For a manager whose team had just won their opening World Cup game, Phil Neville looked distinctly disgruntled. In a telling cameo, he gathered England’s players in a post-match huddle, appearing distinctly stern, almost scary, as he deconstructed a disappointing second-half performance in ruthlessly admonitory fashion.
No matter that the Lionesses had beaten Scotland 2-1 in Nice, leaving them top of Group D as they prepare for Friday night’s game against Argentina in Le Havre – they had strayed from their manager’s pass-and-move mantra.
Philosophy is a loaded word in football. Some coaches loathe it and others love it but it matters deeply to Neville, who has been on a mission to transform England from calculating counterattacking pragmatists to fluent, ball-monopolising, highly principled, attacking stylists since taking the job.
Considering England reached the semi-finals of the last World Cup and European Championship before his installation, ripping up a successful blueprint and attempting to start again represents a brave move but Neville does not really do half measures.
“We have a good relationship with Phil,” says the Chelsea playmaker Fran Kirby. “We know the expectations he has and that, if we don’t provide what he wants, we’ll get told. We need to make sure we fix it up against Argentina.”
Neville’s problem is that, for many of his squad, England’s old style remains the default mode they resort to when they become tired or lose control of games, as happened amid the humidity in Nice on Sunday night.
Given this is the first major tournament the Lionesses have faced since the English domestic game’s switch to a winter season, the philosophical transition could arguably become an increasingly contentious issue if the team advance deeper into the tournament.
“The style of play is different now,” says Kirby. “Before it was long-ball orientated. It was: ‘Make sure you’re fitter than everyone else when you run after the ball.’ Now we use our fitness in other ways.
“Under Mark [Sampson, Neville’s predecessor] we had this thing: ‘Be the fittest team.’ Now we’re more conscious of how we’re playing. The volume of training is more touches on the ball, more possession. It’s more technical work. That’s probably the biggest difference.”
So far so good, but the past two tournaments took place during mid-season breaks in the English domestic programme, dictating that the Lionesses enjoyed lengthy physical preparation, including hot-weather training camps before Canada 2015 and Euro 2017. They limbered up for the latter tournament in the Netherlands amid the heat of Valencia.
This time players’ club commitments meant Neville’s only comparable such exercise was a trip to Doha in January when the weather was significantly cooler than that experienced in Nice, where Kirby says England “lost their legs” in the second half. Moreover England’s manager scrapped most of the planned training sessions in Qatar, opting to give his players a rest and concentrate on bonding exercises, most notably a camping trip to the desert.
Keira Walsh remains unconcerned. The Manchester City defensive central midfielder has come to the fore under Neville and is adamant she is not exhausted by the campaign behind her. “I don’t think any player is thinking about the long season we’ve just had,” she says, relaxing at the team’s new training base amid the genteel charms and restorative serenity of Deauville on the Normandy coast. “We’re at a World Cup; I don’t think anyone’s thinking about how many games they’ve played or how fatigued they feel. We’re all ready to go and win the World Cup.”
Many managers talk about their team playing like Barcelona only to indulge in serious compromise when they meet technically assured opponents, but Neville is big on bravery and calculated risk, and is not given to U-turns.
Accordingly Walsh is not expecting any volte-face. “Phil’s always telling us to keep calm and keep the ball and play passes,” she says. “He has this thing where he says ‘rondos’. That echoes, like playing short passes, keeping the ball. I think we’re always going to try and do that.
“We have our tactics and Phil’s going to always stick with them. Obviously no team’s in complete control for 90 minutes and there’s going to be times when you’re under pressure and you’re going to play the ball a little longer but, overall, the style’s going to remain the same. We know what we’re good at – and that’s keeping possession and creating chances through that possession.”
Critics have pointed out that Scotland’s goal in Nice arrived after a rare error from Steph Houghton, England’s captain, at a point when she was arguably trying to overplay at the back. Walsh does concede that a passing-based approach can be mentally draining at times but still sees a bigger picture. “I think it is mentally fatiguing,” she acknowledges. “It’s more mentally than physically tiring. We’ve got to think about positioning, getting our body on the half-turn and getting in pockets of space.
“But if you let the ball do the work it saves physical energy. Although the passing game is mentally fatiguing, physically it’s a lot easier than having to chase the ball, so we’re going to stick with Phil’s style. We’re confident in what we’re capable of.”