After Euro 2022, which teams look ready to topple USWNT and win 2023 World Cup?
With the 2022 Euros over, players have returned to their clubs ahead of a new season starting next month for most European leagues, and the bigger focus shifts to the World Cup next year, which will be staged in Australia and New Zealand.
In the last World Cup, seven of the eight quarterfinalists were from Europe — the lone exception being the ultimate winner, the U.S. women’s national team — and as such, this summer’s Euros gave us the best-possible sneak peek at who might be contenders next summer.
England, the new European champs, are obvious favourites, but even they have questions ahead of the 2023 World Cup — questions that the upcoming Women’s Super League season may not be able to answer. So, with that, ESPN writers Tom Hamilton, Sophie Lawson and Julien Laurens take a closer look at the top performers at the 2022 Euros and assess what they each need to address before the World Cup.
England: Navigate a looming generational shift
A mischievous banner in Wembley after England clinched the 2022 Euro trophy read, “Sarina Wiegman, the Dutch Magician. Fancy the FIFA 2022 World Cup?”
While Wiegman will be a keen spectator when the English men look to end their wait for a major trophy later this year, moments after the final whistle for the Women’s Euro you can imagine amidst the celebrations the brilliant Dutch manager would already be thinking about the future and the global gathering next year. Wiegman was asked post-match about whether she was confident England would build on their euros triumph and go again next year, but her answer was typically pragmatic.
“It’s not easy to win this tournament and this is the same in the World Cup,” she said. First up for Wiegman is a camper van holiday, but then comes planning for next year. The England team she’ll take to Australia and New Zealand will be different. You feel some of the veterans of the team like Jill Scott — who has played in eight major tournaments — and Ellen White may not still be in the mix by then, despite their heroics at the Euros.
But expect to see the likes of Fran Kirby and Lucy Bronze there. The latter was asked about her hopes of making the World Cup postmatch Sunday, and responded: “I’m only 30 years old. Bloody hell! How many players retire at 30?” So, mark down Bronze as a definite. It’ll be fascinating to see how Wiegman transitions this team from one tournament to the next. Looking at the five players who were last to miss out on a spot at the Euros, you must feel it’s doubtful Wiegman will hand a recall to the legend Steph Houghton, but Sandy MacIver, Niamh Charles and Katie Zalem are all either in their prime, or approaching it. She’ll also have Jordan Nobbs available again, and Lucy Staniforth fully fit so they could gatecrash the squad.
But looking at this current group — Lauren Hemp is only going to get better, as will Ella Toone and Alessia Russo. The future’s looking bright and by this time next year, expect to see familiar faces lining up for England as they look to take the next step.
“The Euros is fantastic especially in home country, but there a little star missing from our crest at the minute on the England shirt,” Bronze said. “That’s definitely a mission of ours to get that star there.” –Tom Hamilton
Germany: Find more adaptability for games like Euro final
Based on what we saw at the Euros this July, there are definitely teams that have a lot of work to do before the World Cup kicks off next summer — but when it comes to Germany, there are things that need to be tweaked rather than completely dismantled and thrown in the recycling bin.
Arguably, the biggest issue Germany faced at the Euros was losing starters to COVID or injury, which is hard to budget against. However, when Alex Popp ruled herself out of the final having pulled a muscle in training the night before, Germany endeavoured to keep playing the same way, as if Popp was in the box to receive crosses.
For the fluidity of the team in the matches leading up to the final, there was not quite enough flexibility in their approach with Lea Schüller quite a different attacker to Popp. Similarly, it very quickly became apparent that Sydney Lohmann was again needed in midfield with Sara Däbritz not the right player for the English task and although coach, Martina Voss-Tecklenburg did make the switch, she did so later in the game.
One of the biggest challenges for a coach is knowing when to make changes and how long to give systems and ideas to settle with those on the pitch — and of course, in a major tournament final, being too rash and tinkering too much is of little help — but one tweak is a shade more proactivity from Voss-Tecklenburg. The same also applies when it comes to taking into account tournament fatigue, the coach understandably with the favoured starters but it is very clear when some players are beginning to flag, Voss-Tecklenburg needs to be comfortable going to her bench when the team need it.
Likewise, she needs to have faith in her whole squad, that no matter who she throws into the mix, that they will be able to do the job asked of them. –Sophie Lawson
Norway: Start with forgetting the humiliation of Euro 2022
The challenge for this group is to exorcise the ghosts of that 8-0 drubbing to England as quickly as possible. And then rebuild.
Four days after that heavy defeat, the dejected group ended with a whimper with a 1-0 defeat to Austria. And then just four days on, their manager Martin Sjogren resigned — all this just a year after he signed a new deal that was going to take him through to the World Cup. In short, any plans for the next year or so are up in smoke. But there are benefits from hitting the bottom of the barrel. From this nadir, change must happen and Norway will inevitably have some overhaul and a new voice can help bring the best out of this group of players.
