The England Lionesses are on a five-game streak without a win and any other result against Portugal would ramp the pressure on Phil Neville. But is he the only person responsible for the current situation?
I did a survey on this very question after England’s last game – a 2-1 defeat to Brazil – and here are the results. It is obviously a small sample, but still interesting.
England's recurrent bad defending, who is responsible?
— Sylvain Jamet (@S_Jamet) October 5, 2019
I didn’t put Phil Neville as an option on his own, because even if he is the manager and the face of the coaching staff, he does not do everything alone. We know how big the coaching and support staff is with 50 people in total involved.
What is surprising for me is the 6% voters blaming it on another reason. I guess they put it on the FA organisation itself for hiring Neville?
The 43% that blame Neville and his staff make sense. Their task is clear: Create an environment where the players perform. The hangover from the World Cup is strong with defeats at the tournament to the USA and Sweden followed by a draw against Belgium and two defeats against Norway and Brazil.
The fact that England are hosting the next Euros means they will only play friendlies until the tournament, except for the players who will take part in the Tokyo Olympics. It is not that easy to motivate players for friendly games even if they are professional. The intensity is not the same as a key qualifier, even if most of the games aren’t too difficult.
One recurrent criticism Neville gets is playing many players out of position. It is a fair one, as Bronze, Daly and others do get played out of position and it probably impacts their performance. But it also broadens their horizons and helps provide a back-up plan should players end up being suspended or injured. Friendlies are there to experiment. Experiments can fail, it’s not a problem in my opinion as long as lessons are learnt.
12% of the voters put the responsibility on the players. While it is obvious that they have to take ownership of what is happening on the pitch, putting the blame on them alone is just going to create a siege mentality among some of them.
I read some players felt unjustly criticized during the tournament and qualification as if they were a kind of scapegoat. I think they have a point with fans. If their favorite player does not play, they are likely to criticize the player in their place.
Social media in that respect is really damaging. In 2002, David Seaman was criticized for letting a lob by Ronaldinho go above his head. Today, the same thing could be happening to Karen Bardsley and some fans would be vitriolic on all her social media. It is so much easier nowadays to reach and attack players.
Regarding the media criticising players for their lack of performance, I would think the majority are measured and have no agenda against the players. Is it a personal attack to say “this defender/midfielder/forward is not good enough” or just a reflection of her performances?
There is a recurrent problem with the Lionesses: Defending set-pieces and general play. Individual mistakes play their part and the back four plus the goalkeeper are the first players to be criticized. This can be unfair at times.
Team defending is key, all 11 players defend together – unless you have an attacking player who is not tasked to defend of course. So when you analyze the goals conceded during open play, you can see forwards and midfielders are out of position and they contribute to shipping a goal. It is not only the five players at the back.
If a player repeatedly performs at a level that is not good enough, she needs to improve or get replaced in the starting 11. In that situation, the player is not really to be blamed. How many will go to the coach and tell him/her to drop her because she is not playing well? All the players want to play. The staff should shoulder the responsibility in those situations.
So we are left with the final option chosen by 39%: Coaching staff and players together are responsible for the current slump. To me, this is obviously the correct answer. They are working together. The coaches devise the game plan, systems and tactics, the players apply it well or not on the pitch.
Once the players cross the white line, the manager can only make small in-game adjustments. If the game has been prepared well, the players should be able to perform well.
If not the manager should then drop the players who have repeatedly under-performed especially key players. You don’t drop them after one or two bad performances.
This is where Phil Neville loyalty to senior players is puzzling. I believe some players have done enough to be dropped so a chance can be given to a youngster or an up and coming player, like Leah Williamson or Beth England. There seems to be unlimited credit for certain players and it could really be detrimental to the team.
The next two games against Portugal away and Germany at Wembley will be crucial for Phil Neville and his players. They need to stop the negative trend and strong decisions have to be made in term of the squad and starting 11. The 2021 Euros and 2023 World Cup are coming soon, while the Olympics are less than a year away.
The word crisis is only a defeat away for the Lionesses and their manager.