Phil Neville has opened up about his selection criteria as England head coach, admitting form isn’t everything and says “profiling” each and every player goes a long way to deciding who plays against which team.
Neville has consistently rotated every position during his tenure leading the Lionesses, from his goalkeeper to his center back pairing to his strikers.
It has led to Neville already having used 20 of his 23 players during the three group games so far, with just Mary Earps, Leah Williamson, and Lucy Staniforth not seeing any time on the pitch against Scotland, Argentina, and Japan.
Speaking ahead of their second-round encounter with Cameroon, the 42-year-old opened up about how he selects his teams for every game after making eight changes between the Argentina game and the Group D decider against Japan.
“I think it’s the profiling of each player that’s important,” said Neville. “And the profile of the player next to that player is important as well. If you think about the make up of the midfield, you can’t have three runners, you can’t have three passers, and you can’t have three number tens.
“That really shows why, when we brought Jade Moore on [against Argentina], we sent on Karen Carney as well, because we needed a passer next to someone who is going to stifle their counterattacks, when we also had a runner in Jill Scott. So we like to pick combinations. We have really good center back combinations we know work well together and full back, right wing, outside right in midfield.”
Neville went on to add, “We pick players on their profiles, how it fits into the makeup of the team. I’ve learned that along the years. If you have one cog that’s not quite right in the system, that flow of how you want to play football can’t work. If you’ve got a center back that can’t dribble out with the ball in a certain game, you can’t have tactics to dribble the ball out and play from the back. It’s why we change the goalkeepers sometimes, the profiles of Karen Bardsley and Carly Telford are different. It’s not science, it’s common sense: playing the right players in the right positions for the style of football you want to implement in the game.”
While the England job is Neville’s first full-time role as a manager after periods working on the coaching staff at both Valencia and Manchester United, where he was replaced after Louis van Gaal replaced David Moyes, he has worked under top managers including Sir Alex Ferguson, but it’s the Dutchman he seems to have taken a certain amount of inspiration from.
“I remember Louis van Gaal talking about playing a left-footed center back. If you have a left-footed center back it helps with coming out on the left-hand side. If you have a right-footed one on the left of the pair, the movement isn’t as quick or as smooth. So, I felt long and hard about that comment and it’s exactly right.”
He added, “It’s why Lucy Staniforth is, even though she’s not kicked a ball yet, so important. It’s why Leah Williamson later in the tournament, hopefully, will have a role. These players, when certain players are fatigued and we have a certain style, will come into my way of thinking. Staniforth can play in a number of positions and is comfortable on the ball, unbelievable at set pieces. These players are picked for certain reasons.”
Neville, like Mark Sampson and Hope Powell before him, has endured constant questions about why certain players are picked out of form over those who have been in consistently good form for their clubs.
His profiling of players goes a long way to answer the question and Neville himself admits club form isn’t top of his list when it comes to selection.
“Form helps, but I go on the basis that I trust the player to perform, more than actually saying, ‘You’re not in form, so you’re not playing.’ I like to trust the player that she will perform in the game.
“The players think the system and the environment helps them perform if you put the right players around them. Georgia Stanway against Japan had good players around her. When you think about the left side, we told her before the game she was playing with Man City’s Demi Stokes, ex-Man City Toni Duggan, Jill Scott from Man City, Keira Walsh from Man City. So, all of a sudden she had a comfort around her which helped her perform the way she did. If we’d had players from other clubs around her, she wouldn’t have had that connection. It’s the environment we create that helps them perform.”
Neville now has almost no time at all to prepare his side for Sunday evening’s second-round encounter with Cameroon, who Neville described as the “unknown quantity” on Wednesday night when looking at the permutations for the next round.
The Lionesses arrived in Valenciennes on Friday night, meaning they have just Saturday to prepare before the game. Speaking before England found out who they would be facing, Neville admitted preparations would have to be adapted.