That new voice is Hege Riise. The Norway legend won an incredible 184 caps for her country, but her managerial journey has seen her spend time as assistant coach for the USWNT from 2009 to 2012 while she also took interim control of England after Phil Neville left, and guided Team GB through the 2020 Olympics.
The reality is, Sjogren should have gone after the last World Cup — he hasn’t managed to get the best out of this squad, and that’s Riise’s challenge. There are world-class figures in there, like Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen and a solid spine in Guro Reiten, Julie Blakstad, Maria Thorisdottir and Maren Mjelde. What was stark for Norway through the tournament was the poor individual decisions they made and how they failed to react to a threat mid-match. This was down to the coaching but heading forward, Riise’s main focus should be on shoring up their defence and improving the team’s harmony during the match.
This summer, Norway looked like a team of individuals, rather than a collective unit. This can’t all be solved within the 14 months leading up to next year’s competition, but a starting point would be to heed Hegerberg’s words after their defeat to Austria: “There has to be brutal honesty in evaluating everything that’s happened in the last few weeks in order to actually bounce back from this.” –Tom Hamilton
France: Use best-ever Euros finish as a confidence boost
Reaching the semifinal of Euro 2022 made for a successful tournament for the French. But maybe the most important — and the thing to carry onto 2023 and the World Cup — is the spirit that the team showed.
The relationship between head coach Corinne Diacre and the players appears to be better. The atmosphere within the camp in England was fantastic and the mental strength to break the curse of the quarterfinals against the Netherlands was a huge step forward too. This has to keep improving if Les Bleues want to keep their momentum and do well at the World Cup.
On the pitch itself, this is a team with a high ceiling. There is a lot of room for improvement individually and collectively. First, let’s hope that Marie-Antoinette Katoto makes a full recovery of her knee injury and is fully fit and ready for the World Cup. With her at her best, France are much stronger that they were at the Euros without her. Then the likes of Delphine Cascarino (25), Kadidiatou Diani (27), Clara Matéo (24) or Grace Geyoro (25), who did so well at the Euros, will continue their progression. Eve Perisset (27) will learn a lot at Chelsea in the WSL. Then there is the new generation, the likes of Melvine Malard (22), Selma Bacha (21) or Sandy Baltimore (22) who will push for a place in the starting line up.
So, there will be competition and ambition going into next year. The French were not far from a place in the final at the Euros for the first time in their history. Diacre has extended her contract until after the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. This is a huge two-year period for the French national team and they are in a much better place than they were a year ago. –Julien Laurens
Spain: Find a way to finish in front of goal
Given Spain played the Euros without their best player, Alexia Putellas, and another likely starting forward, Jenni Hermoso, they did well to adapt to come so close to knocking out hosts England in the quarterfinal. But a final eight finish is not what Spain — the pre-tournament favourites — came to achieve, and the pressure is on manager Jorge Vilda to transform them into a team worthy of taking down the World Cup next year.
For so much of the Euros, Spain were a team where they had plenty of style, yet little end product. Their best goal, by far, was the one engineered against England as Athenea del Castillo cut past Rachel Daly to put it on a plate for Esther Gonzalez to stroke home. But given they had dominated possession and territory, they mustered just four shots on target. And their end product from the Euros saw the team score six goals, but from four headers.
The idealistic way Vilda wants his team to play needs to evolve where the effort and focus leads to an end-product. He perhaps tinkered too much with the starting XI during the Euros, and played some out of position. But they have a young batch of players coming through which shows they are far more than this current so-called golden generation, and will surely win a major title at some juncture.
“There’s a bright future based on what we’ve seen at this tournament,” Vilda said after their exit. “We can improve.” Given Vilda has a contract through to 2024, the pressure will be on for him to deliver next year. –Tom Hamilton
The Netherlands: Hit the mark with Parsons’ replacement
It was always going to be a mammoth task to fill the giant shoes left by manager Sarina Wiegman. She had led the Netherlands to the 2017 European Championships and World Cup final in 2019. Her legacy was unsurpassed. Mark Parsons was the man the KNVB turned to, but just 17 days after their quarterfinal exit from the Euros, he stepped down as coach, leaving with a win percentage of just 55.56% — just 10 wins in 18 matches. With the World Cup under a year away, the Netherlands are back to square one.
Parsons was dealt a rough hand for the Euros — they had to contend with injuries, like the one to Lieke Martens, and a COVID-19 outbreak which halted the prolific Vivianne Miedema in her tracks — but you feel Parsons failed to get the best out of the group. Jill Roord, after their exit, spoke about how the team had struggled to switch to Parsons’ way of thinking and delivery, compared to Wiegman.
