How FA WSL’s Crazy Weekend Could Lead to Bigger Headaches for Phil Neville

Phil Neville, head coach of England. (YouTube, England FA)
Phil Neville addressing the media.

England head coach Phil Neville has spoken more and more about wanting to expand the pool of players he has available to him when it comes to selecting his squads for national team games.

Neville has at times wished he could pick more than 23 players for his squads, expressing his wish to pick as many as 30 with the likes of Beth Mead, Gabby George, Leah Williamson, Abbie McManus, and Lucy Staniforth all now winning regular spots in his squads since the 41-year-old took over in January.

Neville has called up 31 different players to his five squads so far, 32 if you count Manchester City goalkeeper Ellie Roebuck who traveled to SheBelieves as a non-squad player.

But still questions are being thrown at the England head coach regarding those players still not making the squad, leading Neville to state he wouldn’t be swayed by the opinions of fans and journalists ahead of England’s recent friendlies against Brazil and Australia.

The lack of a call-up for Birmingham City’s Aoife Mannion has been the main talking point, as was his decision to bring in Siobhan Chamberlain — currently playing in the second tier — over the in-form Sophie Baggaley when Karen Bardsley pulled out of camp earlier this month.

Last weekend the FA Women’s Super League threw up its craziest weekend in quite some time. As Manchester City were closing out a chaotic 7-1 victory against West Ham, Nick Cushing’s side’s biggest goal haul since 2014, Chelsea were going 0-2 down at home to Arsenal as word spread among City players that the champions were spiraling out of control, eventually falling to what was a stunning 0-5 defeat, their first in 25 matches.

With high-flying Bristol City losing to Birmingham, and Everton and Brighton throwing up a thrilling 3-3 draw in one of the best weekends the league has seen for quite some time may also have given Neville a bigger headache than ever before.

The Lionesses are set to face two more games next month and Neville claims he has already planned out his squads for the next few matches, including a plan to bring in several young players to add to his current tally of 31 players used.

Aside from Chamberlain’s recent return to the squad, the goalkeeping position has long been a dilemma for Neville and he said before the recent matches it would potentially provide his biggest decision when picking his squad for France.

Under Mark Sampson, a lack of alternatives ready for the step up saw Karen Bardsley, Siobhan Chamberlain, and Carly Telford become the established trio but Chamberlain’s difficult season with Liverpool combined with Bardsley’s continuous injury issues have left the door open for others.

Mary Earps did travel as a non-squad member to Euro 2017 under Sampson and made her debut, continuing her rise under Neville and starting the most recent friendly against Australia.

But with Bristol’s Baggaley in top form and having just been named September’s Player of the Month in the FA WSL, there’s a chance for new blood with Bardsley almost certainly out of the next camp with an ankle injury.

With Telford and Earps likely to retain their spots, now will be the time we see who Neville prioritizes as next in line should he not call on the experience of Chamberlain once again.

Baggaley should be front of the queue given her form but it could also be a chance for Manchester City’s Ellie Roebuck who could end up the main beneficiary of Bardsley’s injury at both club and international levels.

The 19-year-old has barely kicked a ball since injury hampered her own year back in April, remaining on the bench behind Sandy MacIver for every minute of England’s Under-20 World Cup campaign.

Other alternatives include West Ham’s Becky Spencer and Yeovil’s Megan Walsh. The former has been in good form for her new club although picked a bad time to have a poor game at Manchester City at the weekend with Neville watching on from the stands.

Walsh goes regularly under the radar due to Yeovil’s form and the fact they are yet to win a game since making the top tier at the start of 2017.

But to those who know, Yeovil’s defeats would be all the more horrendous in score line if it weren’t for Walsh. The goalkeeper has been in stunning form and was largely responsible for well-earned draws against Birmingham and Arsenal last season and Sunday’s 2-1 defeat at Liverpool would have been a lot more one-sided if it wasn’t for Walsh.

