For Phil Neville, the SheBelieves Cup represents an opportunity to blow away the cobwebs. The direction he takes next will be the clearest indication yet of his managerial ability. Jessy Parker Humphreys examines the manager’s selection dilemma.
The media line around the Lionesses Camp ahead of the SheBelieves Cup has focused predominantly on the psychological toll that losing the World Cup semi-final to USA took on the England team. The more they talk about that toll, the more it feels like Phil Neville is desperately trying to distract from his bullishness after the defeat. A bullishness which led into a run of form which saw England win only two of their next seven games. But over the next three games against the USA, Spain and Japan in the SheBelieves Cup, Neville will have to show he can move his team on from that, and he will have to pick between form or continuity, innocence or experience.
Does Neville have guts to move on Houghton, White?
There comes a time for any international manager when they have to look at their team and get rid of that player who has always been the first name on the team sheet. The one who has so many memorable performances in the shirt. The person who at the back of your head you thought might end up playing internationally.
In Phil Neville’s England team, the two players who should move on are arguably two of the most recognisable players in English women’s football history. Calm, resolute Steph Houghton who has played over 100 times for her country and Ellen White – the woman with a goal celebration so good it got her a spot in a Deliveroo advert.
In both positions, there are players dominating at the top of the Women’s Super League, demanding that Neville gives them the run out they deserve. With Houghton marshalling an England backline that has conceded 11 goals in 6 international friendlies, and White being outshone in the league, it will be a test of Neville’s metal to see if he has the guts to move them on.
Calls for Leah Williamson to have a starting place in the England line-up were high in the lead up to the World Cup. This was after all a central defender who had conceded only 13 goals in the previous season. With the ball at her feet, Williamson oozes confidence, so much so that her manager Joe Montemurro will happily push her up into midfield. She is perfect for Neville’s side – confident, talented and precocious – all qualities that it would be unsurprising if Neville saw in himself.
Neville’s issue is that all three of his best central defenders are right-footed. In the past, this has meant shifting Millie Bright onto the left side of defence in favour of Steph Houghton playing in her preferred position on the right side. Naturally, this is why Bright often looks much more composed in a Chelsea shirt than in an England one.
England have struggled at set-pieces meaning that maintaining Milie Bright’s height in the box feels like a no brainer, but in the past Neville seems to have preferred swapping Bright out for Williamson so that Houghton can maintain her place. But shifting Bright to the left-side of defence and bringing in Leah Williamson on the right would offer England much more creativity going forward and defensive solidity.
Up front, it feels less of a tricky decision for Neville. Beth England’s career continues to flourish with every game she plays. Her confidence and goalscoring ability has never been higher as she sits joint top with Vivienne Miedema in the WSL goal charts.
Meanwhile, Ellen White’s move to Manchester City has not really gone in the direction she might have hoped. An early exit in the Champion’s League and a manager abandoning the team for the MLS leaves White leading the line for a team that feels more like it’s in transition.
It’s not just form that Beth England offers the side. The arrival of Sam Kerr at Chelsea has only improved her flexibility across the pitch. England and Kerr regularly drop back into a number 10 role or into the channels to give each other time and space on the ball. That flexibility is something that would suit a player like Nikita Parris who has always looked at her best when able to drift into a more central role.
Bringing in both Williamson and England would show that Neville is the manager he has always pretended he is – someone unafraid to take the tough decisions. It would also make the team a lot better.
Innocence or experience
Even beyond form, there is often a call after a disappointing end to a tournament for a new set of players to come through into the team. The sight of a new name in the squad list brings intrigue to the casual followers of the game and smugness to the hardcore fans who already knew who they were, actually.
Alessia Russo and Grace Fisk were two such players, and while clearly bright prospects, are probably not quite ready for the step up. More pertinent to Neville’s team choices are Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly, 19 and 22 years old respectively.
Given the way Hemp has dominated Manchester City’s left wing this season, it almost seems odd that she didn’t make it into the World Cup squad, but the SheBelieves tournament will likely be the set of games she firmly stakes her claim for the position. Aided slightly by Beth Mead’s injury, Hemp should surely be preferred over Toni Duggan by Neville.
The potential role for Chloe Kelly is less clear. Kelly has looked fantastic as part of a rejuvenated Everton team this season, scoring nine goals, the most of any player outside the ‘big three’. Kelly plays in a very flexible role for Everton, similar in fact to Georgia Stanway at Manchester City, in her ability to slot in anywhere in attack. Both Stanway and Kelly would be interesting combinations with Beth England up front.
Both will likely have to fight Jordan Nobbs for that attacking role. Nobbs missed the World Cup due to an ACL injury which ruled her out for the entirety of the 18/19 season and England desperately missed her creativity between the lines. She made a slow start to the season with Arsenal, which is to be expected, but has recently started to find some of her old form. At 27, her experience might be worth more than innocence when it comes to linking up a new attacking look for England.
Finding some SheBelief
It is understandable that losing to the USA in the semi-final was gutting for the squad. For all the criticism of this England team, they went toe to toe with an opponent who are quite comfortably the best in the world. Phil Neville needs to make sure that his team don’t get bogged down psychologically in the fine margins that caused their exit. It’s a sentiment that Neville would surely recognise from his experiences in the men’s camp. Bringing in a set of players eager to show their worth would help move this team on – and suggest there’s more to Neville than perhaps has been assumed.
Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph