SheBelieves: He Believes, but can we still Believe?

THE FIRST of a two-parter looking at England’s mediocre SheBelieves Cup performance over in the States. What became clear taking on the hosts USA, Japan and Spain? Sadly, some glaring weaknesses that plagued the team during the World Cup and beyond have yet to be addressed by the management and coaching staff. Phil Neville reportedly remains defiant – which I suppose he can afford to be all the time the FA and his squad of players are behind him. But the Lionesses have lost 7 of their last 11 matches and both fans and football media are frustrated that team appears to be going backwards. In this first part, we look at the games themselves, team selection and Phil’s post-match comments…

Matches in Summary

USA 2–0 England

The USA’s Carli Lloyd up against Alex Greenwood.

In game one, England took on the USA in Orlando. The match ended up being a mauling in every way but the score line.

Carly Telford was sharp between the posts for England, particularly in the first half, and the Americans were profligate in front of goal for 53 minutes.

The Lionesses were unable to cope with the aggressive, high American press, regularly turning the ball over in their own half. While it took something special to beat the Lionesses’ stopper (Christen Press’s swirling shot from 20 yards), Neville’s side were complicit in their own downfall – with Georgia Stanway giving the ball away cheaply in midfield and England unable to recover their shape.

Lindsay Horan’s sublime chip two minutes later put Lloyd in on goal and the veteran striker was only going to keep missing for so long – 2-0.

England 1–0 Japan

Japan were up next in Harrison, New Jersey. England offered more attacking threat and made several good chances to score in the first period without taking the lead.

A squad clearly in transition, the Nadeshiko were not at the level observers would typically expect and resorted to pot shots from distance throughout.

With the game fizzling out England substitutes Toni Duggan and (eventual scorer) Ellen White combined to give Neville’s side the win.

England 0–1 Spain

Against Spain in Frisco Texas, England were solid but not spectacular in the first half, making several decent goal scoring opportunities without being able to take advantage.  

Spain fielded ostensibly a ‘B’ team line up from the start, but manager Jorge Vilda rang the changes in the second half and completely altered the pattern of the game.

Phil Neville was unable to make the requisite adjustments to wrest back control and the Lionesses spent almost the entire second period on the back foot.

It had been coming – Putellas celebrates what would be the winning goal against England.

England’s Achilles heel defending crosses / set pieces would be evident again with player of the match Alexia Putellas heading in completely unchallenged from Jennifer Hermoso’s corner with seven minutes of normal time remaining.

Selection

Vs USA –

(4-3-3) – Telford; Williamson, Houghton, Bright, Greenwood; Scott, Walsh, Stanway; Parris, White, Hemp

Neville’s continued insistence on rotation remains a point of frustration for England fans. While the manager clearly had prevention of fatigue and injury in the back of his mind during a seven day tournament (given the WSL is in full flow), there was a significant shuffling of his pack match to match – something the Americans, for example, rarely do.

Prior to the USA match, the big news was about who was not selected for the starting eleven rather than who was.

Phil Neville’s omission of Ellie Roebuck was surprising given that Carly Telford had only made eight starts for Chelsea between the posts, but there were whispers of a niggling injury to the City keeper.

Not so, Beth England who was benched in favour of Ellen White. Neville would later accuse people of being disrespectful to White who has earned her place and set a “high bar”. Social media had a little froth about that comment because many wanted to see England and White together rather than either / or. The Chelsea striker got on for just twelve minutes at the end (in a predictably like-for-like swap), snatching at a half volley in that time, which sailed over the bar.

Less controversial but essentially more puzzling to this correspondent was leaving Jordan Nobbs’ intelligence and energy on the bench and placing Georgia Stanway in a midfield three with Scott and Walsh. This didn’t feel like the right combination to go toe-to-toe with Ertz, Horan and Lavelle, and rather suggested that the England manager hadn’t adequately weighed up the strength of his opponents. Ertz and Horan ran the show.

