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‘Happy people make elite athletes’: England build for future success now

Sarina Wiegman sits relaxed in the stand of the Marbella Football Center, baseball cap on, feet resting on the back of the plastic chair in front of her, studying a team sheet. Around the England manager sits her 23-player squad, littered with Euros winners and Champions League winners, with countless domestic trophies between them. For once, they are watching rather than playing, lounging in the sun after a morning training session before their game against Austria on Friday night.

They are getting a look at England’s Under-23s, who would start well against Spain before falling to a 3-1 defeat. Of the starting XI, a few have experience with the senior side. Katie Robinson was in the World Cup squad last year and Ebony Salmon made her senior debut in 2021. A day earlier here, the Bristol City centre-back Naomi Layzell had her first taste of playing with those sitting in the stands when she trained with the senior side. For now, she and her teammates are playing without names on their shirts, trying to catch the eye of Wiegman and her coaching staff.

The Manchester City goalkeeper Khiara Keating and midfielder Grace Clinton are two who have been promoted to the seniors this time round. These opportunities are there, but this week they have been there that little bit more, with the senior side and Under-23s in a joint training camp in Marbella and playing two fixtures each. This is a chance for Wiegman to know the players as people off the pitch as much as how they perform on it. “Happy people make better, elite athletes,” says the Under-23s head coach, Emma Coates. “It’s about knowing the person, what makes them tick and creating an environment and culture around that. It helps ease some of the performance pressures and that’s only beneficial.”

The introduction of the Under-23s team in 2021 plugged a gaping hole in the pathway, between the Under-19s (and the Under-20s, who play every two years in Under-20 World Cup years) and the senior side. It keeps players in their early 20s in the fold, ensuring they don’t lose touch with philosophies, conditions and demands of the England coaching staff and international football. It means that while being called up to the senior side is a jump up a level, they have been prepared as best they can for that environment.

“The ball speed,” says Layzell, when asked about the difference after her first session with the senior side. “The quality of the players is really high, and you can tell the difference. Sometimes you might think: ‘Oh, I’m out of my depth.’ But then you’re like: ‘I’m here for a reason and I’ll just do what I can.’”

Layzell came away from the session “thinking I gave a good account of myself” and said: “Yes, I probably wasn’t the best player on the pitch, naturally, but I think I came away thinking they’re not going to think I’m rubbish, so that was the main thing.”

The senior players are not alien to the Under-23s, many competing with or against them in the Women’s Super League, but it is a step up and the attention to developing consistency throughout the England age groups makes that transition far smoother.

Layzell says: “Sarina and Emma work together a lot and they talk about styles of play and trying to get us to play in similar ways – using different combinations and shapes and everything … It’s just about making sure that we can build consistency. But the Under-23s players are so talented, and we know a lot of the players could train up and just fit in that senior environment.”

Coates says she has meetings with Wiegman and her staff every Tuesday. In Marbella “it’s tricky” she says, “because we both want to prepare for both our games but I’ve probably spoken to her every day. We collaborated, for example, over Naomi. The medical teams and the performance teams have also connected. It’s not necessarily forced or factored in, but we have such good working relationships.”

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Coates first worked with Layzell at Under-18s level. “Her development has just been so good,” she says. “This season, everyone has been impressed with her defensive display. She’s a proper defender, and it’s rare you find young players who just love to defend. She has improved significantly in some of her in-possession stuff.

“The fact she had that opportunity to step up for a session will do her confidence the world of good. She’s also competing against these players week-in, week-out [in the WSL]. Sometimes it feels a little different when they’re in an England shirt. She’s probably now gone: ‘OK, I’ve felt what it’s like in the WSL, I’ve felt it in training with the seniors and now I’ve got real clarity on the stuff we’ve been doing and what will take me to the next level.’”

They celebrate the success of each player, like Layzell, collectively. There is no formula for building the perfect Lioness. “The strength of the wolf is the strength of the pack,” says Coates. “It’s just being a super individual. How do we get their strengths as a player to become their super-strengths, and do that frequently under pressure? They need to be quite fearless in their approach to that.

“I think it would be wrong for me to say: ‘This is the exact player we want’ because then we have quite robotic football. If you want exciting football then it’s about getting that individual to be the best they can be rather than moulding them into something specific.”

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