It all proved to be too much for both the KNVB and Parsons. In the exit statement, the KNVB highlighted the Netherlands’ “disappointing” style of play and results at the Euros and they looked a far cry from the formidable, well-organised, ultra-intense offering which Wiegman moulded. There were strange decisions, like the one to play Dominique Janssen at full-back, instead of in the heart of defence, while Miedema failed to get the right service.
The question now is who they turn to next. The obvious contender, and the man they should move heaven and earth to recruit, is someone who knows the team inside out, and knows what it takes to win major trophies. And that’s Wiegman’s assistant manager, Arjan Veurink. –Tom Hamilton
Sweden: Formulate a Plan B (and maybe a Plan C)
Too often at the Euros, Sweden looked out of sync and unbalanced. For coach Peter Gerhardsson, the main problem appeared to be trying to play a system designed for other players with the starters he had available, leaving the team unable to muster their better football against higher-ranked teams.
Gerhardsson has a system he likes to play that allows his team to get forward and attack, but the inclusion of a Plan B or even just a tweaked Plan A that harnesses the strength of whoever is on the pitch is paramount. Sweden, like other teams at the Euros, seemed to be losing the players they couldn’t afford to due to COVID and injury, which again highlights the need for the manager to be able to bring in his second-string players and adjust the way they attack to keep them as incisive as they were at the Tokyo Olympics. With a handful of his preferred starting XI on the downswing on their careers, Gerhardsson will have to make some tough decisions over who is in his long-term plans and look for back-up options, both in offensive structures and personnel.
Clearly running out of gas in their quarterfinal against England — when they had 48 hours less time to recover than their opposition — again, general tournament management seemed to be an issue, with players who were tired still being asked to do a lot of heavy lifting. There is not much that can be done about the length regular season with extra cup commitments, but a longer rest for the players who play from September-May before their pre-tournament camp could be an option for the SvFF to explore. –Sophie Lawson
Belgium: Find a way for attack to match defensive prowess
Belgium created one of the surprises of the Euros by reaching the quarterfinals after beating Italy in the last group game. They were expected to finish bottom behind France, Italy and Iceland and instead narrowly lost to the French, drew with the Scandinavians and beat the Squaddra Azurra. It was a huge result to qualify for the last eight, even if then Sweden proved too strong.
But the tournament has brought great hopes for the future, validating the big improvements of the last few years. Women’s football in Belgium is only at its beginning. The country is nowhere near as advanced as the main European countries, and it is still very much at the development stage — but the national team’s results at the Euros are a great encouragement.
Now, they will have to keep growing in 2023 and who’s their progress at the World Cup. Head coach Ives Serneels has done a great job since taking over in 2011, but he needs more of his players to go abroad. At the moment, only Davina Philtjens and Diede Lemey are at Sassuolo, Janice Cayman at Lyon, Justine Vanhaevermaet at Reading, Tine De Caigny at Hoffenheim, Tessa Wullaert at Fortuna Sittard, Julie Biesmans at PSV and Elena Dhont at Twente. But there is a strong collective, well organised, good defensively with Nicky Evrard in goal, who saved two penalties at the Euros. They will work at stating hard to break and to beat.
But they will have to improve with the ball going forward, to become a bigger attacking threat. They have talented technical player like Vanhaevermaet and De Caigny and good finishers like Wullaert and they will be more efficient if they can play closer to the opposition goal. So there is still a lot of work to do to get closer to the best teams. Qualifying for their first World Cup will be another big achievement in itself and a great step forward in their development. –Julien Laurens
Italy: Manage the pressure of rising up the world ranks
When talking about fixes, the question is, “What went wrong?” For Italy coming out of the back of the Euros, the better question is what went right and more importantly, how can the team recover in time for their World Cup qualifiers next month?
When there is a clear problem with shape or tactics, there are simple solutions, but each Italy match in England was riddled with uncharacteristic individual errors as well as failings on a team level. Coach Milena Bertolini repeatedly spoke of the team suffering with the weight of expectation on them which would go some way to accounting for the mistake-strewn matches and would make the most obvious course of action, intensive work with a sports phycologist.
Whilst pressure is a normal part of the game, the three-game long collapse from Le Azzurre would suggest a deeper-rooted problem and one that might not be so quick to fix, but it is apparent there is plenty of work that needs to be done off of the pitch.
Like other coaches at the Euros, Bertolini opted for experience over youth which worked better on paper than on the pitch. With Serie A a hotbed of good young players and plenty champing at the bit to make their mark for their national team, shifting to a team with a lower average age could very well be the way forward for Le Azzurre. Should Italy manage to qualify for the 2023 World Cup, they cannot afford to have another tournament as humiliating as this one. –Sophie Lawson
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.