England are not playing well enough to win this World Cup - when will Phil Neville decide his best XI?

Paul Hayward
The Telegraph
Phil Neville has made 15 changes in four matches so far at this World Cup - Getty Images Europe
Phil Neville has made 15 changes in four matches so far at this World Cup - Getty Images Europe

The battle smoke drifting over the Stade du Hainaut in Valenciennes obscured a disquieting reality. England are currently not playing well enough to win this World Cup.

Now that the Great Rotation has delivered them to a quarter-final against Norway in Le Havre, all known logic suggests Phil Neville needs to decide on his best starting XI and work with them intensively. It may already be too late to bring England up a level from toughness, tenacity, and grinding out wins, which they have been doing throughout four games in France, because Norway present a formidable challenge. The quarter-finals, though, would be a good time for Neville’s squad to acquire the rhythm and accuracy of passing that characterises the best teams at this tournament.

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After a chaotic 3-0 win against Cameroon, many of England’s followers repaired to local bars to watch France knock out Brazil in a game that displayed a level Norway’s opponents on Thursday have yet to consistently match. Strike action, elbows, spitting and ankle-tackling covered up England’s struggle to impose a pattern on Cameroon, whose disruptive approach would have unsettled any side. But this was no one-off for England, who were superb in the first-half against Scotland in their opening game but have mostly since fallen short of that standard, though there have been passages of stylish play and plenty of iron defending.

Neville’s quest to bind 23 players into a single fighting force and an almost interchangeable starting XI has achieved its first objective. From here, more is needed on the road to Lyon. If Neville can win a World Cup rotating his team all the way to the finale he will have broken the mould of managing teams in tournaments. The benefits of doing so are outweighed by an inconvenient truth: England are starting players who are out of form, and are denying others the chance to form understandings and partnerships: a vital asset for teams in knockout rounds in women’s, men’s, and every kind of football.

Fifteen changes in four matches mitigates against the formation of pairings. It denies players the chance to work on links and moves with team-mates. To name names, Nikita Parris, who was sensational for an hour against Scotland in league with Lucy Bronze on the right, has not been the same since. She was left out for England’s third group game against Japan and was ineffectual against Cameroon, where, admittedly, a fourth-minute elbow to the jaw might have affected her.

<span>Nikita Parris has yet to rediscover her best form since being rested against Japan</span> <span>Credit: getty images </span>
Nikita Parris has yet to rediscover her best form since being rested against Japan Credit: getty images

In the playmaking role, Fran Kirby’s use of the ball has not been good enough and her pace has dropped away. Georgia Stanway made an excellent debut in that No 10 position against Japan but returned to the bench in Valenciennes, where she sat with Beth Mead and Rachel Daly, two others with strong claims on a starting shirt. In deep midfield, meanwhile, Keira Walsh has not excelled in the screening role and Neville has needed fresh legs in the heart of the team in the second-half of just about every game at this tournament.

A 63 per cent possession rate against Cameroon is respectable, but an 80 per cent pass accuracy rate hides the fact that too many of England’s penetrative passes are not reaching their intended recipient. Possession is lost far too often, which puts pressure on players to chase the ball back in the heat. Decision-making in the final-third is also often below the mark required of world champions.

England are relying too heavily on the stalwarts Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton, Jill Scott and Ellen White, who has scored four times in three games, and whose ‘eye’ is clearly in. Toni Duggan, who was injured for the first two games, was sharper against Cameroon. Around that core, rotation and faltering form is forcing England back on to a base of resilience and resolve. The point is approaching though when those virtues will be outdone by opponents who move, keep and dispatch the ball better than England currently do.

At the weekend Neville said: “Form helps, but I go on the basis that I trust the player in a particular game, more than saying: ‘You’re not in form, so you’re not playing.’”

This bold approach is giving almost everyone playing time and conserves energy for all bar a handful of Neville’s players. But nobody could argue that England’s performances are improving. The old tournament standard of a side not having quite “clicked” yet applies to them and the easier games are now behind them.

Four straight wins belong on the credit side of Neville’s ledger. Each victory has been admirable in its way. World Cup winners, though, tend to be more than admirable. They build an identity and rhythm around their best starting XI and become irresistible. Neville needs to say, in old manager-speak: “This is my best team and I’m coming to get you.”

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