Sporting the blue shirt and grey waistcoat combo that helped give Gareth Southgate his look, Phil Neville looked like a man carved in Southgate’s image in every way at the Women’s World Cup last year.
But while Southgate has gone from strength to strength as Three Lions boss, Neville and the Lionesses are looking rather withered. The spark has died out and the inevitable questions are being asked.
England came third in this year’s SheBelieves Cup, the tournament they won when facing arguably better competition last year. It’s a worrying trend for the team — a trend that, if it continued, would throw Neville’s position into intense levels of scrutiny, and heap criticism on a team currently poor at both creating and taking chances.
Against the USA in the Lionesses’ opener, the performance was symbolic of a team currently unadroit at using the ball efficiently. Teams that see the lion’s share of possession against the world champions haven’t really existed in recent years. Such is the disparity between the USA and the next best side in the women’s game, that to dominate possession in a United States match has meant being the States themselves.
However, England dominated — in that sense. But in shots taken, and shots on target, and goals — all the important stuff — the hosts found themselves on top in Orlando. Two quickfire goals in a two-minute period just after the restart won the tie for the USA. Things had not started well for England on this year’s trip across the pond.
Japan in the bright sunshine of New Jersey offered England a chance to right the wrongs of two days earlier. A team technically better than the Lionesses were kept out well by a solid England defence and a confident young goalkeeper in Ellie Roebuck.
Beth England, ruthless weekly for Chelsea in the Women’s Super League, ran the line well, detaching herself from Japan’s defenders to find space in the channels. But the goal was missing, and the small cheer sounded by the travelling England fans when she made way for Ellen White spoke for itself. Neville has struggled to get the engines of his England players working since returning from France. Form at club level has rarely transferred.
“We need to find the formula. I think we need to take a step back now and start building the foundations again.”Phil Neville
When White slotted home the winner of a drab game from a Japanese mistake at the back, BBC commentator Robyn Cowen described the goal as a “really exquisite finish.” But the expression jarred. It wasn’t exquisite, it was tidy — nothing more. She was trying to give Lionesses fans an extra reason to cheer, and quite right too in her role, but the blunt truth is that England are a much worse team than they were even nine months ago.
Defeat to Spain, a team the Lionesses had no trouble mopping up in Swindon last April, held a rather somber air of inevitability about it. England shouldn’t be losing to Spain, and they certainly shouldn’t be losing seven of their last 11 internationals. But the past is the past. Neville and his backroom staff cannot turn the clock back now, but they can at least delay when the battery runs out. His team isn’t functioning, and the squad is simply too talented to waste their best years by underachieving.
The outbreak and impact of the coronavirus has seen all professional sport in Britain cancelled until at least 3 April, but with that, and the next, and the next date after that, likely to be pushed back further and further into the future and into next season.
It gives Neville time to think, study, and uncover quite how things reached the cliff, and help his side climb back up to where they were only a year ago. Or higher.
The Olympic Games, where eighteen British women are scheduled to compete for football gold, is increasingly likely to also be postponed. But Women’s Euro 2021, with England the sole host nation, much less so. Neville and England are, must and will be planning for that tournament.
As things stand though, preparations have been halted. Halted not by the coronavirus but by rotten form. They say you learn more from defeat than from victory in football.
Sooner rather than later we need to see that learning put into practice.