Phil Neville is running out of time
The Football Association may have privately said it would stick with the man in charge regardless of results in the US but, ultimately, governing bodies and clubs only back managers until they don’t feel they can any longer. Neville has said himself that results and performances have not been good enough. He has been afforded time, he has had two years in the job, but the defensive fragility and failure to produce more clinical performances in attack, that have been a feature of his tenure, remain. The FA cannot afford to compromise on a successful Euro 2021 campaign on home soil. They may keep the manager until this summer’s Team GB Olympic campaign – if Tokyo 2020 goes ahead – but wait too long to change things and the governing body runs the risk of giving any successor a tight, if not impossible, window to try and turn around the team’s fortunes before the European Championship.
The defence can’t defend
The statistic is damning. Of the 18 goals conceded under Neville 10 have been from set pieces. The inability of the former Manchester United full-back to organise a solid backline is an indictment of his tenure. An insistence that their style and philosophy – playing out from the back – is “non-negotiable” is admirable, but the Lionesses defence seems to shudder whenever it is put under pressure, meaning that any team to press them high and hard as they attempt to move the ball out of their own half often forces mistakes. The determination of the manager to persist with Chelsea’s Millie Bright and Manchester City’s Steph Houghton as his No 1 centre-back pairing is a part of the problem. Both are hugely talented defenders, but together they lack pace and the latter has not looked at her best for her country this season. That told in the game against Spain, where Abbie McManus and Bright looked relatively solid, with arguably the Women’s Super League’s best ball-playing centre-back, or just best centre-back, Leah Williamson, shielding them. However, when Neville swapped Bright for Houghton things started to break down at the back. The full-backs are also a problem with opposing teams able to swing in crosses way too easily.
The kids are alright
There was huge excitement when Neville announced his squad for the SheBelieves Cup with fresh young faces called into the fold, some for the first time. Manchester City’s forward Lauren Hemp, despite her tender age of 19, was arguably the breakout star of England’s tournament. However, that the Lionesses were forced to rely on the former Bristol City forward for their brightest play perhaps said more about the performances of those around her. Trusted to lead the line against Japan alongside Chelsea top scorer Beth England and Everton winger Chloe Kelly, who has nine goals from the wing in the WSL this season, there was a feeling that finally, though perhaps too late, that Neville was rewarding form. When push came to shove though, as the game wore on, the manager took off his young charges in favour of experience. He said that was what they needed, and Ellen White did provide the winner, but trusting his bright young starters to see out the game one way or another as pressure mounted would have been valuable experience.
Build the team around Jordan Nobbs
When Nobbs’ screams echoed around Southport on tearing her ACL in 2018 many began to write England’s World Cup obituary. That is how good a playmaker she is and how irreplaceable she is in the middle for England. The Arsenal midfielder is crawling towards her pre-injury form and against Japan in particular, positioned behind England in a 4-4-1-1, Neville looked to have found a set up that would get the best out of her. The youth may be the future of this England team but, at 27, Nobbs straddles the two generations and has the potential to be the figurehead of the team, the critical missing link between the middle of the park and their attack, going into the Euros 2021 and World Cup in 2023.
The FA is not doing enough
After defeat to Spain in Dallas, it is understood that Neville and the players were frustrated that the FA did not step in and charter a flight home due to the increasing threat posed by coronavirus – a move the governing body would likely have made for the men’s team – instead sticking to existing travel plans that involved the players trekking through busy airports to fly back to the UK in business class.
Although much of the blame for England’s poor form, that has seen them fall to seven defeats in their past 11 games, lies at Neville’s door, he is right to feel aggrieved at the gap in support between the men’s senior side and the women’s. While the FA has substantially increased its investment into the women’s game generally, the budget for the Lionesses falls well below that of the men’s. Arguments about the income generated by the two teams is irrelevant. As a not-for-profit organisation, the FA should be backing their teams equally. Instead they have chosen to preside over a disparity.