Predicting Phil Neville’s England lineups hasn’t always been an easy talk. The Lionesses’ head coach has constantly experimented between starting XIs and systems during the buildup to the World Cup opener against Scotland on Sunday, but now he’s tasked with picking his strongest XI for what will undoubtedly be a tough match.
With England now settled in their Nice base with 72 hours to go until the crunch encounter, what might Neville’s team look like when the two teams walk out at the Allianz Riviera Stadium? We take a look.
There’s been plenty of occasions where it’s looked like Chelsea’s Carly Telford has been Neville’s No. 1 during his 18-month tenure so far, but there’s just a growing feeling he might call on experience when the time comes.
Not that Telford isn’t experienced in terms of her career, but now into her 30s, she’s yet to play a minute of a major tournament. Bardsley, on the other hand, was No. 1 under Mark Sampson at the last two major tournaments and with Scotland likely to be a feistier game than Argentina or Japan, plus the aerial threat of Jennifer Beattie and England’s susceptibility to set pieces, it would be no surprise to see Bardsley get the nod.
An easy pick. Despite Neville’s occasional tendency to play Bronze in midfield, she’s not only one of the best right backs in the world but also the only natural right back in the England squad.
Leah Williamson, Abbie McManus, and Rachel Daly can all play the role if Bronze gets injured or the head coach once again decides to use her energy and drive in the middle of the pitch, but teams will remember her performances in the knockout stages four years ago when she lines up at right back at any stage of the tournament.
As Neville himself once said, ‘You’re captain, can I go home now?’ If Houghton is fit, she’ll start. Neville gave all four of his center backs starts in the final two warm-up friendlies and Houghton was left out for the first but there’s no doubting the skipper will lead her team out on Sunday.
Bright’s position alongside Houghton should be a sure bet but it’s not something England fans have seen a lot of during Neville’s 19 games in charge. As Mark Sampson also found ahead of Euro 2017, settling on a consistent partnership can be difficult but until Sampson lost his job, Bright won her spot in the team and became a regular alongside Houghton.
But Houghton and Bright have started just three games together under Neville with Abbie McManus the defender most regularly used and Leah Williamson impressing when chosen. Still, it’s hard to see Neville leaving Bright out for this one.
Not always the number one choice under previous management, Greenwood has had plenty of opportunities to take her chances after Demi Stokes missed most of 2018 with a hip injury.
She took those opportunities at times but a sending off against Bosnia didn’t help her case, but suggestions are that Neville prefers the Manchester United defender to her Manchester City counterpart. Greenwood could have done better for New Zealand’s winner last weekend but the fact Stokes picked up a knock and is still training separately from the team gives Greenwood a great chance of a starting spot.
The Manchester City midfielder might be one of the newer members of the squad but her impact has been felt. Walsh’s ability to dictate with the ball from deep has been evident in the five years since she made her City debut and she’s now bringing it onto the international stage.
Walsh shone most of all with a superb performance as England wrapped up the SheBelieves Cup against Japan in March, playing a particularly memorable pass to Beth Mead for England’s third goal. Neville could call on the experience of Jade Moore but he will have been worried by how off the pace she looked against Denmark in the recent friendly match.
You could make every argument that Scott has been England’s most important player under Neville so far. She self-confesses that she doesn’t score enough goals but she has five under Neville, the joint most alongside Beth Mead.
Those goals include a critical goal against Wales and more recently, a header against Denmark after a late run into the box that shows what Scott can offer in terms of an added goal threat in Neville’s more attacking system. Whoever partners her, it’s almost a sure bet Scott will start on Sunday.
We’ve not quite seen the levels of goal scoring from Parris that we may have expected given her form for Manchester City, but it should also be taken into account she’s playing a different, much wider role for her country.
Still, her natural raw pace is enough of an outlet to cause teams problems and she showed against the United States that when she gets her runs right and the pass through is right, her finishing has improved vastly over the years. Beth Mead has also impressed on the right but it’s hard not imagine seeing Parris’s name on Sunday’s team sheet.
Kirby might be one of the biggest question marks in Neville’s team but he’s made her an almost vital part of his plans since day one. Setting his stall out using Kirby as a No. 10, rather than a striker from his first game, Kirby has blown hot and cold, showing glimpses of her creative influences but also struggling to provide meaningful contributions against tighter defensive units.
In her performance against New Zealand, she looked like a player either frustrated and/or lacking confidence and she may be saved by the fact Neville admits he’s already pre-selected his team, or else Karen Carney’s substitute appearance would provide cause for concern. Georgia Stanway has also started two of the last three games but you get the feeling Kirby will be called upon when the time comes.
Six months ago, Mead was probably a player most wouldn’t have dreamed of putting in their potential England starting XIs, but an honest talk from Neville has brought the best out of the Arsenal forward.
The SheBelieves Cup was a huge turning point for Mead, who scored in two of the three games and has continued her good form for both club and country. While she’s often shown her best work on the right, you’d fancy her to occupy the left wing role on Sunday, especially with Toni Duggan having featured sporadically and having pulled out of training with a suspected thigh issue on Wednesday.
There were probably few question marks about White starting up front given her goal-scoring record in the FA Women’s Soccer League, but Jodie Taylor’s substandard and confidence-lacking performance last weekend probably sealed the deal.
While one is playing like a player who doesn’t have an England goal in over a year, the other is playing like a forward who is finding the net on a regular basis. White is yet to be a completely regular starter for England in an international tournament but you feel 2019 is her year to shine.