When England returned home from their last World Cup, a third place finish at Canada 2015, things picked up where they’d left off before the finals with routine qualification football, putting eight past Estonia in their first Women’s Euro 2017 qualifier.
As hosts of Women’s Euro 2021, there is no more competitive international football for England now until the finals themselves. Many of Phil Neville’s squad will travel to Tokyo next summer to represent Team GB at the Olympic Games, but for the Lionesses, it’s friendlies and more friendlies for a solid two years.
These offer Phil Neville and The FA scope to decide opponents, rather than run through the formality of qualification. The first two of this succession of exhibition games have been and gone, and they’ll have taught Neville a great deal – possibly a little too much.
Belgium were the first opponents for England post-World Cup, the two coming to blows last Thursday in Leuven. Things seemed to be plain sailing on 26 minutes, by which time Jodie Taylor and Beth Mead had put the Lionesses 2-0 up. However, Neville’s women conceded two poor aerial goals before the break and the sides went in level again at 2-2.
Belgium hadn’t ridden their luck, they’d deserved that double and they remained the cleverer and more decisive side throughout all the second half. Dreadful, panicky defending and an individual error from Steph Houghton gifted the Belgians the lead, before Nikita Parris saved her side from embarrassment, or most of it, planting a late penalty high into the top corner to equalise.
The wise veteran figure of Fara Williams came on to steady the England ship in the second period, and she managed to, but this was a performance to dampen any post-World Cup optimism.
Georgia Stanway scored an absolute belter a few days later against World Cup walkovers Norway, but again the performance from the whole team was lacking in thought, inspiration and, critically, execution.
Simple set pieces were again a major problem for England, who conceded an equaliser to a simple headed corner routine. Millie Bright made her latest personal error for England late on, allowing the brilliant Caroline Graham Hansen to win this error-strewn encounter for Norway.
At times it felt like a game of pinball, with interceptions and uncompleted passes a far too common occurrence for both sides. But when smart attacks were masterminded, they were Norway’s not England’s.
Brazil and Germany loom as upcoming opponents for the Three Lions this autumn, but Neville know that his squad must improve on their performances this month in order to compete with these top sides.
The World Cup semi-final finish and maiden SheBelieves Cup success show how much potential and quality England do have, and this month’s poor results did happen during women’s pre-season, before a ball has even been kicked in English club football.
In addition, World Cup heroes Karen Bardsley (below, number 1), Jill Scott (8), Alex Greenwood (3), Fran Kirby (10) and Ellen White (18) were rested or injured for these two matches and would undoubtedly have strengthened the Lionesses if present.
Phil Neville and his staff may be able to select their desired fixtures for the moment, but the inevitable wave of substitutions that come with friendly internationals is likely to irritate and disrupt rhythm for the England team and the spectacle for onlooking fans. This seems to be the clear downside.
Also, a lack of competitive edge is often very visible in friendly fixtures, and Neville might find it hard to motivate his players, even if they feel they’re running themselves into the ground for him and the team.
It’s likely to be an unpredictable and testing couple of years for the Lionesses, but with the Olympic Games and potentially two appearances at the SheBelieves Cup, there’s plenty for England fans to look forward to, ahead of the fast approaching Women’s Euro 2021, hosted entirely on home soil.