Leah Williamson’s late goal saw the Lionesses end their 2019 with a scrappy 3-2 victory over Czech Republic last night.
The win was only their second in six friendlies since making the semi-finals of this summer’s World Cup in France, but another disjointed performance proved hard work lies ahead for Phil Neville and his players in 2020.
The next three months offers the Lionesses a chance to solve their mounting problems, but what needs to be done to turn their stuttering performances into medal-worthy displays? Ella Jerman reports.
Rest and recover
From France to Belgium, Norway, Portugal and Czech Republic – it has been a relentless few months for the Lionesses who have played seven matches since July’s semi-final defeat to the USA.
The three-month gap in the women’s international calendar will certainly be welcomed by Neville and his players. Since February, the Lionesses have played 20 times – against 16 different opponents.
Their run to the semi-final of the World Cup this summer was the pinnacle, but the rest of 2019 has been a tumultuous one for England, who only won six of their other 13 fixtures – some by the skin of their teeth.
The next time we’ll see the Lionesses in action will likely be in February when they go out to retain their title at the SheBelieves Cup, an annual invitational tournament held in the United States.
Until then, it’s back to life in the Women’s Super League, Division 1 Féminine or National Women’s Soccer League for Neville’s players as they try to come to terms with what went wrong after the highs of the World Cup run in France.
Rethink time for Neville
Christmas isn’t just a chance for the players to have a rethink. The break will certainly come as a relief for Neville, who has come under mounting pressure in recent months for his side’s dismal post-World Cup form.
With the relentless international tempo finally coming to a halt, it’s time for Neville to take a proper step back.
Neville has never seemed to have figured out what his best starting 11 actually is and has had particular problems deciphering his most effective backline, the England boss using seven different back-four combinations in their last eight games.
The England boss has been heavily criticised for his tendency to pick old-time favourites instead of players in form, with Williamson - one of the most consistent defenders in the Women's Super League - often being overlooked, while the division's top scorer Chloe Kelly is yet to get a look in.
“The team reflects the manager and the team aren’t good enough [right now] which means I’m not good enough,” said Neville post-Germany defeat.
Williamson’s last-gasp winner against Czech Republic may have saved his career for now, but Neville has got a lot to work on over the next three months if he wants to turn a stuttering England back into a team capable of becoming world beaters.
Adapting to new-found fame
Results aside, there’s never been a better time to be a Lioness.
Their run to the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup inspired women’s football to unprecedented levels of growth in England, the FA revealing last week that 2.63m aged 16 and over now play the sport.
It’s been a year of landmark occasions for the women’s game, with 11.7m tuning into BBC Sport for the semi-final defeat to the USA before the Lionesses attracted a record-breaking crowd of 77,768 to Wembley for their friendly against Germany last week.
That said, with increased exposure comes increased responsibility and the Lionesses will need to quickly adapt to their new-found fame if they want to be successful in 2020.
“We have pushed for so much media it’s only natural that when results don’t go our way there is going to be questions. We’ve got to see it as a positive that we’ve put ourselves into that situation,” said England defender Gemma Bonner before the game at Wembley.
Bonner’s right. The Lionesses must see criticism as a positive sign in the growth of the women’s game. After all, it’s better than no-one talking about them at all.