Eyebrows were raised, monocles dropped into flutes of champagne, and a few folks were said to have dramatically fainted when Phil Neville was announced as the new England women’s national team manager 13 months ago. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but it was a seriously surprising day in the soccer world.
Neville, with his lack of managerial experience and knowledge of women’s football, was a long way away from what (or who) anyone would have expected. Taking charge of a team in touching distance of the zenith of the FIFA world rankings, Neville was granted a perfect start to the job with a 4-1 win over France at the 2018 SheBelieves Cup and, despite it being followed a week later with his first loss, his results have been positive.
Neville’s first competitive match, a World Cup qualifier, brought about a shock as England failed to overcome Wales in a scoreless draw Southampton. The rest of the qualifiers went without a hitch; Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia and Kazakhstan fell away as Wales too succumbed to the Lionesses in Newport on the final match day.
Brazil, Australia, Austria and Sweden made up England’s last opposition of the calendar year in a quartet of friendlies. The Lionesses claimed two wins, a draw and a loss, leaving Neville with seven wins, three draws and two losses from his first year at the helm. Or, to put it another way, England can claim a 58.3 percent winning percentage from Neville’s first year – a slight drop from Mark Sampson’s 60 percent in his last year (which featured 15 matches) in charge. Only in charge of the team for three outings between the Sampson and Neville eras, Mo Marley trumps both with a 66.6 percent ratio, but we can conservatively say that 55-65 percent would be a good baseline for the team.
As we well know, soccer is a results-based business and despite the prevalent use of stats in the game, wins and losses, and goals for and goals against, will always dictate an argument or an appointment. Performance will too often be the forgotten factor; an ugly win will still just be a W.
Although there have been changes (mostly in personnel on and off the pitch) with Neville, there is still a Sampson-esque look to the way the team plays, or at least, the way the team still struggles to break down their opposition. In England’s first match against Wales, the Lionesses had 29 total shots, 11 on frame, five blocked and one that hit the woodwork. There is no denying that Laura O’Sullivan (the underrated Welsh goalkeeper) had a stunning game, but the Lionesses remained wasteful and easily could have lost. The most contentious moment of the match came when Wales were denied a goal (with their only shot on target) on a ball hooked off the line, with opinion still divided as to whether it fully crossed or not. But that’s an argument for another day.
With a team that almost exclusively calls up full-time players England should almost always boast a higher possession percentage than their opposition, (58 percent vs. Brazil; 64 percent vs. Australia; 59 percent vs. Austria; and 53 percent vs. Sweden) and as a consequence have more shots (23-11 vs. Brazil; 17-9 vs. Australia; 17-7 vs. Austria; and 14-5 vs; Sweden). However, they consistently seem to do so much less with the ball.
A Fran Kirby goal in the second minute against a woefully poor Brazil decided the tie and left fans at the game feeling a little short-changed. A draw against Australia when the Matildas were missing half their starters brought about a similar ennui. Trouncing a nothing-special Austrian side in a friendly only stands to bring about the same faux-confidence that breezing through qualifying against ramshackle, lowly Eastern European teams does.
England’s last match of the year might just have been their most illuminating, the loss to a Sweden team who are mid-transition under new-ish coach Peter Gerhardsson had a plethora of teachable lessons, “How not to defend,” and, “What not to do when you’re in front of goal,” the most glaring.
There is the argument that Neville is new to the job and is still trying to work out his best players and favored starting XI – an issue that injuries have done little to help – but there persists a general lack of understanding among his charges. Steph Houghton and Millie Bright (or Houghton and Abbie McManus) have played enough games alongside each other that they should understand each other’s rhythms, strengths and weaknesses, but there is a certain fragility in the defense.
Favoring a 4-2-3-1 (or simple variance) formation, Neville’s Lionesses have rigidity in each third of the pitch with a surplus of players that can drop into defensive duties or join an attack. It’s not uncommon to see a swarm of England players at both ends of the pitch, but instead of having a cogent team, the side is too often left with individuals that fail to interact with each other as they appear capable of doing in a club environment.
When England take to the pitch at the Talen Energy Stadium on Wednesday against Brazil, it will be 363 days since Neville’s first match in charge of the Lionesses and there remains little proof to suggest that the squad is – on the field – in any stronger position now than when Sampson was dismissed in 2017. Much like the United States, England are now able to use a certain athleticism to beat their opponents, but against the teams with a better technical knowledge (like Sweden and the Netherlands), Neville has yet to find a suitable key for that particular lock. That is as much a cultural problem with English football as it is a lack of personnel or tactics.
The last year has taught us that England can and will likely go far at the World Cup, but to win it, they may have to find a lamp with a friendly genie in it.
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