New manager Sarina Wiegman cautioned that her team “need some opponents that are of a higher standard than tonight” after her tenure, and England’s World Cup 2023 qualifying campaign, began ruthlessly against an exhausted North Macedonia at St Mary’s.
“We only learned [from tonight] in an attacking way,” she said. “Against a top-ranking team it’s going to be different. What we know is we need to finish better than we did today. We can be a little bit more composed, more connected, those little things. So we can learn from that and bring it to a higher level, so that even against a better opponent, we can score too.”
Back in front of fans for the first time since the pandemic, spirits were high and the adopted anthem Sweet Caroline was sung with gusto as the hosts picked over the bones of their mauled opponents in the cool mist.
England have not played a competitive fixture in 802 days, since defeat to Sweden in the bronze medal match at the 2019 World Cup. Since then the team has suffered seven losses in 12 games, all friendlies, and there has been a staleness to performances.
In many senses the reset the pandemic offered has been sorely needed and, with the arrival of former Netherlands manager Wiegman bringing a fresh approach and top-level experience, there can be some hope of a revitalising of England’s fortunes.
There could be fewer kinder starts to Wiegman’s tenure than a team ranked 131st in the world but England struggled to make the most of their total dominance in the opening half an hour. The team were 1-0 up through an Ella Toone strike but could have been a lot further ahead.
Wiegman’s first starting XI was young and dynamic but that was partly enforced by the absence of seven Manchester City players due to injury, with the captain, Steph Houghton, a late withdrawal with an ankle injury suffered in training.
Handed the armband in her place was Arsenal centre-back Leah Williamson who described it as “the ultimate” accolade prior to kick-off. “I think I just laughed when Sarina told me originally, I thought I was in trouble,” she said.
Williamson was also asked to conduct the midfield orchestra in place of injured Keira Walsh and it was the out-of-position captain who provided the probing pass for Manchester United forward Toone’s opener. But Williamson added that she “wasn’t too happy” with her performance in possession.
North Macedonia struggled to deal with wave after wave of England attack with the midfield three of Georgia Stanway, Williamson and Toone offering an exciting glimpse at the future fulcrum of the team. Rachel Daly, having recently become Houston Dash’s all-time top scorer, revelled in the space she was gifted to the right of striker Ellen White and looked on a mission to impress with the a black armband wrapped around her left arm worn, by all off the team, to mark the sad passing of father, Martyn, at the weekend.
The versatile Daly delivered precision cross after cross, with Lauren Hemp, Toone and White all guilty of failing to turn crosses into assists. Instead, England’s second came from a sloppy mistake by centre-back pairing Pavlinka Nikolovska and Sara Kolarovska with the latter, stumbling the ball into the path of White who slotted home.
The third followed only three minutes later with left-back Julija Zivikj turning the ball into her own net. Zivikj was then cruelly shown a yellow and a penalty was awarded against her for a foul outside of the box. Up stepped White who converted coolly. Despite being England and Team GB’s most in-form striker she did not take penalties under Phil Neville or Hege Riise.
The fifth saw goalkeeper Suarta Rechi parry from Nikita Parris only for her fellow substitute Beth England to nod in the rebound. The sixth goal was turned into the net by Kolarovska from a Beth Mead cross.
Mead then found the head of England for the seventh goal and swooped inside from the left before firing low past Rechi to make it 8-0 just before the final whistle.
The swaggering performance will give the team a much-needed confidence boost but with the 81% of possession and 48 shots this was not a test of England’s defensive shape and solidity, which has struggled when put under pressure.