How the Lionesses Could Become World Champions
The England Lionesses have become something of a mainstay in the recent years of women’s international soccer, reaching the third place game in two consecutive World Cups, and making numerous appearances in the higher stages of friendly tournaments. In addition, their league, the Barclays FA Women’s Super League (WSL), has been growing at a rapid pace since it’s debut season in 2011, gaining international recognition to the point where the best players in the world are migrating in flocks. Just prior to a year ago, the Lionesses were in a game sure to be the biggest that many have played in throughout their international careers. The talented England side ended up crashing out of the World Cup at the semi final stage last summer in France, to none other than the biggest team in the world, the United States. From this stage forward, the Lionesses have lost seven games out of their last eleven, a disappointing tally for a top ten team in the world. Many spectators, coaches, and media personnel alike assumed that this performance could be attributed to a “World Cup hangover” which was even seen in other higher ranked teams such as the world champions. By the time competitive matches were back up and running at the start of 2020, almost a year had passed, and yet performances still seemed to be inconsistent from many players who had made leaps in play through their club seasons. After a third place finish at this year’s edition of the She Believes Cup, England manager, Phil Neville, was called into question. Why had England struggled to make a mark on this season and how has Phil Neville failed his Lionesses? This article shares some thoughts on why this may have happened.
England has tried different formations throughout their time post-World Cup, and this is largely due to the amount of talent that Phil Neville has access to. The defensive line in particular boasts an arsenal of brilliant players ranging from all across the board, but some may argue that the mistakes made throughout the past year say otherwise. Many of these errors can be traced back to bad management and sour tactical decisions that made it harder for the team to play at their best.
There has been an issue within England’s usual back four since the earliest days of Phil Neville’s management. Steph Houghton and Millie Bright are each excellent defenders in their own right, both of whom have proven themselves more than capable of deserving a starting center-back slot. The challenge is that this pair of defenders start together. Each of these players are very adept at long ball distribution, but they possess similar weaknesses. Bright is very much a player that likes to do her own thing and sometimes can miss timing when to pressure in higher positions because of this. At club level, these types of mistakes are often not focused on because of the lesser level of play and Bright’s center-back partner, Magdalena Eriksson, who is aware of the spatial positioning in her team and is a very good decision maker. Houghton can make similar mistakes to those of Bright, and although she is a very good leader and communicator, she sometimes needs a player who can provide instruction. As a result, Houghton can have poor recovery runs, physical fatigue, and uncharacteristic mistakes.
This issue is seen to improve dramatically when players such as Leah Williamson or Abby McManus start in place of Bright or Houghton. Gemma Bonner and Millie Turner could also be taken into consideration when Phil Neville is choosing his squad. Williamson in particular is only 23, but is extremely vocal and has been a professional player of the historical women’s soccer regime, Arsenal, since she was a teenager. Williamson is a very forward thinking, technically minded, and passionate player who is unafraid of using her skills to their maximum capacity. Much to the surprise of many women’s soccer fans, Williamson is still trying to find a starting place within the Lionesses’ lineup. Neville has played Williamson in right-back as a replacement for Lucy Bronze, and as a holding midfielder. Although Williamson is excellent in both of these positions, from what many have seen, her talents are best utilized at center-back where she is at her most comfortable and can provide extra security to either Houghton or Bright.
England possess some of the best outside backs in the world, with arguably the best defender the game has seen in recent years in Lucy Bronze at right-back. Demi Stokes and Alex Greenwood are a solid pair on the opposite side who are each very capable of putting on a performance. The major issue faced, especially in regards to Bronze, is finding an adequate replacement. This issue has forced Phil Neville to revert to putting Rachel Daly or Leah Willamson at right-back. Daly is the more frequent choice of the English manager, which is questionable, given her prolific scoring record at club level for the Houston Dash up top, and her lack of experience and practice in defensive situations. Daly is attacking minded, loses her positioning more often than not, and tries to make up for it by her speed and physicality. These are things that do not work in her favor against various opponents.
Although outside defending is an area that the team does not have depth in, Neville should attempt to find other players who may not have the experience but could grow into this role. Esme Morgan is a solid option. Even though she is most often seen as a center-back, she has played for Manchester City and Everton on loan in her time in the WSL, and has been known to play outside back if needed. She has played at various youth tournaments throughout the years and, despite only being 19 years old, understands the international set up. Morgan recently got her first international call-up to the senior squad so there should be faith in her ability to execute this role. Hannah Blundell is another alternative who can be called up if Lucy Bronze is not available. The Chelsea fullback has been with the club since the age of 16 and has been in the PFA Team two of the last four years.
England has conceded 10 out of their last 18 goals on set pieces. If this stat is anything to go by, this is an issue that England needs to address. In a lot of their games post World Cup, there has not been enough urgency to get the ball out of the box, resulting in failed clearances and opportunities on goal. There is urgency for a team as well regarded as this England side to address this set piece issue as it could be a detriment going forward. These issues can be fixed by both practice, and making necessary changes so that aspects of defending these set pieces include communication, urgency, and mental and physical stamina can improve.
