Beth England has had to be patient at Chelsea, having fought back from a loan spell at Liverpool, where she doubted she would make it, to be leading the line for the treble-chasing London team. Until now, she has been made to wait by Phil Neville.
The “England for England” chants may have died down since the forward made her senior debut off the bench in the team’s 3-3 draw with Belgium last August, but the sparse use of the in-form player is sowing seeds of doubt about the manager’s decision making. “Phil picks the team,” England said diplomatically before the Lionesses’ defeat by the US in their SheBelieves Cup opener on Thursday night, before she hinted that she did not expect to feature against the world champions. “That’s as much as I can say on that. I’ve done all I can,” she said. “Obviously I’m very aware I played a game a few days ago and again, it’s just about what’s best for the team at the time and who’s fresh and in the best possible position to warrant that start.”
England scored the two goals against Arsenal last weekend that earned Chelsea their first Continental League Cup title and there was a clamouring for her inclusion in Neville’s starting XI against the US. England is the joint top scorer, with Arsenal’s Dutch forward Vivianne Miedema, in the Women’s Super League and there is a dogged resilience and fight about the player who has been made to wait. She embodies the ruthlessness Neville (below) has said his squad is sorely missing. However, the manager defended his decision to stick with Manchester City’s Ellen White up top, saying: “I think it was a big ask tonight to start Beth in a game of this magnitude, especially when we were blooding other youngsters as well. Like I say, she will get plenty of opportunities.”
Neville took risks. He gave Manchester City’s winger Lauren Hemp, 19, a first senior start against the world champions and fielded Arsenal’s 22-year-old Leah Williamson, who, like England, played the full 93 minutes of the League Cup final, in a less familiar right-back berth. He also pitted City’s Georgia Stanway, 21, against the defensive midfielder Julie Ertz, whom Neville described as the only player he would take from the USA team if he could.
In that context, the inclusion of the 25-year-old England, who is flying this season and quickly disposed of any concerns that her position would be in doubt with the arrival of Australian superstar Sam Kerr at Chelsea, seems far from “a big ask”.
England has 14 league goals to White’s six this term, with the latter having missed the start of the season through injury. White, winner of the bronze boot at the World Cup, is a fine physical and technically astute forward but she does not look back to her clinical best yet.
As he prepared for Sunday’s second SheBelieves Cup game against Japan in New Jersey, in which the manager says England will start, Neville was dismissive when asked why his players perform so well and slickly domestically but struggle internationally. “You cannot compare any game here with any game they play in the WSL,” he said. “It’s two steps higher in terms of the quality, the intensity, the crowd and the occasion.”
Yet England have not just struggled against top-level competition. The defeat to the US means the Lionesses have lost six in their last nine games. The statistic is worse if you dig deeper, with a scrappy late goal salvaging a win against Portugal and a laboured 3-2 victory in the snow against the part-time players of the Czech Republic included. Other teams that have suffered World Cup hangovers, such as France and the Netherlands, have still been able to progress while England have stood still at best.
There are many reason why Neville should, despite the results, still be given time. The team is in transition and phasing out an old guard that have lifted the game to its present peak will be emotionally tough. But there is an event baring down on the team that means there is a need for swifter progress; England have to be aiming to win their home Euros next year.
However, the introduction of Toni Duggan, who has been doing well up front for Atlético Madrid but has struggled as a winger under Neville, in place of England, who has only one start in six appearances, against the US felt like a decision that defied logic and instead pointed to a manager who does not have the tactical nous to spearhead the delicate transition of the team. Lose to Japan or Spain and there will only be more questions to be asked.