The Lionesses did look a bit brighter when Nobbs arrived with 25 minutes left, but she replaced Jill Scott which didn’t strike me as particularly pattern-changing and, of course, the damage had already been done.

With Lucy Bronze injured and unavailable, Arsenal’s Leah Williamson was drafted in at right back. Initially it looked like she would be exposed by the pace of both Press and Crystal Dunn working in tandem down England’s right, but Neville’s side were soon so deep to render raw pace ineffective. The Gunners’ player coped well overall in this situation but was never going to trouble the opposition from an attacking perspective.

And besides the US quickly realised there was more gold to be had robbing England close to their goal.     

Vs Japan –

Huddling up – Lionesses prepare for Japan.

(4-3-3) Roebuck; Daly, Houghton, Bright, Stokes; Nobbs, Walsh, Stanway; Kelly, England, Hemp 

Beth England came in for Ellen White in a simple like-for-like swap.

The Chelsea striker had two particularly good opportunities to score in the first half but would have been disappointed that she didn’t give ‘keeper Ikeda more of a challenge.  

Rachel Daly replaced Leah Williamson to provide England with more attacking pace at right full back, but Neville then rotated Demi Stokes in for Alex Greenwood on the other flank which simply shifted the balance of more defensive thinking to the other flank.

Jill Scott dropped to the bench with Jordan Nobbs coming into the midfield three to provide box-to-box energy and creativity. The Arsenal midfielder was named player of the match with trademark running, competitiveness, vision and, significantly, ball retention. Georgia Stanway retained her place in the starting eleven but again struggled to make an impact.

Chloe Kelly was drafted in for Nikita Parris on the right of England’s attack. The Everton player had some nice moments and worked very hard with and without the ball but doesn’t look like she will trouble Parris for a starting berth – in Neville’s mind – when push comes to shove.

Vs Spain –

(4-2-3-1) Telford; Daly, McManus, Bright, Greenwood; Scott, Williamson; Parris, Nobbs, Duggan; White

Phil Neville’s selection for the final match with Spain seemed to have (at least) one eye on resting players before their return to club duties.

Telford, who hasn’t been a regular starter for Chelsea, returned in goal – simultaneously bubble-wrapping Ellie Roebuck (who at the time had an impending FA Cup game to prepare for). Sandy MacIver would have to chalk the US trip up as an experience.

Abbie McManus came in for Steph Houghton at centre back. Neville had already spoken prior to kick off about the captain being rested but also stated clearly that she would replace Millie Bright at half time. West Ham’s Grace Fisk, then, would not feature.

The manager’s pre-determination on the substitutions was not kind in this instance. Bright played her best 45 minutes, while Houghton continued to look well below her usual standards.

Two Lyon-based staples of Phil Neville’s preferred starting eleven returned: Alex Greenwood at left back and Nikita Parris on the right of the attack.  Parris, in particular, looks symptomatic of England’s issues right now. There’s no shortage of talent, effort and passion. She’s pacey and skilful but the battle seems to be going on in her head in a Lionesses shirt. Her decision making was poor in key moments and, against Spain, she was trying to do too much on her own.    

Leah Williamson was brought back but this time in central midfield as a replacement for Keira Walsh. Versatile though she is, Williamson is usually fielded as a centre back for her club. She played no minutes in this role for England which is odd given that the manager wants the team to play out from the back. Comfortable in the first half, the Arsenal player got more and more frustrated in the second period as England were overrun – picking up a booking and appearing to have ‘words’ with the technical area at one point.

Jill Scott replaced Stanway who, in truth, did not have a good tournament. But Neville chose to put Nobbs in at ‘10’ rather than the prodigious City youngster who may have enjoyed a bit more freedom between the lines playing closer to her club teammate Ellen White.

Toni Duggan got her first start of the competition wide left replacing Lauren Hemp. Neville was at pains to point out that Duggan has had a series of injury niggles that have stymied her selection for England, but despite good form for Atlético Madrid she doesn’t look like forging ahead of Hemp or Beth Mead on the left or, indeed, White or Beth England at centre forward.

