This article is part of the Guardian’s Women’s Euro 2022 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 16 countries who have qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 6 July.
What are the Orange Lionesses worth without Wiegman? That’s the big question. After four and a half glorious years, the successful coach crossed the Channel last summer of 2021 to take over at the helm of English women’s football. In the search for a successor, the Royal Dutch Football Association (the KNVB) expressed the ambition to find a “Sarina Plus”. That was easier said than done.
In the Netherlands, only a handful of women have the necessary diploma and well-known names from men’s football did not dare to make the switch. “That is out of fear, and fear is always a bad counselor. I honestly find it unbelievable,” said Wiegman on hearing the search to replace her was foundering. “This team … they are so ambitious, so driven.”
Fortunately for the KNVB, there was someone in America who thought the same: Mark Parsons. The then Portland Thorns coach was happy to accept when a call came. On one condition: that he could finish the season with his American club in the NWSL. The Dutch football association agreed and the deal was done.
The results were initially less than the Dutch public was used to – remember this is a team that won the last Euros on home soil and then reached the World Cup final in 2019, losing 2-0 to the US in Lyon three years ago. However it should be noted that Parsons is yet to have the full-strength side at his disposal due to injuries. The change at the top did indirectly lead to a broadening of the selection. Lynn Wilms and Aniek Nouwen have been knocking on the door for some time, but now players such as Esmee Brugts and Romée Leuchter have also found the connection.
With midfielder Damaris Egurrola, Parsons conjured a rabbit out of a hat. The Florida-born Spaniard had the opportunity to play for the Netherlands thanks to her Dutch mother and after several positive conversations with the national coach, the talented 22-year-old midfielder –who plays for European champions Lyon after a move from Everton rumoured to have cost €100,000 – chose a career as a Leeuwin (Lioness).
The almost sacred 4-3-3 in the Netherlands remains the formation, but there are some nuances. The British coach has tried to make a slightly more attacking team, the full-backs are encouraged to attack more often and the defence must be higher up the field to be able to put pressure on quicker. Full power as a team when losing the ball is the motto nowadays.
Parsons is known as a workaholic and even before his first training session, he had watched 32 games featuring his new side and had 32 hours of meetings with players online. It is not without reason that his credo is: “People first, people second and people third. Only then will football come.” The squad had to get used to it in the beginning and were surprised when Parsons’s name appeared out of nowhere on the display of their phone. Why is the national coach calling me? Bad news? The opposite was often true. In most cases, Parsons simply called for a chat. The conversations could sometimes last up to an hour.
In Vivianne Miedema, the Netherlands know they possess an exceptional talent. The Arsenal striker’s goalscoring instinct is of an unprecedented level. She finds the net several times a week from all angles and positions, with both feet and head. The international tally of the goal machine from Hoogeveen stands at 92 goals in 108 appearances. After a season of constant speculation the 25-year-old recently extended her expiring contract with Arsenal. While almost all of Europe’s top clubs were interested, with Barcelona her expected destination, Miedema stayed put and will start a sixth season with the Gunners after these finals.
Esmee Brugts. A year ago the biggest talent of them all in Dutch women’s football was targeting the Under-20 World Cup in Costa Rica – now she is going with the seniors to England. Since her debut during February’s Tournoi de France, the 18-year-old, who can play as a No 10 or as a winger, has made such an impression that Parsons simply could not leave her out. She has Feyenoord blood running through her veins but chose PSV Eindhoven two years ago because the Rotterdammers did not have a team in the Eredivisie at the time. Is a mega-fan of Lieke Martens, a player she now hopes to shine with at the Euros.
Forward Lieke Martens and national coach Sarina Wiegman both turned into heroes as a result of their brilliant work during the 2017 European Championship. The striker and coach led the team all the way as the Dutch grabbed the first major trophy in their history. Anyone who looks at the preliminary process, however, cannot ignore Vera Pauw. As national coach, she led the Netherlands to their first ever tournament finals, at the 2009 European Championship. Behind the scenes Pauw, who is a triplet alongside two brothers, played a pioneering role. She managed to get girls to play with (physically stronger) boys in a team, something many of the current Lionesses have benefited from. Pauw was also the first woman to complete her Uefa Pro licence and became the first female national coach of the Dutch women’s team.
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Reached the semi-finals at the first time of asking in 2009 and, from that moment on, players of the national team received financial compensation from the Dutch federation to help them really start making a living from their sport. While the 2013 European Championship turned out to be a forgettable one for the Dutch, finishing last in their group, the 2017 finals on home soil became the definitive breakthrough moment. The whole nation turned orange thanks to the victory march of Wiegman and her players. After winning the final, they even got a canal tour through the city centre of Utrecht.
Realistic aim this summer
If they come second in the group behind Sweden, France probably await in the quarter-finals. Win the group, however, and the route to the semi-finals and beyond is open.