Failure? England Lionesses anything but after World Cup success inspired by youth and new philosophy

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"A semi-final defeat would represent failure. This England team is ready to win now." 

Phil Neville’s comments before the Lionesses’ clash with world champions and current world number one, the United States, were a little surprising to the casual onlooker.

England had navigated a pretty tricky group, a farcical Cameroon clash and blown away Norway, conceding just one goal in five games, but the USA are a different entity altogether.

But it’s comments like that which are helping teams like England close the gap on the Americans.

Three-time world champions, and huge favourites for Sunday’s final, their mentality is a significant part of that success.

“I remember the first day I spoke to him on the phone, I’d never met him before,” Sue Campbell, the FA’s Director of Women’s Football, told the Associated Press, explaining her first conversation with Neville.

“I was speaking to see whether he would apply for the role. We must have talked for an hour and a half and I put the phone down and I just looked up and said, ‘That is who I’m looking for.’

“I could sense it. Just his emotional intelligence, his winning mentality, his absolute commitment to the women’s game in terms of wanting to grow women coaches.”

England’s approach to their semi-final with the USA was fearless, with total belief in their team and their ability to beat their opponent.

They had come close in March when the two met in the SheBelieves Cup, drawing 2-2 before claiming the title with a win over Japan.

England celebrate 2019

But the Women’s World Cup to the USA is like what the Champions League is to Cristiano Ronaldo or the French Open is to Rafael Nadal – this is their stage. This is where they thrive.

For the Lionesses to go toe-to-toe with them like they did in that 2-1 defeat, in a game that will go down as one of the competition’s greatest ever, was impressive.

This was much different to their last World Cup semi-final, also against the reigning champions, when they took on Japan in 2015.

It was different in many ways; expectation, pressure, but, most of all, style.

Neville has defended former boss Mark Sampson’s tenure while in France.

“I think people underestimate the quality of that 2015 team. People talk about them being underdogs, and I don’t like the reference to the style of football they play,” he said before the clash with Japan in this year’s group stages.

“People referring back to 2015 as a team that didn’t play great football, played long ball and all the negatives – they actually got to a semi-final of a World Cup, and I think Mark Sampson deserves unbelievable respect, and those players.

“They didn’t just kick every ball long, they played good football. I think if I was in that 2015 team, I’d be saying actually, you try and beat what we did.”

But this is now a team that have endeared many with their style of football.

Defensively, they’ve been questionable. The USA exposed those flaws ruthlessly, flaws that were papered over by four successive clean sheets.

England USA Women

But their attacking play, attractive possession style and relentless high pressing makes Neville’s England team an exciting one to watch and one you want to get behind.

In the same press conference, Lucy Bronze had a different take on things to her manager, saying that his team are playing the way England want to play and can win on their own terms now.

It’s a philosophy and model for the long-term, with the FA Women’s Super League developing some outstanding footballers who will integrate into that as and when their time comes.

The likes of Georgia Stanway and Keira Walsh have gained crucial experience this summer, while the list of young players who narrowly missed out on the squad and the talent in the youth teams is an incredible prospect.

“We’re handing over a baton to an amazing group of youngsters that have done it before and can go into major tournaments with their heads held high,” Carly Telford said after the USA defeat.

“Once there was a time when we couldn’t get close to the Americans. There’s a lot of respect when they’re having to play defensive against us and blocking out into a five or a four.”

Neville and his team won’t return to England with the World Cup trophy as they wanted.

After reaching their third successive semi-final at a major tournament, just 12 months after Gareth Southgate’s men crashed out at the same stage in last summer’s World Cup, questions are beginning to be asked about the psychological barrier of reaching that first final.

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But a fourth placed finish is nothing to be ashamed of, particularly given the manner in which they have accomplished it.

England have only taken steps forward this summer. Now, the hope is that the FA can capitalise on the buzz around women’s football and push the sport on.

That’s out of the Lionesses’ hands though, with them having done everything possible and more to show that the future of the women’s game in England is very, very bright.