Knowing Your Players
The midfield can be problematic for England’s set up due to inconsistencies in decision-making, leadership, and physicality. There are numerous criticisms aimed at Phil Neville for his treatment of the midfield starting spots, most notably putting Lucy Bronze into the center of the field. Bronze will attempt to execute anywhere because Bronze is just that type of player, but Neville may want to consider other players who are midfielders and would be better suited for the role. When Bronze plays outside back, England has a better shot at winning matches. With players such as Georgia Stanway, Keira Walsh, Fran Kirby, Jordan Nobbs, Jill Scott, Lucy Staniforth, and newbies such as Ella Toone and Katie Zelem, Neville has many options to build a successful midfield that he has not tried.
While England is not known for their technicality, there are many England players that have great technical skill that goes unnoticed and unused. For example, Keira Walsh and Leah Williamson are both players that prefer to hold on to the ball before bypassing numerous defensive lines of their opposition by a single pass. However, Neville encourages these players to play differently than they are used to, which can cause these midfielders to make mistakes and not use their technical skill for the biggest impact. This specific format, which Neville likes to play, is not the one that his players can shine in, and instead, causes basic malfunctions in their frameworks. Perhaps a new coach can solve this challenge.
The Necessary “Ball Player”
England has been missing a term that has been referred to by numerous pundits as a “ball player” in the middle of the park. A player of this sort is someone who loves to be on the ball, distributing through the gaps and making runs into the offensive third. These players are creative, get the gears grinding, and dictate the speed of play for their entire offensive unit. Following the World Cup, this type of player was lacking in the England squads. Fran Kirby and Jordan Nobbs are examples of what it means to be a “ball player”. Nobbs especially has a workrate unparalleled to many players seen in the English game. It is thought that if she was not out with an injury during the World Cup that England may have succeeded in beating the United States.
This statement is something of a daydream for English fans who may just be the slightest bit salty about how close the World Cup game with the U.S. truly was. Jordan Nobbs is one of the only English players with a true winning mentality. Nobbs is a hard-worker and a leader in the center of the field. Lucy Bronze carries a similar attitude. England needs a leader in the center of the pitch. They need someone who is both willing to take control of the midfield, suit the needs of the style of play, and work against strong opponents. When Nobbs and Kirby are not available, or not utilized properly in the example of the She Believes Cup, there needs to be other options for this type of player. A suggestion to be considered is the fact that Manchester United had a number of players this past season that may not have the international experience, but could be contenders to break into this midfield. Both Katie Zelem and Ella Toone could be great options to replace Nobbs and Kirby, even though they may lack the experience.
An Out-and-Out Striker
Ellen White ended her World Cup run with six goals in six games, an extremely impressive feat for any player. The English forward who has been injury laden saw her minutes for England limited. White is an out-and-out striker, a poacher who has a clinical finish and a hunger for the ball. When Phil Neville looks at his bench without the availability of White he is often at a loss. Bethany England sealed her spot at Chelsea by having a tremendous season, showing herself to be one of the best finishers in the game by winning PFA and WSL player of the year. Although England is not an out-and-out striker like Ellen White, Bethany England has other very beneficial aspects to her game that allow her to be a useful playmaker. This would mean that other attacking options such as Beth Mead or Nikita Parris could float more centrally, similarly to how they do at a club level, allowing them to play outside to get in on goal. With this in mind, both players – Ellen White and Bethany England – should get equal minutes.
Aside from this front forward slot, Neville has an amazing rotation of players to choose from when it comes to his wingers. From Mead, Parris, and younger players such as Lauren Hemp and Chole Kelly, the England attack is almost to the level where it can be called one of the most dangerous in the world. Many of the issues they have stem from the lack of a proper striker on the field and a lack of confidence. Luckily for them, the addition of these younger players can breathe more life into their attack, and with a lot of the players coming through the youth ranks, this will hopefully only get better.
Although England have not proven themselves quite yet to be able to compete with the best in the World, they are a super side to look out for in the future. With the addition of an excellent manager in current UEFA Women’s European Championship title holder Sarina Weigman, who knows how far the Lionesses can go.
Written by Maddie Metz
Creator of Only Women’s Soccer
- FA Women’s Super League – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FA_Women%27s_Super_League
- Ross Duncan – YouTube: SheBelieves Cup 2020 – England Women v Spain (11.03.2020): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nziMX8Bq0s4&list=LLQ-862Z0G4O-le7pzFzxT4w&index=34&t=7591s&ab_channel=RossDuncan
- Ross Duncan – YouTube: Norway v England Women (03.09.2019): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2wx0EM-OKY&t=2s&ab_channel=RossDuncan
- Ross Duncan – YouTube: Belgium v England Women (29.08.2019): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ufki2xuSR_c&ab_channel=RossDuncan
- Hannah Blundell – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannah_Blundell
- Esme Morgan – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esme_Morgan
- Ellen White (footballer) – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_White_(footballer)
- Radiotimes.com: How to watch and live stream England Lionesses v Spain: https://www.radiotimes.com/news/sport/2020-03-11/england-spain-tv-channel-live-stream-time-shebelieves-cup/
- Sports.yahoo.com: Neville praise for Nobbs as she is recalled to England squad: https://sports.yahoo.com/neville-praise-for-nobbs-as-she-is-recalled-to-england-squad-133116795.html
- Live.prodirectsoccer.com: Leah Williamson: Note to Younger Self: http://live.prodirectsoccer.com/en/articles/womens-world-cup/leah-williamson-note-to-younger-self/
- Bbc.com: Lucy Bronze: Calf injury rules England defender out of SheBelieves Cup: https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/51647398