The last time Sarina Wiegman met Peter Gerhardsson at the semi-finals of a major tournament she left Sweden’s manager in melancholic mood. “Empty is the way I feel,” Gerhardsson said after his side’s 1-0 extra-time defeat by a Netherlands team then managed by Wiegman at the 2019 World Cup in France. “Emotionally I’m just numb.”
Three years on Sweden’s manager has rediscovered a zest for life and is anxious to atone for that disappointment as his players prepare to face Wiegman’s England at Bramall Lane on Tuesday night with a place in the Euro 22 final at Wembley on Sunday beckoning.
Yet if Gerhardsson – the tournament’s sole surviving male coach – seeks atonement, so, too, does a Lionesses squad aiming for revenge against obdurate opponents they have struggled to deconstruct in recent years.
Indeed, as Wiegman’s Netherlands headed towards a 2-0 2019 final defeat against the United States in Lyon, Sweden found the Côte d’Azur sunshine thoroughly restorative as they won the third-place match, beating Phil Neville’s England 2-1 in Nice.
Beforehand Neville had been so confident of collecting a bronze medal that he joked about buying a special lamp capable of illuminating that prize to best effect in his family home. After a chastening afternoon featuring goals from the influential Kosovare Asllani and Sofia Jakobsson, he dismissed the fixture as a “nonsense” but hurt was writ large on his face.
After all, eight months earlier Neville had blamed Gerhardsson and his players for “ruining my Christmas” after what he described as a “soul-crushing” 2-0 friendly defeat in Rotherham.
A few miles down the road in Sheffield on Tuesday night Wiegman is burdened by no such historical, or emotional, baggage. After 10 months in charge of the Lionesses she is yet to experience defeat and remains on a mission to end the team’s run of three consecutive semi-final exits in showpiece tournaments.
Although invariably polite and pleasant-seeming, she says very little of substance during media appearances and so far has avoided the sort of in-depth chats with journalists previously customary during these events.
It means no one knows too much about the 52-year-old from The Hague bar the barest details – she is married with two daughters and reads only non-fiction books – and, at least while England keep winning, this sense of mystery is possibly serving her well.
Her trademark technical-area poise has even sparked speculation that “the Sarina suit” – an £80 Marks and Spencer dark trouser and jacket combo teamed with buttoned-up white blouse and white trainers – could spark a fashion trend in much the same way that the England men’s manager, Gareth Southgate, once boosted waistcoat sales.
Unlike Southgate, though, Wiegman is still to taste adversity. The woman who led the Netherlands to Euro 2017 glory during her first international posting has never lost a European Championship game even if her uncharacteristic, fist-pumping explosion of relief at last week’s final whistle against Spain confirmed she came very close to doing so.
Although she may have been encouraged by Sweden’s underwhelming 1-0 victory against Belgium in the last-eight, this game promises to be very different. Whereas Belgium sat deep, defending in numbers, England’s front-foot approach should invite counterattacking opportunities.
Up against forwards as gifted as Milan’s Asllani, Barcelona’s Fridolina Rolfö and Arsenal’s Stina Blackstenius, Wiegman’s defence will need to be at their best.
It will be intriguing to see whether England’s manager replaces her left-back Rachel Daly, who struggled against Spain, and the likely shape of Gerhardsson’s lineup represents another unknown.
The 62-year-old – who possesses extensive experience in the men’s game – has latterly favoured a 4‑2‑3‑1 formation but may attempt to negate England’s wingers, Beth Mead and Lauren Hemp, by switching to the 3-4-3 configuration that proved a regular feature of Sweden’s rise to second place in Fifa’s world rankings.
“I’m an expert at changing my mind,” Gerhardsson jokes about his frequent formation alterations. “I don’t always trust myself.”
England fans are divided as to whether Wiegman should replace the currently non-scoring record scorer Ellen White with Alessia Russo but there is a consensus that much hinges on Millie Bright again shining as a central defensive cornerstone.
Bright’s excellence has been a recurring theme of Euro 2022 but she and the rest of a Lionesses team still harbouring a slight vulnerability at set pieces will need to retain maximum concentration whenever Jonna Andersson and co dispatch dead balls.
Five of Sweden’s nine tournament goals have arrived via set plays and their execution is something Gerhardsson has honed since succeeding Pia Sundhage five years ago.
His coaching has afforded a formidably consistent, highly organised team a certain physical, distinctly streetwise edge. Sweden are unbeaten since losing the final of last summer’s Tokyo Olympics to Canada on penalties.
With England similarly indomitable of late, something is going to have to give in Sheffield, where principal subplots could involve the six Sweden players – including Blackstenius, Chelsea’s Magdalena Eriksson and Everton’s Hanna Bennison – who play in the WSL.
Whatever happens, both managers are likely to maintain deliberately low profiles. As Gerhardsson puts it: “I’m constantly chasing perfection but the players are the ones on show. It’s about them.”