IIn 2012, the year Arjan Veurink took charge of Twente’s women’s team, Sarina Wiegman’s ADO Den Haag won the Dutch double – now the England Women’s head coach’s first Eredivisie title and first KNVB Cup as a manager. The following season, Veurink went one better than the woman he would later join as an assistant, winning the league with Twente. However, a week later, Wiegman’s side were denied the chance to match his exploits, defeating his side in the cup final.
It was Veurink’s introduction to the woman he went on to form a formidable training partnership. At first they were rivals fighting for the biggest domestic prizes. “We played against each other a lot,” Veurink said. “It’s always a good question to ask him [about that]I always make a little joke about it.”
When Wiegman was appointed head coach of the Netherlands women’s team in 2016, with Euro 2017 at home looming, after serving as interim manager and assistant coach, she turned to her former rival, given the number of players she has worked with. I understood women’s football.
“He invited me to talk about my philosophy, my approach to the game and my thoughts on the European Championship in our country,” says Veurink. “I liked that he always tried to bring processes back to the process. He has a really clear picture: ‘Where we are now, this is where we need to improve, this is probably the way we can do it, and this is where I need you.’
Clarity is an important theme as England players and women talk about Wigman’s influence as they prepare for Euro 2022. Keira Walsh is no different. “Everyone knows where they stand, so there are no guessing games behind closed doors and I think that takes the pressure off,” the midfielder said. “Now the mentality is about doing what’s best for the team and the team, not for individuals. I think you can see it in the way we play.”
Walsh echoes his manager’s words: Wiegman avoids talking about individual performances when he faces the press. The Dutch manager smiles when asked why he is interested in the team. “In team sports, it all starts with teamwork, bonding and getting to know each other,” says Wiegman.
“Sometimes you’ll have an individual who can be a game-changer, but it’s short-lived. If you want to play longer, it’s all about playing as a team, in possession, out of possession and in transition. People like to emphasize the forwards, but if the forwards don’t get the ball, how are they going to score? Everything starts with teamwork, I really like working with a team and people.”
Veurink could see this attention when he was in the shelter of the opposition. “Looking back at his time at ADO Den Haag, the DNA of his team was always a team where they fought for each other, they were very strong mentally. That fight, mental strength, spirit, motivation, passion are what he tries to bring to his teams.”
To protect his team, Wiegman created a pressure-free environment around the Lions at the highest pressure of major tournaments – the home Euros, where expectations are highest. “I don’t know how he does it, to be honest,” Walsh says. “It’s easy for me to sit here and say it feels less stressful, because it just does.”
Wiegman adds, “It’s just the way I am. As a player, I sometimes didn’t think I enjoyed it enough. I worked hard. But you’re there, doing what you love most, doing your best, so why aren’t you having fun?
“As I grew into my personality, I really wanted to be more comfortable. Why do players start playing football after the age of seven? Because they love the game. Yes, it’s all about winning, but you perform better when you can be yourself and you’re in an environment – and it sounds like school – where you’re safe, you’re not judged. Because when you are on the field, you are constantly being judged, and this is uncomfortable and dangerous.”
The key to his composure is that he “really trusts and believes in the process that we’re in right now,” Veurink says. “It gives him the confidence and trust to give us responsibility as a tech guy.” Veurink says Wiegman is “not afraid of powerful people” and “does everything to get the best people around him.”
Wiegman was Holland’s assistant coach before being promoted to head coach six months before the 2017 home Euros. The team lost four of five warm-up games, but went on a tough run to the championship.
During her tenure as an assistant coach, Wiegman became the first woman to coach a men’s professional game in the Netherlands in 2016 when she was asked to step in to assist assistant coach Ole Tobiasen after a member of the coaching staff at Jong. Sparta Rotterdam fell ill. It was a natural fit, Wiegman did part of his professional license at the club and he stayed for the season.
“He was one of us from day one and he was respected because everyone knew him,” says former Denmark player Tobiasen. “For me it was a little surprising because it was new. I didn’t know female coaches: ‘How good is she? What football language does he speak? Do we think alike? Is he a shy person? How can I use it in training and in games, in a good way of course?’
“He walked in the first day and we clicked. It was easy for me to see that I could trust him. He had a tactical vision, he saw, we spoke the same football language; “We wanted to see players between the lines, not straight balls, we wanted to have special angles and things like that.”
One of his strengths has been his flexibility, which has been evident during his 11 months in charge of England. “Yes, he’s a very good and nice person, but if he sees that something needs to change, he does it,” Tobiasen says.
“That’s a very powerful part of it. I see that in myself, sometimes you wait too long with a replacement, hoping it will be good, but sometimes he just said, “Okay, no, it’s not good, we have to change.” He will be there for the players, but if he feels a player is not playing well, he takes them out. It’s not always fun for a player, but he does it for the team, not for himself.”
Growing up in The Hague, Wigman broke the rules by playing on boys’ teams. She will become the first player to make a century for the Dutch women’s team, retiring with 104. But in search of a competitive environment suited to his ambition, he moved to the United States to be coached by Anson as a teenager. Dorrance, head coach of the University of North Carolina and coach of the 1991 World Cup winning USA. Dorrance, who watched Wiegman lead the Netherlands to the 2019 World Cup final against a USA team featuring five of her former players, saw Wiegman at an invitational event in China before the 1991 unofficial Women’s World Cup.
Wiegman, along with Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly, joined an elite squad assembled at UNC’s Chapel Hill campus. “Sarina came into the American thoroughbred collection and it fit, she wasn’t like a fish out of water and we loved her,” says Dorrance. “He also had this ridiculous smile that conveyed a certain level of confidence, but also a certain level of free spirit. It was as if we had hired one of our own, and he happened to be from Europe.”
Wiegman became the latest in a still-growing list of Dorrance patrons. Her England team includes three former UNC players in Lucy Bronze and more recent graduates Lotte Wubben-Moy and Alessia Russo. What sets UNC apart, according to Dorrance, is the “competitive bowl” in which every player is ranked against each other in 28 categories, making it “absolutely a meritocracy.”
“These players we had were the best of the best,” he says. “And he struggled in the starting lineup. There are no promises, no: ‘Sarina, you come to us and we will play you as a starter’. He should have fought on the field.”
Much of Wiegman’s enthusiasm and style can be traced back to his time at UNC. Even after England’s 20-0 defeat to Latvia, Dorrance laughs at Wiegman’s constant desire to improve. “It makes a lot of sense to me because the game of football is full of mistakes. I don’t think any coach is completely satisfied with the victory.
“We want to see consistent improvement. Obviously we can measure some things like fitness standards, speed and vertical jump and acceleration, but when the game is played we want to see improvement in a game full of bugs.
“After the 20-0 win, Sarina says there is always another level. If players ever get complacent, this is the first day of their decline. So you have to keep them on a razor’s edge in terms of ambition, in terms of commitment, in terms of everything. He totally understands that.”