This was probably supposed to be the year that Phil Neville won a glut of managerial awards and when his England team excelled, confirming themselves as a truly elite side in women’s international football. Instead, the 2019 World Cup semi-final now looks even more of a remarkable achievement looking back, because of how much the Lionesses have struggled since.
Since Lucy Bronze scored that edge-of-the-box scorcher against Norway in the summer’s World Cup quarter-final, Neville’s England have played eight times, losing five of those fixtures. The World Cup semi-final was a bitterly disappointing well-contested battle; the third-place play-off less so. But as England will host the next major international competition, Women’s Euro 2021, the Lionesses play only friendlies between the World Cup and the next finals.
This opened up the opportunity for slackness and inconsistency. Indeed, not a single impressive England display has followed. With Beth Mead, Nakita Parris and new star striker Bethany England up top, England have of course turned on the style and scored some brilliant goals in the six months following the World Cup. But a performance that was outstanding for 90 solid minutes, which eluded them in the finals, continues to prove a demand too great for England and their coaching staff.
Defensive vulnerabilities, especially from set-pieces, were highlighted in August and September’s 3-3 draw with Belgium and late defeat to Norway. However, in their defence, the club season was yet to start and the players still appeared to be recovering from slogging it out in sweaty France.
By October, England hadn’t won since June and were starting to feel the pressure. 29,000 people packed into Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium certainly pushed them on, but the Lionesses lost again, this time to Brazil.
This was the same Brazil that Marta felt were so bad at the World Cup that it prompted her to make a dramatic and emotive plea on live television to young Brazilian girls. There she was, a six-time Ballon d’Or winner, begging down a FIFA camera lens ten minutes after defeat to France that more young girls get involved with sport. It must have worked. Brazil claimed a narrow victory.
There was respite from the critics a few days later, with a 1-0 victory over Portugal, in Setúbal. Possession share was high, shots came reigning in – the only problem was that England only managed to score once. And even then, the goal had been well-and-truly presented to them, with the keeper literally dropping the ball on the goal-line. Mead stabbed it in.
Phil Neville felt England had put together two “outstanding” performances. That looked more like psychologically egging on his players for future success than it did his true reflection of the international break. And all along, tickets for England Women’s return to Wembley in November were being slowly-but-surely sold.
November arrived and so did the rain. There really was lots of it. 77,800 people were sat eagerly in attendance on a cold and sorry but still celebratory Saturday afternoon. Less people turned up a week later to watch the men play their 1000th international against Montenegro. It’s an incredible stat.
Germany scored early and late to ruin the day in typical Die Mannschaft or Die Nationalelf fashion. Why do they always do it to us?
But they hadn’t ruined the day, not really. England’s heroines of the past were paraded around the pitch on the day the nation’s current crop broke the record for their highest attended game. The previous record had also been a Wembley defeat to Germany, in a 3-0 thrashing. This had been much closer and, although England are closing the gap on the world’s best teams, with that comes pressure to succeed.
The final hurrah of the year would be a trip to the bleak and snowy Czech Republic. When the scores sat at 2-2 after just 27 minutes on the clock, England were looking dangerously like a side past their peak and enduring a somewhat barren spell. Followers of the men’s side during the 1970s and the women around the turn of the millennium know all too well how infuriating these troughs can be.
England played poorly, making countless unforced errors and stray passes. But a deflected Leah Williamson strike as the ball bounced around from a late corner managed to deceive the Czechs’ otherwise inspired goalkeeper Barbora Votíková and trundle into the net. It was a trivial goal in the history of the Lionesses, but one that Phil Neville may just feel saved his job.
England won thanks to that 86th minute Williamson strike and ended the year and the decade on a narrow win. It was more of a nicked than a deserved victory, against a side they should be turning over comfortably.
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UEFA Women’s Euro 2021
Neville is not particularly concerned by the spell of poor form that his side find themselves in. He feels the narrative rather than being one of regression is simply of his side lacking luck in recent months.
Maybe there is a middle ground. There is no denying, England have lost too many games recently and don’t seem to have the firepower or efficiency they had in Neville’s first 15 months at the helm. But his mention of poor fortune is not all wrong. There have been recent instances when purple patches haven’t brought goals and when good performances haven’t translated into victories.
The England team is under pressure because of how competitive and capable they have become in the last decade. Refining a few key areas, like finding a dependable penalty-taker and deciding on a centre-back pairing, should be enough to ensure 2020 is a year of progress and prosperity for the Lionesses.
“We know the last three months haven’t been good enough but we shouldn’t take anything away from the last 12 months, in terms of where we’ve taken women’s football.”Phil Neville