“The thing is that we actually have an extra day on them to prepare and recover. It’s tournament football. We’ve gone from a four-day turnaround to now having now just three-day turnarounds. The next two games, if we progress, are literally just play, recover, and play.
“You’ve got to get on with it. We’ve done our preparation. We’ve got people back at St. George’s Park who have done the scouting on all these teams, so we were sent the information on the level that was needed.”
Neville and his players have been watching as many of the games as possible, but have to split their schedule between training, their own games, media commitments and some of the players’ love for Love Island!
Neville himself has watched as many international games as he can since taking the job last January, and admits champions USA look the “favorites” and praised the goalkeeping so far after plenty of debate pre-tournament about whether goals should be made smaller in the women’s game.
“I think what you see with the USA is a team that is powerful. The way they dispatched Thailand, and then Chile the other day. The way they changed the team and still looked powerful. They are, for me, the favorites. Germany look a threat, France started well and are going to be a threat as well. What you’ve seen is that all the top teams have progressed and once we get to the quarterfinals, you’re probably seeing the top teams in the world in them.
“It’s been a fantastic tournament in terms of the quality. The goalkeeping has been unbelievable. We’ve played against three top goalkeepers who have produced saves I’ve never seen in women’s football. The style of football everyone is trying to play has been good as well. I don’t think there’s been many boring 0–0 draws.”
Despite praising the top three ranked sides in the tournament, Neville says he’s seen nothing that “gives me fear” as England looks to go a step further than they managed in both the 2015 World Cup and Euro 2017.
England winning Group D has given them a reasonable path to the semifinals where they are likely to face either hosts France or holders the United States, but Neville has belief in England’s team, even if he admits they are still a work in progress as the tournament progresses.
“I think I’ve seen nothing in this tournament that gives me fear, rather than that I’ve got belief in my players. I’ve seen nothing to make me go, ‘Oh dear, if we play them we’re going to struggle.’ Our biggest tests are against those teams, the team in the next round, the teams that we’re expected to beat but sit low and really stifle us.”
On his team’s on and off moments in the group games being part of the evolution, Neville admits it “frustrates me” but accepts it will take time to get his team to exactly where he wants them.
“I think it’s probably… I’m looking for something that may take a long time to achieve, that total domination for 90 minutes. But maybe no team can do that for 90 minutes. My expectation levels are probably higher than what’s achievable. But I think that’s always a good thing because I have to keep pushing the standards.”
Neville confirmed his team has been practicing penalties ahead of the start of the knockout rounds but said there was a “feel-good factor” about it despite England’s infamous penalty shootout record in major tournaments.
Feel-good factor off the pitch there may be, but England’s players haven’t been afraid to let each other know what they think on the pitch, especially in some moments in the most recent match against Japan, something Neville is encouraging his players to do.
“I think sometimes it’s a good old-fashioned bollocking,” he said. “We said to them early on that you can’t go through a game of football without saying to someone, ‘Come on, you need to do better than that, you’re passing needs to be better, work harder.’ It can’t always be, ‘Thanks, well done,’ all nicey-nicey.
“We have brought that mentality in. Yes, there are certain standards and tones of voice and how we want them to speak to each other. That’s a respect thing but they are demanding of each other. I came into the dressing room yesterday after three or four minutes and they had virtually sorted out what we were going to say anyway. They are self-managing and self-policing, which for me is fantastic as a coach.”
The head coach admitted he has had to let that comfort with each other “develop” over time, and when questioned over whether he himself is too nice, Neville said team selection is always the part of the job he finds hardest.
“When we name the team, it is the hardest five-minute meeting you will ever have. You have got players that are genuinely disappointed. When you care for a set of players, that does leave something on you. That’s the ruthless side now. Now we are in the last 16, it is the best team in every game.
“We have worked hard for 18 months on giving players opportunities, giving them experience, rotating and keeping freshness. Now it’s about being ruthless and winning every game. I said last night that the style of play was non-negotiable but now it is about winning and that’s where me and my team have to become serial winners.”