The England head coach’s emphasis on fitness and endurance throws down the gauntlet for young players to train up and work hard, writes Rich Laverty.
Phil Neville set his young stars a pretty brutal challenge after last week’s latest in-house Lionesses friendly, which ended 8-1 to the team led by Lucy Bronze.
The team that lost featured a fairly experimental line-up, with Rachel Daly once again positioned at right-back and youngsters Grace Fisk and Esme Morgan both included, plus captain Steph Houghton there to no doubt offer guidance throughout.
Perhaps surprisingly, Neville admitted post-match he’d intentionally set up Houghton’s team to lose. He claimed the performance had “confirmed what he thought – there is a long way to go in terms of the young players we have brought in over the last three training camps.”
True, maybe – in some situations. There has been plenty of criticism thrown at some of England’s more experienced players recently, including Houghton: some of it sometimes deserved. But there is a physical and mental difference between those now deeply entrenched within the international set-up and those coming in fresh.
Even Bronze has seen criticism come her way at times, but the only standards it appears she’s failing to match are the incredibly high ones she set herself between 2015 and 2018. At club level, no full-back has got more assists than Bronze, and in the Champions League she had by far the highest number of defensive interceptions than any other defensive player across the season.
Neville’s message will have been a stark wake up call to the young players on the home team, Fisk and Morgan included. But the rest of the team weren’t as inexperienced as perhaps first thought: only Niamh Charles was the other relative newcomer to the squad in the starting eleven. Granted, it did also include Laura Coombs, but at 29 she’s more than experienced enough in the women’s game.
Neville made it clear that Bronze and Houghton still lead the way on the physical testing and profiling the Lionesses do within camp, alongside other senior players such as Jill Scott, Ellen White and Demi Stokes.
It’s perhaps a fair point to make that those new to camp likely aren’t at that physical level yet; Neville added that some players “got exposed” during the 80-minute friendly.
In what is a ‘sink-or-swim’ decision for his players, the head coach clearly hopes that many will swim, taking on his challenge in order to be fit and ready for Euro 2021 (in 2022) and the World Cup in 2023.
It appears the 23 selected for the next camp in February will therefore feature mainly his experienced heads, but Neville did set aside Millie Turner for praise and admitted she is one player who is ready for selection in the short-term.
At 24, Turner is more experienced than many other players brought in recently, with Neville saying she had been a “dream to work with” and a “breath of fresh air”.
The youngster has also given Neville an interesting new option to work with, after he admitted the 3-4-3 system he configured for the winning team was a system he loved and wants to potentially move forward with. He particularly praised the Arsenal combination of Leah Williamson and Lotte Wubben-Moy alongside Turner.
The narrow front three with Bronze and Demi Stokes bombing forward down the wings was almost impossible for the other team to deal with. Both Bronze and Stokes were regularly getting forward, while narrow forwards Ella Toone and Nikita Parris were both on top of their game, playing just behind Beth England.
Both England and Toone hit hat-tricks, and if there is one player who will have given Neville food for thought among the youngsters it is Toone. She has been exceptional in every training game so far and has matched the level of performance she’s shown at Manchester United – a level so good that she is keeping captain Katie Zelem and full England international Lucy Staniforth out of the team.
For others such as Rinsola Babajide and Lauren James, the latter in her first senior camp, Neville went as far to say their target will likely not be next year’s Olympics, but the Euros, or even a World Cup which is still two and a half years away.
Not that any of those things will be Neville’s decision. Indeed, his successor Sarina Wiegman may rip up the Neville rulebook and base her team around the youngsters. But it’s unlikely.
James has only just turned 19, and while there’s no doubt she has the quality to be a generational talent, Neville is right to take the long-term view.
Being on international camps is gruelling, both physically and mentally. Away with a lot of people you don’t know and have never played with, increased amounts of physical testing, and a whole world away from the day-to-day routine of club football.
It’s a stern challenge Neville has set his players, and one from which we won’t know whether the rewards have been reaped until long after his tenure ends. But for the sake of the Lionesses moving forward we should all hope every single one of them comes back next year fitter, stronger, and more determined to earn themselves a regular spot in the squad, because there is no doubt this is the most exciting group of youngsters coming through the system in quite some time.
Follow Rich on Twitter @RichJLaverty