As the dust settles on the World Cup and the FIFA world rankings get revamped, England must reconsider their approach to big tournaments if they are to emulate successes like their American counterparts.
It’s becoming increasingly evident that, like with many teams, the experience is valued above all else – even that of club form; which should be the reason players are selected regardless.
But after they failed to equal their best in the World Cup from four years ago and dropped two places to 5th in the world rankings, something must change if the Lionesses are to go on and stake their claim as one of the best in the world, because right now they are not even the best in Europe.
We’ve seen a number of different names filter through the England squad throughout the years, the likes of Beth Mead, Leah Williamson, Keira Walsh, Rachel Daly etc. all earning calls up as a result of their excellent club form – but even with new faces emerging England fans are still likely to see the same kind of team for pretty much every tournament and every ‘big’ game.
(Three things that are guaranteed in life: death, taxes, Houghton and Bright at CB).
Perhaps the issue with England is their lack of ruthlessness – too much ‘loyalty’ and emphasis on niceties – because anyone that watched the WSL season in which Arsenal emerged as Champions would know that Williamson is hands down England’s best CB.
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While some may not want to admit it, there is a generation here that is in need of being gradually phased out in order to make way for the future. The longer England keep holding onto a squad that doesn’t cut it anymore, the further they are going to fall behind – as if landing themselves at 5th in the world shouldn’t already be a wake-up call for them.
The focus needs to turn to the up and coming talent that the WSL is producing, irrespective of age and experience. As someone who spent most of his career with Man United, Phil Neville should know that if they’re good enough, they’re old enough. No excuses.
Just to name a few, the likes of Aoife Mannion, Sophie Baggaley, Megan Walsh, Beth England, Hannah Blundell all had blinding WSL seasons which naturally would warrant a call up to the national team. But instead, like England always have done, the majority of the names called up had mediocre seasons. The weight of the reputation on your name holds more significance than your performances on the pitch, apparently.
Looking ahead to the future, we should be seeing the likes of Mannion and Williamson at the core of defence; a partnership that – at 25 and 22 – could be the pinnacle of England’s glory years if we’re ever to see them.
Excuses will be made and attempt to justify poor performances will be had, the reality is that a good chunk of the current squad are not good enough to warrant their place – and the sooner the manager realises that, the sooner the Lionesses can begin to work their way back up.
While it’s all well and good admitting the players may not be good enough, it’s also pertinent to address the issue of the formation and system.
Going into the 2019 World Cup, there were reservations about what England’s best formation and starting XI actually was, because in the Road to France series it didn’t exactly look as though Neville even knew.
At no point through the tournament did it look as though both formation and team selection had been executed well enough to accentuate the talent the Lionesses possess. Most notable of those being the midfield set-up, and Neville’s love of the dreaded midfield two.
In hindsight, Keira Walsh didn’t have the best tournament, nor did she play to the ability she’s capable of, but had she been in a system that is suited to her and the midfielders around her, it could’ve been a different story.
Walsh thrives in a midfield three, sitting in that defensive role where she can break up play and ping passes across the field in any which direction – just look at her performances in the SBC; particularly her assist for Mead’s goal v Japan. But the issue with her being in a mid-two is that not only does she easily got bodied off the ball with a struggle to hold up play, but the likes of the USA and their exceptionally strong mid-three completely control the park. It was almost as if Neville expected her to be what Julie Ertz is to the USA, without actually playing her in a similar position.
Perhaps the most frustrating system failure of them all came, unsurprisingly, from the defence. I have never heard a manager so insistent on his side playing out from the back while simultaneously leaving his best ball-playing defender on the bench all-tournament bar 13 minutes – in which he brought her on to play at RB. Logic.
That approach to a game isn’t likely to be executed well when your go-to CB pair don’t look at their most comfortable playing out from the back – so either changes the approach to fit them or change the team to fit your approach – or am I missing something?
Understandably blaming some issues on the system sounds like an excuse, but the difference is that some of the players affected by the way in which Neville wants to play are actually good enough – they’re just not able to reach their potential in such circumstances.
Ultimately, there is an abundance of talent both coming through at youth level as well as players emerging amongst the best in the WSL that are more than capable of making the squad.
It’s the job of the manager and the coaching staff to recognise that with the Olympics next year, Euros in 2021 and next World Cup in 2023 – now is the ideal time to start integrating these players into the squad while phasing others out.
They may have inspired a nation and rallied support behind them – which brings all involved immense joy to see, especially if it replicates on the WSL scene – but we can’t ignore that in four years they failed to equal their position from the 2015 World Cup and have now dropped to 5th in the world; with their only notable success being the SheBelieves Cup.
The longer England continue to neglect talent in favour of reputation, the further they will stray from the rest of the world and the longer they’ll have to wait for success.News Now - Sport News