When the England women’s team travelling to the FIFA World Cup in France later this year was announced through a drip-feed of posts by celebrities on social media (including Prince William, David Beckham, James Corden and Raheem Sterling among others) a superficial glance at the squad told you that everything was pretty much as expected - the operative phrase here being “pretty much”.
By far the biggest absentee is Lyon midfielder Izzy Christiansen who had lost the race against time to recover from an ankle injury suffered during a successful SheBelieves Cup campaign in the USA. The other notable exclusion is Arsenal midfielder Jordan Nobbs who suffered an ACL tear. But other than those two (and the absence of Reading midfielder Fara Williams) it is a familiar, dependable squad – most of whom have worked with Phil Neville for extended periods of time.
The nucleus of the team is, of course, the team that won bronze at the World Cup four years ago in Canada. Manchester City’s Jill Scott and Chelsea’s Karen Carney will both be playing in their fourth World Cups – making them the first English players since Sir Bobby Charlton to achieve that feat. However, there is enough youth in the squad to provide the right mix going into a tournament with the likes of Georgia Stanway, Beth Mead and Leah Williamson (the latter two coming off a title winning season in the Women’s Super League with Arsenal).
It’s also a squad filled with talent with right back Lucy Bronze and midfielder Fran Kirby easily among the contenders for player of the tournament. Steph Houghton, Demi Stokes and Bronze should make up three of the back four. The other centre-back position is a tossup between Houghton’s City teammate Abbie McManus, Chelsea’s Millie Bright and Leah Williamson. While McManus benefits from having played with Houghton at club level and Williamson brings poise and control on the ball that the other two lack, Bright is very likely to be the one lacing her boots up in the starting eleven because of her experience compared to the other two.
Phil Neville then faces a dilemma with midfield and attack though, depending on what formation he chooses to play with. While a 4-2-3-1 has maximised Kirby’s talents the most in past games, a 4-3-3 has proven most effective in exploiting the talents of the English wingers. Either way, Karen Carney and Fran Kirby are likely to be two people first on the team sheet. Manchester City’s Keira Walsh has shone in recent games so she is likely to start although Jade Moore has more experience and Lucy Bronze has also been tried in midfield with Rachel Daly slotting in at right back.
Up top, Birmingham City’s Ellen White will likely get the nod ahead of Jodie Taylor despite the latter having played a pivotal part in England’s semi-final finish at the Euros two years ago. Nikita Parris is a definite starter on one side of her given the season she has had for both club and country. On the other side, Toni Duggan looks favourite to start ahead of the others but there have been times – especially in the SheBelieves Cup - where Karen Carney has started ahead of her when they have played with a 4-2-3-1. So that might be something to look out for, not to mention that the form that Beth Mead has shown in her appearances for England on the wing could also put her in contention for a starting spot.
All in all, this is a balanced team, completely different from the pragmatic team that Mark Sampson put out in Canada. Unlike the counterattacking style that England played at the last World Cup, this one is likely to see this team get the better of their opponents in terms of possession and creating chances for each other with the slick passing style that Neville espouses. But the question that needs to be answered is whether there is too much style over substance? Recent results against Canada and Spain for example, may entail a return to a more pragmatic approach during the World Cup especially when facing stronger opposition like France, the USA or Japan.