Elsewhere the weekend once again emphasized Mannion’s argument for inclusion in the squad. The center back was denied from the penalty spot, ironically by Baggaley, but exacted her revenge with a stunning effort from distance to win the match for Marc Skinner’s side.

Birmingham have conceded in just one game this season and kept clean sheets in their other four, with Mannion now a key figure in that success. Neville has repeatedly said Mannion is close to his squad and she was on standby for the most recent camp but that call-up is yet to come.

With Neville’s options expanding and his decisions for France 2019 becoming all the more difficult, Mannion may be losing out to Leah Williamson, Gabby George, and Abbie McManus due to the trio’s versatility.

Neville, like his predecessor, may favor those who can cover different positions so he can pick fewer players in specific areas and open up his options further up the field. Williamson consistently played the right back role as U-20 captain under Mo Marley and made her mark in the FA WSL originally as a more than able box-to-box midfielder.

George made her first start in Kazakhstan at left back while McManus has proven for her club she’s comfortable and able to play all along the back line. The latter of the trio is suffering right now due to Nick Cushing’s preference for a back three consisting of Gemma Bonner, Steph Houghton, and Jen Beattie, and it could be that McManus is the one to make way but Neville has regularly been glowing in his praise of the 25-year-old.

Williamson is perhaps the one pushing for a greater role within the squad. The youngster was critical of her own performance at Chelsea at the weekend but she is continuing to grow in the center back role but anybody right now is finding it hard to dislodge a duo of Houghton and Millie Bright, the pair now consistently England’s go-to center back pairing over the past 18 months.

Another puzzle for Neville brought to the surface in the Chelsea versus Arsenal match was the varying performances of Jordan Nobbs and Fran Kirby.

Kirby has always been seen as a striker at her club while Nobbs has always had the freedom to get forward and influence games from midfield, as she did so successfully on Sunday.

For England, Kirby has been used in a deeper No. 10 role ever since Neville took over, leaving Nobbs either out of the team or playing a deeper holding role, a role a player of her quality can still influence games from but we haven’t seen the best of Nobbs for her country, the midfielder has just seven international goals to her name (the same as right back Lucy Bronze).

Kirby has stalled for her club so far this season. Chelsea has scored just two league goals in their opening five matches, and Kirby has just one league goal to her name and one wonders if the more “create before score” role she has for England is affecting her form in front of goal at Kingsmeadow.

The evidence suggests not given Kirby did manage to find the net playing from deep in both of England’s games against Brazil and Australia but she has shown hesitations in front of goal, deciding to set up Lucy Staniforth against Australia instead of shooting herself in a one-on-one situation against Mackenzie Arnold.

It’s not an unfamiliar sight to those who watched Kirby pass up a golden opportunity to score against Germany at SheBelieves and the performance of Nobbs at the weekend will surely give Neville food for thought moving forward.

Behind goalkeeper, the No. 10 role may provide Neville with his biggest headache not just at the World Cup but for years to come.

With Kirby currently the preferred option but Nobbs, new Lyon midfielder Izzy Christiansen and Birmingham’s Lucy Staniforth also able to play the same role, Neville has plenty of options for what is one very specialized position.

Behind them, Chelsea captain Karen Carney will be looking to earn a spot back in the squad after a lengthy lay-off from injury while Manchester City’s Georgia Stanway may be giving Neville the biggest issue of all.

The 19-year-old was taken to SheBelieves but is yet to make her senior debut. After six goals at the U-20 World Cup saw her tie for top scorer in the tournament, the explosive midfielder has continued her good form, most recently bagging two as a substitute against West Ham on Sunday.

With one of the most powerful shots in the league already and an ability to score from any situation, the fact Stanway is yet to make an impression on the national team shows the depth of options Neville has available to him.

With the recent success of the U-23 team noted and several players from the U-20 side from the summer catching the eye, Neville could probably pick two squads of 23 for his next squad in a few weeks, let alone one.