Pressure On Neville Increases Despite Lionesses' Return To Winning Ways

The fortuitous 3-2 win in the Czech Republic has done little to lift the mood
11:34, 13 Nov 2019

"We should be beating Czech Republic by more than 3-2,” was Phil Neville’s honest assessment after England’s women got back to winning ways on Tuesday night.

While the Lionesses finished a sometimes-glittering 2019 with victory, there can be no disguising the issues that continue to dog Neville and his side.

Leah Williamson’s late winner in the friendly in Ceske Budejovice came thanks in part to a deflection and a poor piece of goalkeeping, and the concession of two weak first-half goals will have been a source of huge frustration.

In many ways, the FIFA Women’s World Cup feels a lifetime ago. Just a little over four months back, England were 90 minutes away from a first-ever final. 

What has transpired since has not only piled the pressure on Neville, it has raised all sorts of questions about where the Lionesses are going – if anywhere. 

Their defensive issues are not going away. Their current run of two wins - both of them aided by goalkeeping errors - in eight games dates back to that defeat to eventual champions USA in the last four of the World Cup.

"We can talk about coming down from the emotional highs to feeling the fatigue and everything of the World Cup but, when you get into November, that becomes an excuse and we're not having any excuses," Neville said after the recent defeat to Germany, and there has to be concern over England’s form since the summer.

In that time, they have kept just one clean sheet. Frustratingly, at the other end, England have scored in each of their last 13 fixtures – and 12 different players have got themselves on the scoresheet. 

Goals are coming from all over the pitch, yet Neville has seemed at a loss as to what to do about their frailties at the back, particularly from set-pieces.

The former full-back, in his greatest time of crisis as a manager to date, does not seem to inspire confidence. With words straight out of the coaching manual, he believes he has constructed a side who knock the ball about with ease, ostensibly ignoring their propensity for constantly giving it away and falling to pieces whenever a cross makes its way into the box. 

Publicly, Neville has declared that the Lionesses would benefit from time away from each other, having played a grand total of four friendlies since the start of the Women’s Super League season.

There may be something in that claim, though. England are looking at a run of friendly after friendly over the next year or so, and it is to be expected that they might lack a competitive edge.

Injuries have not helped. Fran Kirby, Alex Greenwood and Jodie Taylor have all missed recent matches through injury, while Neville opted to rest key women Ellen White and Steph Houghton against the Czech Republic.

Upon the return of those who have been on the sidelines, he has found himself clashing with clubs over their rehabilitation. Where they were able to ride high on a tide of goodwill - and a somewhat fortuitous draw - in the World Cup, their fans are now fast losing confidence in what looks to be a rigid, stale set-up which has moved beyond its peak.

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"I've got to take responsibility for those results. I'm the one that picks the team. I'm the one that sets the tactics, I train them, I talk to them, I communicate with them,” Neville admitted ahead of the Czech Republic win.

"So ultimately the buck has got to start with me and finish with me, because the team always reflects the manager. At this moment the results haven't been good enough which means I've not been good enough - we need to do something about it very quickly.”

This is anything but a team where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. England have some exceptional players at their disposal, especially in attack, but the defenders are simply not reflecting their true abilities while on international duty.

It all leaves Neville in a precarious position. While any decision to sack him would no doubt be the result of panic at England’s rapid demise rather than of cold rationality, it is up to the FA to decide whether he is tactically capable of taking England forward and arresting their slump.

There seems to be little evidence of that so far.

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