England believe ahead of Women’s World Cup but Phil Neville knows there is still work to be done

After winning the SheBelieves Cup with an impressive 3-0 victory over Japan, the players’ celebrations were joyous and heartfelt, but it was significant that Neville did not get carried away

Glenn Moore
Wednesday 06 March 2019 17:42 GMT
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(Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

There was a telling response by Phil Neville to England women’s triumph in the SheBelieves Cup, the most prestigious of the various tournaments which took place this international break. The lionesses claimed the prize at the fourth attempt with an impressive 3-0 victory over 2015 World Cup runners-up Japan in Tampa in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Having also defeated Brazil and drew with World Cup-holders United States, England could feel hugely encouraged ahead of this summer World Cup. The players’ celebrations were joyous and heartfelt, but it was significant that Neville did not get carried away. One clip of the players dancing in the dressing room chanting “we believe that we will win” ends with Neville calmly starting to issue some sober words. At half-time, revealed goalscorer Karen Carney, Neville “still went mad...about standards! He wants us to be better and he demands more from us and that’s what we want.”

“You don’t get many chances to get your hands on a trophy,” said Neville afterwards. “It is my first as a manager so I am just going to enjoy it. It’s great for everybody but I think we have bigger things to aim for. We will enjoy it but tomorrow we will look forward to the April camp.”

Neville was right to be pleased, but circumspect. At times England played very well in the tournament, they were more clinical than of late, and coped well with three matches in short order with lots of travelling. Everyone was given time, most performing well with Beth Mead and Keira Walsh, aged 23 and 21 respectively, standing out. Ellen White and Jodie Taylor underlined Neville has a hard, but enviable choice as to who leads the line. Chioma Ubogagu suggested she could be a valuable option as a late game-changer. There is depth in most areas.

However, England again looked vulnerable at set-pieces. Neville will hope his first-choice defensive pairing of Steph Houghton and Millie Bright are fit to play the bulk of the remaining warm-up matches – Bright was absent this time. In midfield Jordan Nobbs and Jill Scott were missed – and only Scott should be back in the summer. Lucy Bronze was moved into midfield at times but did not look as effective and it is a bit late to experiment with such a key player. Nor is it clear whether 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 are the best fit. The former provides more cover, the latter gives Fran Kirby the optimum platform.

Neville also has to think about whether the players are capable of passing out from the back as he wants them to, when facing strong opposition. Against both Brazil and the US lost possession playing out led to goals. Japan were also handed chances.

It is an admirable idea. Under Mark Sampson the team probably played too direct, too often. This was understandable when he took over in late 2013 but standards have risen sharply since the leading English clubs went full-time and players are now technically better. However, successfully passing out of defence is not just about whether players can pass and receive under pressure, it is about whether team-mates are making angles to receive the ball, and having sufficient familiarity to anticipate movement. This week, with squad rotation high, that hasn’t always been apparent.

Neville has four more matches, and attendant training camps, in which to hone those aspects before the opening match against Scotland on 9 June. However, he may wish to remind his players that there are times when the ball just has to go. It was noticeable in last weekend’s Merseyside derby, when both teams pressed furiously, how often even Virgil van Dijk opted simply to smash the ball clear. While pressing in the heat of a French summer is unlikely to be as intense if Euro 2016 is any guide there could be plenty of rain.

England players celebrate their triumph
England players celebrate their triumph (Getty Images)

There must also be caveats about the opposition. The bulk of the US and Japanese teams are domestically-based and yet to start their league seasons while Brazil are not the force of old. Nevertheless, these teams had dangerous players and winning is a good habit building confidence and belief, especially with Japan in the same World Cup group. England will justifiably go to France feeling strong contenders for a tournament that looks wide open.

Traditionally the US and Germany dominate the women’s game but there are doubts about both. The US have played 24 games in just over a year and, while they have won 19 and lost only to France, in January, Jill Ellis still seems to be searching for the right XI. Germany, after a disastrous spell under Steffi Jones, have a new coach in Martina Voss-Tecklenburg. She has started well, beating France, who themselves changed coach in August, in Laval last week.

Elsewhere Scotland did well in the Algarve Cup beating Iceland and Denmark after losing narrowly to Canada. Group D makeweights Argentina were out of their depth at the Cup of Nations in which hosts Australia, despite also recently sacking their coach, underlined their dark horse credentials. European Champions Netherlands struggled in Portugal while Norway impressed, as did Italy in the Cyprus Cup.

US international Carli Lloyd, who scored a hat-trick in the 2015 final admitted: “Teams have closed the gap on us.” England are among those to the forefront of the chasing pack and will hope this week’s trophy is not the year’s only silverware.

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