Experimentation Over, England Enters Final Stages of World Cup Preparation

England head coach Phil Neville at a postgame news conference at the 2019 SheBelieves Cup.

Phil Neville says it was “sensational” to watch how his players handled spending a night with the Royal Marines as preparations for the 2019 World Cup enter their final stages.

Following a lead set by the men’s team and Mo Marley’s Under-20 side 12 months ago, this time it was the marines heading to England’s base at St. George’s Park. Neville, all his staff, and players camped out in the center’s grounds, built their own tents, and cooked their own food throughout Wednesday night as Neville looks to take make his squad closer than ever.

Team Bonding

“There’s only certain things you can do in terms of togetherness and spirit,” he admitted on Friday. “We could take them out on the pitch and run them as hard as they can, but they do that every day, that’s the norm for them.”

Neville also admitted his plans to get his side out of their comfort zone goes back as far as the first camp of the year when he took his squad all the way to Qatar for a warm-weather training camp.

“We took them out to the middle of the desert around a campfire. We gave them the challenge to speak about their experiences at World Cups, to speak about the good, the bad, just get it all out there.”

He added, “When you go to a World Cup there’s going to be a massive ups and downs. Homesickness, missing family, playing or not playing, tears, and you need to know the person next to you, know you can trust them, the person next to you is a sister.”

Neville went to several major tournaments as a player with England, though never to a World Cup, and has drawn off of his own personal experiences in order to prepare his squad of 23 for the physical and mental challenges they’ll face given they could be together for the next month and a half should they go all the way in France.

“What I found was I got comfort from players and the staff around me,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I could trust them, trust them more than anyone else because I was going away with them. What we spoke about was that there will be times we’ll all feel sorry for ourselves over the next 40 days.

“But when you listen to some of the soldiers who have lost legs, lost arms, then we can’t moan about a blister or staying in five-star hotels in Nice. It was about stripping everything back, taking away their iPads, phones, and actually finding out a more deeper meaning and a connection to the person next to you. I think we’ve got a special bond but that was the icing on the cake. We slept out in the forest, cooked food off a little stove — it was just an experience we’d never had. To shock them into doing that and seeing how they handled [it] was, for me, sensational.”

Neville also elaborated on the freedom his team has had, and continues to have, in terms of setting their own rules around the camp.

Speaking about whether his players would be banned from using social media during the tournament, Neville said the players have created their own “code of conduct” and queried, “Why stifle someone’s personality?” but admitted two players in the squad have been tasked with monitoring social media and will be keeping an eye out for anyone who strays away from the values the squad set for themselves during January’s Qatar camp.

Final Prep

Attentions now quickly turn to two friendlies against Euro 2017 runners-up Denmark on Saturday and New Zealand, coached by former United States national team head coach Tom Sermanni, a week later.

They provide the final two tests before England face Scotland in Nice on June 9th and Neville’s side will likely come up against one of Europe’s top players in the form of Wolfsburg forward Pernille Harder.

Harder will be the latest in a long line of top-class strikers England has faced lately, and Neville admitted for him the individuals his side faces are almost more important than the teams.

“The world ranking was important and we’ve played 11 out of the top 12 teams,” he said. “I didn’t want to play many teams outside that but playing against certain players and getting an understanding of certain players too.

“I think back to the first SheBelieves Cup. [Dzsenifer] Marozsán was fantastic, [Alex] Popp was fantastic; I’ve studied these players because we’ll come up against them again and we have to nullify them. For me, it was more important to face the individuals; for the team, it’s the world ranking and saying, ‘Can we beat the best teams?’ The USA team was an intrigue for me and working out how to play against certain players in that team was part of my learning experience.”

Harder won’t be at the World Cup after Denmark fell to European champions Netherlands again in a two-legged playoff last year, but the national team captain’s presence in Saturday’s opposition lineup ensures Neville and his side won’t be taking the Danes lightly.

“She’s a player who should be gracing the World Cup,” he admitted. “I watched her for Wolfsburg against Lyon and I thought she was outstanding. The energy and intelligence she has, tomorrow we’re playing against a world-class player and that’s what we wanted, we wanted a big test.”

If Neville wanted to test his side against top individuals, it’s likely he couldn’t pick a stronger list of friendlies. Harder pending, his team have faced Marta, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Christine Sinclair in recent months and would have faced Sam Kerr had Australia not rested several players for last year’s friendly.

“When we spoke to Denmark about arranging this game, the one thing we did stipulate was we wanted their best players to come. It’s the end of the season, they could have brought an experimental team but they’ve brought their top players.”

Denmark will be missing some key players, though. Arsenal’s Katrine Veje is missing through injury, as is former Manchester City and Portland Thorns striker Nadia Nadim, as well as full back Theresa Nielsen.

Neville himself can’t call upon a fully fit squad with goalkeeper Carly Telford missing training on Friday, though the Chelsea goalkeeper could still feature in Saturday’s game.

Two players Neville confirmed won’t feature though are Lucy Bronze and Toni Duggan, both of whom featured in last weekend’s Champions League final in Budapest, and Neville stated he has to “protect” both players after a hectic schedule.

“Toni has played probably 11 or 12 more games than the rest of the team because the schedule in Spain is phenomenal, it’s Saturday–Wednesday every week. Toni might not play either game, they’ve both been here two days so I have to protect them.”

Bronze’s absence likely means another opportunity for Houston Dash forward Rachel Daly at right back after playing there against both Canada and Spain while Neville experimented with Bronze in a center midfield position.

Neville confirmed he will continue to use the Lyon star in midfield when necessary and once again praised Daly for the versatility she brings to the squad.

“Lucy will play midfield at the tournament and she’ll play at right back,” he stated. “That’s something I’m passionate about and I believe in, and more importantly, something Lucy believes in.

“I thought Rachel was outstanding [in the last two friendlies]. I took her off against Spain because she was just starting to fatigue. She’s rarely had a break and she’s worked her absolute socks off. Her personality and character tells me she’ll play at the World Cup, but if you ask me which position I couldn’t tell you.

“She’s got the trust of her manager to an extent I know I can play her anywhere. She was outstanding at SheBelieves against Rapinoe, while for Houston the other week I saw her play up front and she was superb running in behind defenders.”

Expanding on his desire to have versatile players in his squad, Neville admitted ensuring many of his squad players could play in several positions has been a long-term staff decision.

“We worked for 12 months on ensuring we have multi-functional players. We set out the makeup of our World Cup squad 12 months ago and we wanted players who could play three or four positions and play them really well, not just be jack of all trades, master of none.

“Rachel, Kaz [Carney], Georgia [Stanway], Abbie [McManus], Beth [Mead], there’s others too — they’re all totally multi-functional.”

With Bronze and Duggan out, the side which steps out against Denmark at Walsall may not be totally representative of the one that will do so against Scotland in a fortnight’s time, but Neville admits the time for experimenting is now over.

“You’ll probably see the type of team I want to play against Scotland,” he admitted. “It’s too close now to experiment, to start tweaking things, we know what we want to do. It’s about getting continuity and consistency, we have to get our partnerships and combinations and a starting eleven comfortable playing with each other.”