England’s biggest enemy at the 2023 World Cup will be fatigue

As the final whistle blew in Wiener Neustadt on Saturday evening England’s players looked a little flat.

After goals from Alessia Russo and Nikita Parris secured a 2-0 victory against Austria the Euro 2022 winners did not seem remotely like a team who had just sealed qualification for next summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

This downbeat demeanour had nothing to do with complacency — as the Lionesses’ manager Sarina Wiegman says winning “never” gets boring — and could not be blamed entirely on the underwhelming venue.

If England — and Euro 2022 quarter-finalists Austria, too — deserved better than to play in front of only 2,600 fans in a ground with just two functioning stands, one of which was overshadowed by a giant water slide belonging to the adjacent aqua park, their downbeat body language appeared more about fatigue than disappointment.

As outstanding as Wiegman’s side are — since taking charge a year ago England’s Dutch coach has choreographed 19 wins and two draws in 21 games — they could surely do with a rest. A team which has scored 108 goals and conceded only five on Wiegman’s watch were back in action a mere 34 days after beating Germany at Wembley to win Euro 2022.

On Tuesday the party atmosphere generated by a full house congregated at Stoke for a now academic World Cup qualifier against Luxembourg will doubtless offer an adrenaline boost but England’s biggest enemy in next summer’s World Cup is arguably not the United States, Germany, France, Canada, Spain or Australia but overload.

Possibly Wiegman’s biggest concern is that her European champions are segueing into their various domestic seasons — England’s Women’s Super League kicks off at the weekend — so soon after a major tournament.

As England’s Alex Greenwood said on Saturday there has been no space for a proper holiday this summer. “There wasn’t much time off at all,” said the 28-year-old Manchester City defender. “The City girls had five or six days off and then it was straight back to it.

“To be honest, it feels like we’ve just continued playing football. Managing your workload and being sensible are so important, they’re vital.

“Everything you do away from the pitch is so, so, important. That goes for everyone but the older you get the more you definitely have to manage your load. I didn’t think that a couple of years ago but it catches up with you.”

Indeed, as Wiegman prepares for next month’s showpiece Wembley friendly with the World Cup holders, the United States, the dangers of over-playing may become acute.

The imperative to keep key players including Russo — who scored her ninth goal in 14 senior appearances and appears nailed on as the recently retired Ellen White’s successor at centre-forward — fresh and fit for next summer dictates squad rotation could become a necessity.

Fran Kirby — absent with an unspecified injury in Austria — and Lauren Hemp are similarly vital cogs in Wiegman’s attack and the need to manage their game time should allow other forwards including Parris and Ella Toone a chance to remind everyone of their abilities.

Toone, a game-changing substitute during Euro 2022 when she scored transformative goals against Spain and Germany, started in Wiener Neustadt and hopes to be one of the first names on Wiegman’s team sheet against the USA in October.

“We’re excited,” said the Manchester United forward. “We know how good the USA are — it’s another level up — and we want to challenge ourselves against the very best teams. We can’t wait to have all the fans back at Wembley, our favourite place, to support us again. But I think we’ve now got a target on our back because we’ve won the Euros.”

Toone has found that triumph life-changing. “More people recognise you walking down the street, which has been mad, but also amazing,” she said. “I don’t think we knew how much of an impact winning the tournament would have. This summer’s been very different to previous ones.”

When packed crowds chant “Tooney” at high volume it can, paradoxically, sound as if they are booing rather than applauding — the England cricketer Joe Root has a similar problem with his surname — and the 23-year-old admits it took time to properly tune in to an increasingly familiar soundtrack.

“When there’s loads of fans it does sound like they’re booing me but I’ve got used to it,” she said. “I now know they’re on my side.”