England’s Defensive Issues Can No Longer be Ignored

England head coach Phil Neville during the 2019 World Cup in France. (Daniela Porcelli)
Daniela Porcelli

When England faced up to a side who had regularly denied them a sniff of victory in the form of France in Phil Neville’s first game in charge of the Lionesses, it didn’t just feel like a brand new era, it looked like up.

With players, fans, and certainly the Football Association desperate to move on from the saga that had threatened to destroy England’s buildup to another World Cup, Neville initially came in as a breath of fresh air. A last resort, no doubt, but someone wide-eyed, bushy-tailed, and eager to learn.

Neville was humble and quietly assured but realistic about the fact he was coming into the job almost blind given he had little prior knowledge of his players.

After a 4–1 dismantling of Corinne Diacre’s side, in which the Lionesses played the sort of ‘ball-on-the-floor’ football Neville had instantly demanded, there was quiet optimism that maybe the FA had stumbled upon a diamond in the rough after seeing candidates from within the women’s game fall away one by one.

Everything is easier in hindsight, but looking back now, the cracks began to appear early on. We grinned as England conceded two fairly laughable goals against Germany and brushed it off once again when a lack of communication between Millie Bright and Karen Bardsley brought defeat against the United States.

Neville was just three games into his tenure as England manager and issues were to be expected early on, but it turns out they were the early warning signs of a fundamental flaw of this Lionesses team, and one that dates back pre-Neville.

While Mark Sampson’s team were nothing if not resolute, the image of captain Steph Houghton getting under a cross in last week’s friendly against Belgium that ended in a 3–3 draw brought back eerily similar images of the Euro 2017 semifinal against the Netherlands when Vivianne Miedema headed home the opening goal of what would be a brutal 0–3 defeat.

Now no longer easy to simply laugh off, the goals conceded under Neville have a constant common theme: poor defending, especially on crosses, whether straight or diagonal, and set pieces.

After Tuesday’s 1–2 defeat in Norway, the Lionesses have conceded a grand total of 21 goals under Neville, nine of which have come in their last four games.

After the calamitous opening three goals conceded that date back to England’s defense at last year’s SheBelieves Cup, the record shows things haven’t improved. Only a brilliant goal-line clearance from Lucy Bronze stopped a corner going past them at home to Wales last April before Russia scored from a cross when Elena Danilova got in between Abbie McManus and Millie Bright, another now all too common theme of England’s goals.

Against Australia at the end of last year, a free header from a corner cost the Lionesses victory, before more chaotic and panicky defending cost them a month later at home to Sweden in a 0–2 defeat.

At SheBelieves this year, a first-minute corner against the U.S. had to be scrambled off the line before a second-half set piece finally found its way home after England’s defense failed to clear the danger.

It was in this game another issue reared its head: England’s lack of ability to deal with diagonal balls into the box. The first goal conceded saw a header find Megan Rapinoe, who promptly hammered a volley into the back of the net.

This issue repeated itself against New Zealand in a pre-World Cup friendly and against Sweden in the World Cup third-place match when Alex Greenwood on both occasions failed to properly clear a cross from deep, and both times the ball ended up in the back of England’s net seconds later.

Against the U.S. in their World Cup semifinal defeat, another cross in from deep allowed Alex Morgan to head it home after Steph Houghton moved out to the edge of the penalty area, a move she would repeat last week against Belgium before inexplicably passing the ball across her own six-yard box to the Belgian attacker.

The Canada and Spain friendlies in April both brought a goal in each that originated from crosses into the box, ensuring more than half the goals England has conceded under Neville coming from balls into the box, whether from open play or set pieces.

The Norway encounter felt like a recurring bad dream. After seeing all three goals against Belgium come from crosses, including a corner, surely it couldn’t happen again just five days later?

It did. An early second-half corner found a Norway head, as had several others in the first half, and England had conceded yet again from a set piece. The second goal was another defensive error, this time from Bright, who doesn’t appear to have put a difficult World Cup behind her.

Houghton lunged in on Caroline Graham Hansen in the box but the Barcelona playmaker got away from the captain and hammered an effort into the roof of the net.

The brutal truth is England is currently masters of their own downfall. The attacking play under Neville is undoubtedly refreshing compared to Mark Sampson’s era and some of the goals scored are excellent bits of attacking and counter-attacking football, but life would be so much easier for the Lionesses if they could eradicate an issue that has now been evident for two years.

The fact they haven’t is alarming. It’s not likely to be a specific personnel issue given how often Neville has chopped and changed his center back partnership over the past 18 months, but Steph Houghton, Abbie McManus, or Millie Bright aren’t doing much to justify their places in the team right now.

A penny for the thoughts of Leah Williamson, who played a tad more than 10 minutes across the two games this week, put on at right back against Norway despite arguably being the best and calmest center back in the FA Women’s Super League last season given her age.

Aoife Mannion has a claim to be close to Williamson on that list, but the new Manchester City defender didn’t get on at all after receiving her first call-up. While neither would ever publicly admit it, both would be forgiven for watching the five goals England has conceded in the last two games and wonder if they’d have done a better job of preventing things.

Last week, Houghton and McManus looked like a pairing that had only met each other the day before the game, let alone spending the last five years playing and training together at Manchester City. Houghton seems overly preoccupied with covering the channel with Lucy Bronze currently playing in midfield, while Bright against Norway was also trying to compensate for Demi Stokes’ struggles against the lively Karina Sævik.

England now faces Brazil next month and will welcome Germany to Wembley in November, two further tough tests and if the same issues continue to arise going into 2020, there should be more than a few alarm bells ringing around St. George’s Park.