England’s World Cup 2023 qualifying campaign and the manager Sarina Wiegman’s tenure began ruthlessly as the Lionesses put eight past an exhausted North Macedonia at St Mary’s.
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 home side picked over the bones of their mauled opponents in the cool mist.
England have not played a competitive fixture in 802 days, since losing to Sweden in the bronze medal match at the 2019 World Cup. Since then the team has suffered seven defeats 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 Wiegman, the former Netherlands manager, bringing a fresh approach and top-level experience, there can be hope of revitalising 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 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’s centre-back Leah Williamson who described it as “the ultimate” accolade prior to kick-off. “It’s the hugest honour I suppose. I’m very proud to represent my country always but today is probably a little bit more special,” she said. Williamson was also asked to conduct the midfield orchestra in place of the injured Keira Walsh and it was the out-of-position captain who provided the probing pass for the Manchester United forward Toone’s opener.
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 given to the right of the striker Ellen White and looked on a mission to impress with the black armband wrapped round her left arm worn by all of the team to mark the sad passing of Daly’s 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 them into assists. Instead England’s second came from a sloppy mistake by the centre-back pairing Pavlinka Nikolovska and Sara Kolarovska with the latter, under pressure from Toone, stumbling the ball into the path of White, who slotted home.
The third followed three minutes later and on the stroke of half-time. A short corner was swung towards the back post and the left-back, Julija Zivikj, turned it into her own net.
The fourth goal was hard for the visiting team to swallow, with Zivikj shown a yellow card and a penalty awarded for a foul outside the box. White 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 the 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 off Kolarovska from a Beth Mead cross with England lurking.
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 to North Macedonia’s four, this was not a test of England’s defensive shape and solidity, which has struggled when put under pressure. These World Cup qualifying matches will not provide that pressure. But with the FA having announced a new friendly tournament expected to be held in February, which will see England play Spain, Germany and another yet to be announced side, that test is to come.