When Phil Neville’s England lost in the Women’s World Cup semi-finals against the United States, they were commended. They went toe-to-toe with the reigning world champions, who would just days later defend that title, in an exhilarating match. Fast forward six months and things have quickly turned sour.
That defeat would be the first of seven that the Lionesses have tasted in their last 11 games. Even in their three wins, England have been counting their lucky stars.
In a 1-0 victory over Portugal, Beth Mead would benefit from a calamitous goalkeeping error. Against the Czech Republic, Leah Williamson’s strike would take a fortuitous deflection to win the game 3-2 with four minutes to go. And in Sunday’s win over Japan, Toni Duggan was gifted possession in a dangerous area, teeing up Ellen White to win the game late on.
The ‘World Cup hangover’ excuses have well and truly expired, with Neville himself admitting after the latest defeat to Spain on Wednesday night that it’s not good enough.
"I've got to start earning my coin, being a better manager - and the results need to improve,” he said. "Ultimately, we need to find the formula. I think we need to take a step back now and start building the foundations again - getting back to the brilliant basics."
England showcased their brilliant basics at the World Cup. Particularly in the wins over Scotland, Japan and Norway, they were positive, direct and dominant. However, there was always a niggling problem that they took their foot off the gas a little in the latter stages of games. That problem has now grown much bigger and England are hardly putting their foot on the pedal at all.
Furthermore, their big defensive weakness is becoming a real issue. Ten of their last 18 goals conceded have come from crosses or set pieces – including the only goal of their latest defeat. After losing 2-0 to the USA last week, Neville insisted that “the gap hasn’t widened” in the six months since his team last faced the world champions.
"Our team is different. There are a lot of young players in there. We are building something new.” There were seven players in Neville’s SheBelieves Cup that didn’t go to the World Cup, albeit two of those were forced due to injuries to Lucy Bronze and Beth Mead.
But the USA are also in a ‘new’ stage. They had three players in their squad for the tournament that didn’t go to France and, more importantly, a new manager, Vlatko Andonovski. Factor in that they lost their performance coach Dawn Scott to England too, a departure that the USWNT players have stressed as huge, and it’s too easy to suggest that the world champions are just as they’ve always been.
The difference is that the USA have a strong, winning mentality, something difficult to overcome. But, as well as that, they also look clearly defined in how they want to play and who they want to be.
Days after stressing the idea that England are in a transition stage, Neville then stressed the importance of the result over everything after beating Japan. The message is very muddled. Is the aim to get results now? Is it to develop young players ahead of the home Euros in 2021? Is it a mixture of both?
That muddled message was reflected England’s performances at the SheBelieves Cup, as has been in most of their games since the World Cup too. Neville talks about having a “non-negotiable” style, but it’s difficult to tell just what that style is. When England take to the pitch, you don’t always know what you’re going to get from them.
The good thing is that, now, he’s not hiding from the problems. In earlier months of this tough run, Neville was, to the frustration of many, stating his belief that the team were playing ‘brilliant’. He has since changed his tone.
"I went through five managers in Valencia with better records than I've got at this moment in time," he said after last night’s defeat. "David Moyes lost his job at Manchester United with probably a better record than I've got so I take responsibility.”
Neville has time to reflect and reassess. England won’t play any fixtures during the April international break, meaning they won’t play another game under Neville until August or September. Questions have been asked of him for months now, questions that he says are fair.
In six months’ time, if things still don’t show any signs of improvement and those questions continue, the FA will have a serious decision to make.