For Sarina Wiegman, this must be a familiar feeling.

At the 2017 European Championship, her Netherlands side opened the tournament by unconvincingly beating Norway 1-0, then went on to win the competition.

At World Cup 2019, her Netherlands side began with an iffy 1-0 win over New Zealand — courtesy of a 92nd-minute goal — and went on to reach the final.

At Euro 2022, her England side’s opener was a nervy 1-0 defeat of Austria — needing goalline technology to confirm that their goal was in — then went on to lift the trophy.

So, here at World Cup 2023, there should be no surprise, and no panic, about the fact her England side have started with a scruffy 1-0 victory over Haiti — thanks to Georgia Stanway’s re-taken penalty. They may well go on to be crowned world champions next month.

If they do, however, they’ll need to play better than they did in Brisbane on Saturday.



Wiegman warns England after narrow Haiti win

England weren’t great against Austria at Old Trafford last year, but they did the job and always looked broadly in control. That wasn’t the case against Haiti. They were ragged in possession, invited turnovers with misplaced passes, and then either resorted to fouls or found themselves bypassed quickly. England could easily have surrendered their lead, which had only come from the penalty spot after a bizarre Batcheba Louis handball.

By now, the optimum approach for causing England problems has been established — especially since Australia ended their 30-match unbeaten run with a 2-0 win in April. Opponents invariably play two banks of four, and almost always mark midfielder Keira Walsh very tightly.

And when Walsh doesn’t get on the ball, as was the case throughout the first half here, England don’t seem to have a secondary playmaker who can get them playing.

That player used to be Leah Williamson, who was always delighted to step forward from central defence into a midfield position.

In Williamson’s absence from this World Cup through injury, Jess Carter simply isn’t as composed on the ball. Millie Bright, playing her first 90 minutes in four months after an injury of her own, found her passing radar was off — evident when she misplaced a simple ball in the first minute, inviting a Haiti counter-attack.

One of England’s most pressing issues is working out how to progress the ball when Walsh is taken out of the game. Stanway pushed high into the channel, while Ella Toone is part-midfielder, part-forward. Some of England’s better moves came when Lucy Bronze darted infield from her right-back position, effectively becoming an extra midfielder.



England 1-0 Haiti: Problems for the Lionesses, penalty drama and dazzling Dumornay

England did, granted, create chances — albeit mainly from getting it wide and sending the ball into the box towards Alessia Russo, rather than truly breaking down a well-organised defence.

The use of Chloe Kelly down the right worked reasonably well, particularly because she brings a partnership with the winger on the opposite flank, Lauren Hemp. Twice in the first half, Kelly crossed deep to Hemp at the far post, a move familiar from their performances together for Manchester City. Lauren James, perhaps surprisingly omitted from the starting XI, played well in half an hour off the bench. For all her speed and directness, on this occasion she demonstrated an ability to slow the game down and help England to regain control.

The main issue, though, was dealing with counter-attacks.

Fifteen years ago, England might have turned up at a game with Haiti not really knowing what they would be up against. But the easy availability of match footage these days, combined with football’s increased emphasis on opposition scouting in general, means England knew exactly what to expect from their CONCACAF opponents. Well, sort of…

Wiegman’s first answer in her post-match press conference contained the phrase, “As we expected, they played unpredictable”, a telling contradiction.

England’s primary plan for stopping Haiti’s counters seemed to be committing quick fouls to break up the play. Russo, Stanway, Bright and Kelly all did this, at various points. But when that didn’t work, England seemed alarmingly exposed. Walsh was stranded in front of the defence, Bright looked very sluggish moving in reverse, and while the full-backs weren’t exactly stationed by the corner flags at the other end of the pitch, they never seemed to be in positions to form a solid quartet with their centre-back colleagues.

“We had moments where we lost the ball quickly, and they (Haiti) were really quick in attack,” Wiegman said. “They were really quick and very athletic and we had to play a little quicker to stay out of the duels, because they were physical too. I think the other two countries (in Group D — Denmark beat China 1-0 later in the day) are really going to struggle with them. But of course that’s not our problem. I’m just really happy we got the win and have the first three points, in a very hard game.”

There’s no point being too harsh on England. It’s very rare for an international side — whether coached by Wiegman or otherwise — to start a tournament at full tilt, and the gap between the end of the European domestic campaign and the start of this World Cup has been curiously long. Many of the other contenders this year have also been sluggish in their first match here. Australia were unconvincing against the Republic of Ireland, the USA made hard work of getting past Vietnam, and Norway managed to lose to New Zealand.

An international football tournament usually starts and ends with the eventual champions managing an unimpressive, narrow victory. Their best performances tend to come somewhere in-between those games.

England, you suspect, will play much better than this against the Danes in Sydney on Friday.



England’s week of disputes ends in a debate: Is Russo their best bet up front?

(Photo: Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images)