By Simon Evans
LYON, France (Reuters) – There was an upbeat tone to England manager Phil Neville after his team’s semi-final loss to the United States in the women’s World Cup semi-final on Tuesday but when the emotion has faded he will surely scrutinize more closely how his side’s dream ended.
England “conquered hearts and minds”, the Guardian newspaper declared, and while there is no doubt they were outstanding ambassadors and will have provided inspiration for young girls taking up the game, they ended up in the same place as in their last two tournaments.
The Lionesses take their role as promoters of women’s football seriously but they are also a group of players who desperately wanted to win.
“The aim is for us to become the best, like America. We’ve still got a bit to go, but I won’t stop until we get there,” Neville said.
The most evident area in need of an upgrade is ball retention.
Former England player Alex Scott, now a BBC pundit BBC, noted that throughout the tournament the team struggled with keeping possession.
“Sloppy is the right word,” she said.
“If Phil has come in with this philosophy that we are going to be this footballing team, we do want to play out from the back and play through the thirds, well, we do need to be better on the ball.
“At points we were architects of our own downfall, we were handing the ball to the U.S,” Scott added.
The U.S are stereotyped as a team who rely on speed and athleticism but they possess much more than that — midfielder Rose Lavelle is no powerhouse but she was supremely confident on the ball and decisive at key moments.
England lacked a player capable of grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck in midfield and their potency down the right flank, so prominent in the quarter-final win over Norway, vanished in Neville’s changed formation.
Nikita Parris, who combined to such great effect with attacking full back Lucy Bronze against Norway, was moved to a more central role and looked lost throughout the first half.
That raises the question of Neville’s tactics.
In the opening stages, which set the tone for the game as England struggled against waves of American attacks before conceding in the 10th minute, England looked far from organized or compact.
The Americans were given space in midfield and Keira Walsh and Jill Scott, both accomplished in their roles, were swamped and left chasing shadows.
It wasn’t until the adjustments Neville made at halftime, with his team 2-1 down, that England had the shape needed to effectively challenge the U.S.
England did a good job of chasing the game, thanks to Ellen White’s brilliant finishing which has been the highlight of the tournament for the team.
White, along with Bronze, is one of the few England players who would contend for a place in the team of the tournament having scored six goals.
She might have had another if video review hadn’t spotted that her foot was a couple of centimeters ahead of the last American defender — and she could have also added to her tally if she had been given the late penalty to take.
It is easy to be wise after the event but such has been White’s confidence in front of goal, exhibited again in Lyon, that it is questionable at least why the spot-kick duty was handed to a defender in Steph Houghton, whose weak effort was saved.
“I’m not on penalties… staff make the decision,” White said. “Steph was on penalties and she stepped up and fair play to her.”
Moments like that are in the category of “ifs and maybes” but what was clear is that for all the pre-match talk of the Americans being more beatable than in the past, England are still some way short of their standard.
With unprecedented backing from the Football Association and top clubs investing in their women’s teams, the potential for progress is there.
When Saturday’s third-place game in Nice is over it will be down to Neville to find ways to bridge the gap.
(Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Ed Osmond)