Faltering against Canada to sinking Spain – what’s next for Phil Neville’s England Lionesses?

Lucy Bronze

England Women kicked off their ‘Road to France’ series last week against Canada.

The series consists of four games to help prepare the Lionesses for the upcoming World Cup, kicking off June 7th.

The first half has seen England play Canada and Spain, with games against Denmark and New Zealand still to come.

After triumphing at the SheBelieves Cup back in March, Neville will be looking to his side to send out a message to teams ahead of the summer tournament.

Falling flat against Canada 

The Lionesses’ first of those matches was against Canada in Manchester City’s Academy Stadium.

Many thought England would come into this game and sweep Canada aside.

But without Fran Kirby as their attacking outlet and Toni Duggan occupying that role with little confidence, England struggled to prove any real threat to Canada going forward.

Matched with yet another unconvincing defensive performance from their backline, the game was ultimately there for the Canadians to take — and they did just that.

A mix up at the back meant Christine Sinclair was free to pounce on a loose ball and smash home, giving Canada the lead in the 81st minute and the 0-1 win.

In a deflating defeat, you really felt as though Neville still doesn’t know his best starting XI nor his best formation.

By no means should Canada be underestimated, but with the Lionesses’  attacking prowess, partnered with the fact they’ve ranked two places above Canada, it should have been a winnable game for them. It was the opposite and left many feeling as though they were back to the drawing board.

With a stubbornness to continue playing players out of position while continuously getting the formation wrong, Neville and England could be back to square one mere months ahead of the World Cup.

Amidst the mediocrity, though, was Keira Walsh with yet another brilliant performance.

The 22-year-old operates the middle of the park exceptionally well. It’s a big ask, however, to do that for 90 minutes with a midfield two that didn’t – and continues not to – work for England.

Every time Neville opts for a flatpack two in the middle, England struggled to create anything going forward. Hence there being next to nothing to write home about after this game.

Along with Walsh, Nikita Parris and Beth Mead stood out, while Rachel Daly showed moments of brilliance going forward from right-back.

A big performance was needed against Spain from the Lionesses – and that is what they delivered.

Lionesses sink Spain in reaction win

After the mediocre display against Canada, England travelled to Swindon on the 9th of May to face Spain.

As was expected, Spain began the game by controlling it with their signature possession football. Within the first 10 minutes, England had barely touched the ball or even gotten out of their own half.

But, thanks to excellent defending from Daly and Alex Greenwood and their full-backs, the Lionesses soaked up the pressure well.

It was in the remaining 20 minutes of the first half when England really came into their own, the breakthrough eventually coming in the 35th minute.

Arguably one of the best goals scored under Neville for this side, Jade Moore played the ball into Duggan – taking about 4 players out of the game. Duggan, with a reverse pass, played in Ellen White. The forward then played a wicked ball across goal where Mead tapped in.

It was a simply exquisite piece of play from the women in red, involving their two best players on the night in White and Mead.

A 1-0 lead going into the second half eased the pressure off of England ever so slightly, given how their opening 10 minutes went. But it just got better for the Lionesses when White made it 2-0 within 40 seconds of the restart.

It was exceptional vision from Jill Scott to find White, who curled home with great skill.

The Lionesses went on to control the game comfortably up until the 67th minute, when Aitana Bonmati pulled one back for the Spaniards, resulting in a trademark shaky finish for Neville’s side.

The players eventually saw out the game to get the win but, despite bouncing back from the Canada defeat, it didn’t disguise the issues on display.

What next for England? 

Perhaps the most reassuring thing to come from these two games was hearing Neville say that the time for experimenting.

This means that come the Denmark and New Zealand games, we could be seeing the closest starting XI to that he fields on the opening day of the World Cup against Scotland.

One can only hope this doesn’t involve Lucy Bronze in midfield, but rather in her best position at right-back. It’s almost baffling that Neville constantly labels Bronze the best player in the world, yet is insistent on playing her out of position.

But perhaps most importantly – he needs to go with the most effective formation to get the best out of his team.

Right now, that’s a 4-3-3 with a diamond midfield, a CDM sitting just in front of the back four.

That’s something Moore did really well against Spain, leaving Scott and Georgia Stanway room in the middle to both defend and attack when needed.

All we can ask of Neville at this point is to expose the qualities of his players by providing them with a platform to flourish, not sabotage.

The Canada game almost felt as though it was his first game in charge and didn’t know the players well – so no more throwing players in positions and hoping for the best.

The remaining games of the ‘Road to France’ series is a chance to shake off the cobwebs and find England’s best squad, formation included.

Walsh and Mead have undoubtedly been the most impressive players for England and should be the first two names going to France.

If the Lionesses lose or look shaky against Denmark or New Zealand, then who knows what we should be expecting going into the World Cup.

Neville and this team are more than capable of winning the tournament this summer, but they need to have the guts and ruthlessness to go out and be World Champions.

Written by Courtney Hill (@cjhsport)