When Millie Bright lashed the ball goalwards from 25 yards in the first half, it flew wide of Manuela Zinsberger’s net. It was inconsequential, an unremarkable moment in a comfortable win in uncomfortable conditions, but it spoke to the confidence of the centre-back, who has flourished as anchor at the base of England’s spine.
Steph Houghton, England’s captain, has not played a minute of international football since Team GB’s heartbreaking 4-3 extra-time defeat to Australia at the Olympics. An ankle injury has limited her to just four games this season with Manchester City.
In the absence of the 33-year-old, Bright has taken up her mantle at the back and marshalled the likes of Leah Williamson, Alex Greenwood and Lotte Wubben-Moy to great effect. When playing in tandem with Williamson in particular, who looks most likely to break apart the Bright/Houghton axis but missed this camp with a hamstring injury, there is a symmetry and balance to the centre-back pairing. The Arsenal defender is the ball-playing, forward-looking half with Bright the long-ball and positional specialist who allows her teammate’s creativity to flourish.
Houghton is still a very good centre-back. One desperately needed at City, but the stylistic balance between her and Bright has been increasingly off when paired together for England. Of late, given Houghton’s form, it has been Bright who has looked the more likely to be ousted, despite her Chelsea form suggesting something was not quite clicking at international level. With Houghton missing, though, Bright has grabbed the defensive reins and, for now at least, has been rewarded with the armband too. “I like to lead by example, with or without the armband, keeping my standards high every day, and I’m just here for the team to do well, that’s the aim,” said Bright on being named captain.
At 28, Bright has more years ahead of her than Houghton and has had the chance to play consistently under the new manager with next summer’s home Euros approaching. It may not yet be time to move Houghton out of the fold entirely: at the 2017 European Championship Casey Stoney travelled but did not play, there for her experience, leadership and as a high-quality stand-in as the baton was passed.
Houghton and her club captain Magda Eriksson have provided inspiration for Bright. “Whenever it gets tough on the pitch, they’re always the first ones to bring the team back to its core and get us back on track in that moment. But every captain is different. Every captain will lead in different ways. It’s important not to put everyone in the same category. With or without the armband I always remain myself, the same Millie; the same player, the same person.”
It is important to note that under Wiegman, and without Houghton, England have barely been tested defensively, scoring 33 goals without reply against North Macedonia, Luxembourg, Northern Ireland, Latvia and Austria. In the lashing rain, with flurries of snow and a whipping wind at the Stadium of Light, controlling the game was not easy but England’s defence passed its toughest test to date under the Dutch manager, with Manchester United’s goalkeeper Mary Earps twice being called on to maintain the unblemished defensive record.
The real test will come in the friendly tournament in England in February when the Lionesses face Spain, Germany and a yet-to-be-announced third team. By then, Houghton and Williamson should be back in the fold, giving Wiegman the chance to put her defenders up against high-quality opposition. Who will line up at the back for England on 6 July when they open the delayed Euro 2021 against Austria at Old Trafford is still up in the air. Bright, however, is proving to be increasingly undroppable.