The ‘genius’ coach who has guided England to a World Cup final

SYDNEY — She took over the Netherlands’ national team in mid-January 2017. It won Euro 2017 in early August. It reached the 2019 World Cup final against the United States. She took over England’s national team in early September 2021. It won Euro 2022 in late July. It has reached the 2023 World Cup final.

To listen to Sarina Wiegman repeatedly across a month is to comprehend how it could help a player to listen to her repeatedly across years. She’s listenable even at those moments when the interview transcript reads as dull. She’s fascinating without any detectable idea that she’s fascinating. She’s gracious without being effusive. She’s got to be among the world’s foremost practitioners of pragmatism. When she speaks of planning, as she often does, there’s a sense of something so hellaciously granular that many heads would explode even as hers remains beguiled. She grins amiably while listening through the sentences of news conference questions, even those groaners about upcoming strategies or speculative scenarios. “Let’s not take any assumptions,” she said one night here, “because we never do.”

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She has the temperament of an uncommonly good judge.

Well, she was born in The Hague.

This 53-year-old Dutchwoman who played one season at North Carolina (1989, one of the Tar Heels’ 21 national titles), and who has become the second manager ever to steer an England team to a World Cup final (and the first since the England men in 1966), does not come across as particularly warm or particularly cold. “My face looks a lot like that, doesn’t it?” she said. “I’m not aware of that, I just hear it a lot. Called the ‘focus face.’ ” Meanwhile, in the big huddle with her players after the 3-1 semifinal win against the whole country of Australia on Wednesday night, the vibe among them looked downright tender.

She seems to carry that healthy ration of obliviousness. Questioned last weekend about the old England-Australia sports rivalry, she allowed she knew little and said she would consult some experts. When she said she had felt heartened by going into a store and seeing Australia’s Matildas on newspaper front pages, it seemed surprising she had gone into any store or looked at any newspaper. Asked about whether she felt as if amid a “fairy tale,” a word she used on the BBC, she began with three words.

“I don’t know,” she said.

But she’s far more helpful than that with her responses, so she went on after a pause: “I really appreciate it. I know, myself, I think, you know, when you make the first final, that was in 2017, you think, ‘So, this is really special; that might not ever happen again.’ And then you make the second final, and then a third, and then a fourth. And then you think — all the time you think, ‘This might not ever happen again,’ because the competition is so hard and there’re so many teams that can make the final that it is very special. So I do know that.”

And then: “But tomorrow I’m just going to prepare for Spain. Because we want to win the final.”

“She’s a phenomenal coach,” England attacker Rachel Daly said. “She’s a genius. She doesn’t get enough credit. She’s great to play for, great to work with, and so honest.”

“She had the right people in the right positions,” Arsenal and Netherlands midfielder Danielle van de Donk said to Annemarie Postma of the Observer in 2020, “and had created a safe environment, in which we didn’t feel pressured and felt we shouldn’t be afraid by anyone.”

“Her expertise has really shown [at the World Cup],” England defender and mainstay Lucy Bronze said Wednesday night, as she “has had to roll up her sleeves a little bit, make some changes.”

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Those last two knacks — conquest of fear and adapting — have shouted through this tournament. By now, the sequence of four loud injuries (three prohibitive of World Cup participation) and one loud suspension (of 21-year-old sensation Lauren James for the quarterfinals and semifinals) have joined the familiar fabric. By now, Wiegman might well do seminars on the handling of bad news, not that she would do seminars. She seems to have mastered the concept that part of coping with bad news is understanding that life is going to bring it — sometimes serially.

In the 35th minute of the second group match against Denmark, atop the pretournament injuries to key players Leah Williamson, Fran Kirby and Beth Mead, here piled the sight of the midfield catalyst Keira Walsh going down with a knee injury that looked alarming (but turned out less alarming even as it did cost Walsh one match). After England held it together for a 1-0 win because that’s what England does anymore, a reporter asked Wiegman about how she had “consoled” the team afterward.

Wiegman paused, trying to help the questioner.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what ‘console’ means,” she said, apparently referring to the context.

The questioner clarified, using the word “upset.”

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“No, we were not upset,” Wiegman said, “we just had to find our feet. Of course, it’s not nice when a player goes off the pitch that way [by stretcher]. But we also know, unfortunately, that these things happen sometimes in football — you just have to move on — and you’re at the World Cup, and you want to win that game, so we really have to adapt to a new situation as quickly as possible, so that’s what we did.”

It sounded halfway to callous but all the way to necessary.

“There’s a fundament,” she said the day before the Australia match, “and then when we go onto the pitch, the players make their own decisions and adapt to a new situation. That’s how we train, and what we do all the time, and we ask them to do so, too. And of course, things will go wrong, because, you know, football is also a game of making mistakes, but that happens, just take the next action again. That’s one of the things that we just really empower or reinforce, all the time, that we have to do that.”

She changed formations for the next match, against China. England won, 6-1.

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Then came this storyline. First, James scored one gobsmacking goal against Denmark and two against China, as keen witnesses did what keen witnesses should do: marveled. Wiegman did what Wiegman should do: cautioned. “As you know, I always talk about team performances,” she said after James’s crackling goal in the sixth minute against Denmark, before talking on about the airtightness of Denmark’s defensive block, before taking one little final sentence to concede, “And yes, she made, indeed, a very nice goal.”

Also, the Eiffel is a very nice tower.

She refrained from understandable cooing by emphasizing James’s youth. Well, in the round of 16 against Nigeria, that youth sprang to wretched life in a bad case of lousy sportswomanship. Frustrated by Nigeria’s intensive defense, James got up from a two-woman spill with Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie and stepped deliberately on Alozie’s back.

Wiegman agreed about the sportswomanship but said, perhaps surprisingly, “That happens sometimes with human beings,” especially “in such an intense game,” and, “I think she agrees that, too, that it doesn’t belong on the pitch.”

Like the best coaches, she seems capable of mingling the rigorous with the charitable. As Postma wrote in 2020, Wiegman followed a Euro qualifying group loss to Denmark in 2017 by flying to England and Spain to visit, speak with and consult some of her Dutch players. Then again, there’s problem-solving and there’s problem-solving.

“Yeah, I’ve never experienced so many problems,” she concluded on that Nigeria night that made her feel “10 years older.” “But of course, that’s my job, to think of things that can happen in the game, or in a tournament, or ahead of the tournament, so you try — actually, you try to turn every stone and then try to already think of a solution if things happen. So today, we got totally tested on those turned stones.”

They passed that test on penalties that night, in part because they had turned over that stone, too, over and over again. They sailed the turbulent waters from there. They, after all, have a manager tireless in life’s field of stones.

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