Manager’s Comments

Gone are the suits and the clean shave, but not the belief… Phil Neville.

Throughout the SheBelieves Cup Neville tried to play down that his job was under pressure. But the ‘say it how it is’ rhetoric started to change in tone as the week unfolded with the manager stating that he “will know if it is the time to go” and “I will know myself if it is not working.”

By the time Spain had wrapped up 2nd place with a 1-0 victory over the Lionesses: “we will be judged on results. I don’t think the results have been good enough and I take full responsibility for that.” 

Asked directly about whether he remains the right person for the job: “The questions should be asked. I expect better of a team I put on the field. I’ll go away and reflect, and I’ll take it from there.”

The USA defeat lit the blue touch paper, and some of the reaction to losing to the World Champions in their own backyard was typically knee-jerk. But the general reaction may have been more measured had Neville’s comments not being so at odds to what we had all witnessed.

“I think we knew when we came here that the game were [sic] going to be tough and tonight was no different, but I thought my players enjoyed it. They look like they enjoyed the occasion. They didn’t look like they had any fear in them. The semi-final [against the USWNT in France] was six months ago, and in terms of the gap, it hasn’t widened that’s for sure.”

Phil Neville, England Manager

There’s a thin line between belief and delusion and often these things come down to individual points of view. England played with zero confidence. Their game fell apart technically under pressure and mentally the team was unable to adjust, make better decisions and find new problems for the Americans.

As for the widening of the gap? The Americans didn’t simply look in a league of their own; at times it looked like they were playing a completely different sport. And perhaps the most frustrating thing here is that both Spain and Japan made the US look human in their subsequent games.

The Lionesses looked a shadow of the team that went toe-to-toe with the Americans for most of that FIFA WWC Semi Final. 

When US defensive midfielder Julie Ertz (who incidentally was making her 100th cap) is parked on the edge of the opposing penalty area for most of the game, the opponent is not doing nearly enough to worry Vlatko Andonovski’s side.

“The biggest obstacle is always the final bit, the last one or two per cent and going above them to try and beat them.  We’ve got to overcome that, add that ruthlessness that we saw [from the USA], who had two chances and two goals.”

Phil Neville, England Manager

This is simply a misrepresentation of the match. The hosts had 23 shots (6 on target), while England had 8 (3 on target) – BBC source. The inference is that Neville believes England were shaded. They weren’t. They were blown away.

After Japan: “The frustration was that was a 4-0 game. By half-time we should have been 3-0 up. We feel there is a real spirit building within the camp. A real togetherness comes from winning. Winning is the most important thing about top-level sport, so the happiness within the squad and the togetherness really pleased me, as well as being relentless to go right to the very end.”

The Japan match was largely underwhelming in terms of performance – and certainly not “relentless” in the context that Neville is using the word. But they did make chances and a win was secured. So, England at least had the opportunity to achieve a par for the course by claiming six points overall with a win over Spain.

His tone changed entirely following defeat to Spain: “I’m frustrated and a bit angry. In the last five minutes we showed some urgency for the first time in the second half. That second half was nowhere near good enough.”

Was ‘urgency’ the issue, though? Was this why the management team felt they were unable to make changes? Because whatever they did the players weren’t ‘urgent’ enough. From comfortably controlling the match England were suddenly overrun. They were overloaded particularly down their right.  If they won the ball, they couldn’t keep it.

And a long-standing concern. Why is it that a former England international full back cannot coach his side to defend crosses and set pieces better?

In the next post, we’ll look at England’s opponents, Neville’s tactics and assess which England players came out of the competition with some credit, or need to do more to cement a starting berth…

Nikita Parris at the 2020 SheBelieves Cup.

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Recently, we reached number 29 on the Feedspot Top 40 list of Women’s football blogs. No one was more surprised than us here at D2B Towers; there’s so much other good stuff out there. Anyhoo, check out the link, there’s a heap of great blogs and websites written by people who really know their stuff and have an infectious passion for the women’s game…

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