Millie Bright no longer takes offence when Sarina Wiegman spells out precisely what she is doing wrong. As Euro 2022 beckons, the Chelsea centre-half has learned to compartmentalise her emotions and almost welcome previously “difficult conversations” with England’s supremely dispassionate coach. She understands that, with Wiegman, context is everything.
“It’s not personal, it’s football and that’s been our mindset change; we’re all very open and honest now,” says Bright as she settles into her seat in an indoor football hall at St George’s Park where the Lionesses have been preparing for Wednesday night’s tournament opener against Austria at Old Trafford. “Sarina takes all the emotion out of it.
If you want to go up another level and be in the best football environment you must have the difficult conversations we’re having. Sarina’s comments are never personal but to me as a footballer. It’s about what’s best for the team, there’s no emotion in it.”
While the Dutch are noted for their directness, and Wiegman, a native of The Hague who led the Netherlands to Euro 2017 glory appears a prime example, the 52-year-old is perhaps not quite the control freak she sometimes seems. Significantly, the woman charged with ending England’s run of semi-final exits in their last three major tournaments demands players think for themselves on the pitch.
Whereas some coaches drill teams so strictly their choreography can virtually be regarded as football’s answer to painting by numbers, Wiegman’s squad must use their brains. Stylistic dogma is out and improvisation far from taboo. Take Bright’s penchant for feeding England’s exciting winger Lauren Hemp with long diagonal balls. “Sarina has a thing where the player on the ball is the one who makes the decision,” says Bright. “You’re in control. That’s one thing I’ve really loved about her coming in.
You don’t feel pressured to play a certain pass; it’s your decision and the team goes with it. If it’s wrong, you learn to make a better decision next time. To be able to play like that gives me confidence. I feel really free.”
Phil Neville, England’s former coach, was wedded to passing smoothly out from the back but despite his successor’s similar preference for technically assured defenders, Wiegman believes pragmatism trumps rigidly imposed principles.
“We do have set patterns of play but we also know games change every second,” says Bright. “You can’t be predictable, having the freedom to recognise and assess different options rather than being robots and sticking to strict plans is super important in our development. We have gameplans but being able to express ourselves has taken us to another level.
“It’s about choosing the right option for each moment. Our style varies; it’s never set in stone. It’s a mixture. Everyone comes from highly competitive clubs where you’re challenged to play out from the back and we all want that, to be the best on the ball. But football’s never that simple. If only it was. With different opponents you have to be adaptable. We’ll be ready for whatever’s thrown at us.”
Under Neville, Bright forged a strong central defensive partnership with Steph Houghton but has latterly hit new heights alongside Alex Greenwood. “We’ve been building a connection and it feels really natural now,” says the 28-year-old who in playing alongside Greenwood and, occasionally Leah Williamson, has adapted to operating in tandem with a playmaking partner.
“Alex’s distribution is on the money, her passing’s ridiculously good and she can be key. People maybe sometimes underestimate her. In training she’s solid, makes blocks and puts her body on the line. Sometimes people might not think she’s that way inclined but she’s very front-footed; it’s a pleasure to play alongside her.”
Not that Bright’s own passing is too shabby either. A talented equestrienne whose family have a stable yard of horses at their South Yorkshire home, her game is a blend of physical bravery, judicious timing and the sort of mental courage which has seen the uncompromising defender score some spectacular goals. “I’d like to think I can get us out of trouble with my distribution if needs be,” she says. “Under Sarina, everyone’s been pushed to new levels and has the confidence to do new things.”
Given that England possess such strength in depth that, despite declaring herself fully fit after injury, the previously talismanic Houghton was omitted from the squad by a typically unsentimental Wiegman, team selection appears tricky. “Sarina’s going to have a headache picking teams,” says Bright. “We have an unbelievable pool of players and that competition keeps you on your toes; we push each other to different levels.”
Bright, barred from horseriding by her insurers, feels the overall technical bar will be raised in a tournament delayed a year due to the pandemic. “After Covid we almost had a rebirth of the women’s game, we’d missed playing so much,” she says. “Covid taught me not to take things for granted, it was literally a rebirth as a person and a player.”
Eight months before England’s first lockdown Neville’s Lionesses lost a World Cup semi-final to the USA in Lyon and painful recollections of France 2019 linger. “You think about semi-finals you lose, they always hang in there,” she says. “The memory gives you motivation and that little bit of fire inside when you need it. You might be a little bit tired and that gets you over the hill.”
England are appreciably stronger than three years ago but other nations, too, have improved. “It’s going to be one hell of a tournament; it won’t be easy,” says Bright as brilliant sunshine illuminates the rolling Midlands countryside outside. “But it’s a massive opportunity – and it’s there for the taking.”