England’s latest intrasquad friendly showed a team ready to change but unsure of its direction. Ella Toone and Bethany England will have to wait to become first picks, despite showing star quality as they both scored hat-tricks in an 8-1 triumph, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.
With England yet again deprived of the opportunity to play against an international team, Phil Neville turned once more to an intra-squad match. Whilst previous squad friendlies had been cagey, low-scoring affairs at St George’s Park, the move to Stoke City’s bet365 stadium turned this into a free-flowing rout — for one side at least.
It was a match that saw players on the fringes of the England first XI shine brightest, as a ‘Red’ team made up of players like Lucy Bronze, Nikita Parris, and Bethany England made a mockery of a ‘White’ team featuring Ellen White, Steph Houghton and Ellie Roebuck in an 8-1 victory.
The Reds’ back three of Leah Williamson, Lotte Wubben-Moy, and Millie Turner looked incredibly assured. With only fifteen caps between them — and all of those belonging to Williamson — here were England’s third, fourth, and fifth choice centre-backs easily keeping Ellen White, Georgia Stanway, and Beth Mead at bay.
Up front, Bethany England was practically unplayable as she scored three, assisted two, and won a penalty. She regularly dropped deeper, in a manner reminiscent of Harry Kane’s recent performances in a 9.5 role, with neither Grace Fisk nor Steph Houghton able to figure out how to get a hold of her.
Ella Toone is another player yet to receive a cap, but she carried her assured form for Manchester United into this game, also bagging a hat-trick and looking like she had played for England for years. Later, Rinsola Babajide replaced Toone, and her performance was enough to give Rachel Daly nightmares in her position at right-back.
Yet Neville was cagey after the match about the churn of his squad. Aside from Turner, who he described as a “breath of fresh air” and able to “compete at the top level”, Neville called for caution.
“There’s still a long way to go with some of the players we have brought in over the last few camps,” he said, suggesting that only six or seven of his squad were capable of competing at the highest level.
One of those you might expect to be Bethany England; but when asked if she had done enough recently to become his first choice centre-forward, Neville was unequivocal.
“Ellen White is still my first choice centre-forward,” he said confidently about a player who was barely noticeable for the entire eighty-minute game. “Beth still has to catch up.”
This incapsulates the problem of Neville’s England. It is natural for a manager to have favourites; Neville has long credited himself for White’s improvement at a national level. But to describe a player who has outscored White domestically 29 goals to 12 over the past three seasons as “still catching up” stretches credulity.
A similar problem lies with Houghton, complicated further by her captaincy. Neville name-checked her as one of his most important players, but in this friendly fixture she led a defence that was ruthlessly exposed time and time again. Neville suggested the faults were due to a lack of focus. Whilst the significance of this match is minuscule, it is concerning that his first-choice central defender was unable to bring even a modicum of order to an inexperienced backline.
The problem that these intra-squad friendlies has created for Neville is it provides an opportunity to judge players based on their relationship with each other as much as on their individual performances at club level. To watch Bethany England link up with Parris, and to see Williamson pair so comfortably with Wubben-Moy and Turner, demonstrated clearly that he has players who enhance each other at his disposal. Yet Neville gave the impression afterwards that individuals have their spots nailed down.
Where most managers encourage competition, and look to stop players getting comfortable, Neville does the opposite.
It would be unfair for the conclusions drawn from this kind of game to be too firm, particularly about players who have had long and successful stints as guaranteed starters for their country. But whilst Neville sees out the longest notice period in history, it is unclear as to what incentive there is for him to make bold changes.
Meanwhile the England players remain in a limbo, knowing that a new manager will soon be coming, but stuck playing in a status quo for the old one.
Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph