into the box, as this risks their opponents winning and clearing it. Instead, the midfielders get into the half-spaces, as former Arsenal Women midfielder Jill Roord has done in this image. By positioning herself here, Roord, who has joined Frauen Bundesliga giants Wolfsburg this summer, can receive the ball when it is pulled back to her and have a shot, and this move leads to a goal for the team. Therefore, we can see clearly how effective this tactic is for them.
The reason Roord is in so much open space is because the defenders naturally move towards the ball, and this instinctiveness is what the Netherlands play on. They know that, by running towards the goal line here, they will draw Norway’s defenders out of position, creating the space for Roord to run into. This type of attacking play relies on teamwork, with everyone knowing where to be at every moment, and Wiegman is likely to bring this type of play to England. Therefore, we can expect the Lionesses to get more players into the half-spaces, creating problems for opposing defences and making them a more potent side in attack.
Another notable aspect of the Netherlands’ play is that they rarely pass backwards. This image shows how they are a reasonable distance away from Norway’s goal area, but their focus is always on playing forwards and setting up attacking opportunities. Here, the red arrow shows how they get their heads up and play through the gap, transferring the ball behind the Norwegian line and allowing the forwards to set up a goalscoring opportunity. Again, we can see the width they have in attack, but also how the forwards play on the shoulder of the defensive line. This means that, when the ball comes through the defensive gap, an attacker is ready to receive it, decreasing the chance of a defender reaching it first.
This is already something that England do in the final third, with Manchester City Women striker Ellen White, who is normally England’s first choice striker, constantly playing in and around the opposing defenders, giving her team a passing option behind the line. Manchester United Women’s versatile forward Ella Toone was the creative heart of her domestic team’s attacking play last season, and brought that to the national team when she made her debut against Northern Ireland earlier this year. Therefore, Wiegman already has the raw ingredients, and simply needs to fuse them together in her own way.
Sarina Wiegman likes her Netherlands team to keep the ball on the ground when transitioning from defence to attack, and has a clear emphasis on creating passing options around the pitch.
Here, you can see how they have the ball in their own half of the pitch, with three players circled, all offering passing options. Whilst the defender and winger are normal options to have, the player in the middle has dropped back to provide a link between the defence and midfield, helping the team to move the ball through the middle and into the forwards. There is a gap between the two Norwegian attackers, which that player has seen, and this demonstrates how the Dutch players are expected to have excellent spatial awareness during games. The speed at which these options are created means that individual players never need to hold onto the ball for longer than is necessary, decreasing the risk of them being closed down and losing the ball in a dangerous part of the pitch.
We can develop this further with this image, which shows the ball in the central channel, being passed forwards to a Dutch attacker who has run ahead to offer the passing option. Once the ball reaches that player, they get their head up and look to move it into a teammate; a third player, in the blue circle, has made a run on the other side of the defence, giving her that option.
Norway’s defenders are all positioned centrally here, trying to make it difficult for the Dutch attackers to use their free-flowing tactics. However, the Netherlands’ ability to constantly offer passing options for each other allows them to beat this trap. With Wiegman preferring to use a 4-2-3-1 formation during games (as she has 98% of the time in 2021), the midfielders are expected to work with the forwards to make the most of their attacking opportunities, and this is something we are likely to see a lot of from England once Wiegman takes control later this year.
We mentioned how having width is a major part of the Dutch attacks, but that doesn’t just refer to the wingers operating in those areas. The two full-backs are constantly encouraged to advance up the pitch and support their teammates when the team has possession, and we can see here how Atletico Madrid Femenino left-back Merel van Dongen, in the yellow circle, has advanced up the pitch to do just that. Her movement allows the winger to stay further inside, meaning she can pass into van Dongen or cut inside and create a goalscoring opportunity. Australia’s defence is spread out evenly across the pitch, so the more players the Netherlands can get in the central areas and half-spaces, the better their chances of getting through the gaps between the players. However, if the defence closed up, then van Dongen’s positioning became even more important, as she would provide an alternative way for them to get the ball into the space behind.
The Netherlands’ wide attacking players include Arsenal’s Danielle van de Donk and Barcelona Femeni’s Lieke Martens, with both looking to cut inside and shoot at goal as often as possible. Therefore, the full-backs’ advances up the pitch help them to play to their strengths, as they don’t need to remain tight to the wings. England’s full-backs are already good at getting up the pitch and supporting attacks, particularly Manchester City duo Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood, so this is a tactic Wiegman can deploy from the first day she takes charge of the Lionesses.
With the Netherlands playing such an attacking brand of football, defending is not their strength. That is not to say that they are poor at it, as they have good structures when their opponents have possession, but it is not something they focus on as much as they do their attack.
As we have already mentioned, Sarina Wiegman likes to play a 4-2-3-1 formation, with a basic four-player back line. However, as this image shows, only three stay back all the time, with one of the full-backs getting forward to support the attacks, as we have already discussed. The role of the full-back left behind is to ensure that the centre-backs don’t become isolated and to stop the attackers playing around them. Once the Netherlands lose possession, as they have here against Italy, the full-back who went forward drops back into the line, filling the space they left, and this changing defensive shape again requires good spatial awareness; two qualities we know Wiegman demands her players have.
It might appear that the defenders sit back and wait for their opponents to run at them with the ball, but they actually look to close down attackers whenever they have an opportunity to do so. Here, Germany have the ball on the nearside wing, with one Dutch player running from the box to put pressure on her, taking time away and forcing the attacker to make a quicker decision than they would have liked. This increases the chance of a mistake being made, so the Netherlands maintain control of their own area when they aren’t in possession, which is important. The angle of the defender’s run also means that the ball has a narrow corridor through which it can travel into the box, so, again, the Dutch players’ ability to close the ball down decreases their opponents’ options.
However, as mentioned, defending is not where Wiegman chooses to focus her efforts, and this image shows one time that they let Germany break through them too easily. The German attackers have the ball on the edge of the box here, with space and time to move it into the box for Eintracht Frankfurt forward Laura Freigang to score. We can see the gap in the Dutch line that Freigang, in the blue circle, was able to move through, with the Netherlands losing track of her and allowing her to move into the space behind them to score.
Therefore, under Wiegman, we may see England try to outscore their opponents, rather than sitting back and trying to be tough to beat at the back. That is not to say that England will be porous in their own half, but we can perhaps expect them to concede some easy goals at times, as some players are encouraged to get forward more than we are perhaps used to seeing them do currently.
The most accurate way to assess what Sarina Wiegman will bring to England is to compare their statistics with those of the Netherlands from 2021.
These statistics provide us with some interesting discussion points. Firstly, England have higher values for most statistics, notably in passing accuracy, average possession per game and the accuracy of their passes to the final third. This implies that, as far as their transitional play is concerned, Wiegman won’t need to change too much to improve the team’s fortunes, instead simply finetuning it with her own tactical touches, such as ensuring that players always have plenty of options available to them when they have the ball.
Regarding goals and expected goals (xG) per game, England have a higher xG, but the Netherlands are more clinical and have already outscored their own xG. Therefore, once England have become acquainted with Wiegman’s style of play, the number of goals they score per game is likely to increase, potentially helping them to win more games.
We have already noted that Wiegman prefers to keep the ball on the ground, rather than risking crosses, and this explains why England’s crossing accuracy is higher than the Netherlands’ for this statistic. However, this is likely to be one area that Wiegman will change after her arrival, which will require players who are good with the ball at their feet and able to weight passes perfectly; creative players in particular will thrive under this way of playing.
We noted that defending is not the Netherlands’ strong point, but they still concede less goals per game than England. Therefore, Wiegman will need to improve their defensive record, making them harder to score against. This analysis has looked at two different ways that she could do this, with her tactic of keeping three players at the back something that could work for the Lionesses, so the defence is worth keeping an eye on as the team develops under Wiegman’s leadership.
In conclusion, this article has detailed several aspects of Sarina Wiegman’s tactics with the Netherlands national team, picking out the things she could bring to the England national team in September and how she could improve them. The question this article asked was what their setup under her will be, and the answer is that they will have a greater focus on attacking and playing through the thirds, leading to more chances being created and more goals potentially being scored. England have so far preferred to use either a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 formation this year (both have been used 33% of the time), so they are trying different ways of playing under Hege Riise, and Wiegman will not need to make massive changes in this regard, as she also prefers a 4-2-3-1. However, it will be the little details here and there that will be interesting to watch, as well as how far she can take England in the future.