After a string of embarrassing results, the England coach should be under massive pressure. Why isn’t he?
England went on a good run last summer, making it all the way to the World Cup semifinal, where they lost by just one goal to the eventual champions from the United States. All in all, it was a successful tournament. But it closed on a sour note with the team mostly failing to turn up for the third place match. In the aftermath of that defeat, coach Phil Neville declared the event a ‘nonsense’ game. I happen to share Neville’s opinion of this match, but even so it was hardly a politic thing to say and came off like a bad case of sour grapes.
The remainder of 2019 went no better, with England losing match after match. In fact, they closed out the year losing five of their last eight games—only managing single-goal wins against Portugal and the Czech Republic, neither anywhere close to the world’s top teams. But through it all, Neville insisted that everything remained on track.
But the start of 2020 hasn’t brought much positive news, either. A 2-0 defeat to the US pushed their dismal run to six losses in nine games. And yet, according to Neville’s post-match comments: “The gap still hasn't widened. When we are playing, say for instance in that first half, I still see a team that are willing to go out there and play against the best team in the world.”
This is pure delusion. England is in the middle of their domestic season, with all their players in good form. The US are months removed from the conclusion of the NWSL season. While the team did get some competition in the Concacaf Olympic qualifying, that was a quick burst of five games. They came into this match rusty, and it showed. But even with that rust, they absolutely dominated the match. Neville’s team were lucky to lose by only the two goals.
England did manage to put together a win in their second match against Japan, but it was hardly a game-changing performance. See the commentary: “England limp past Japan,” “still lacked the sharpness,”and “a game that felt anything but straightforward.”
Yes, England have suffered some big injuries, with key players like Lucy Bronze and Beth Mead missing from this squad. But injuries are part of the game. And there’s still plenty of quality in this England team. Not enough to make them favorites against the US, but surely enough to make the talk of a ‘rivalry’ between the two nations at least plausible. And yet their match did not look anything like a rivalry, except in the sense that the wolf and the hare share a rivalry.
Neville has repeatedly stated that he’s not willing to compromise on style. But what exactly is their style? Apart from falling asleep in defense, it’s hard to identify any consistent theme in the England team over the past couple years. The squad features top players from some of the best clubs in the world, but they tend to lose all identity and coherence once they put on their England kits.
I have at times been a Neville apologist. His first 18 months on the job mostly went well. He brings knowledge and experience from a long and successful playing career—albeit not much in the way of coaching experience. His tactical flexibility offers some potential strength. But increasingly, that flexibility presents more as casting about desperately for answers to questions he’s not even sure how to ask. He veers on a dime between cheerful, aggressive optimism to sullen, miserable accusations. Neither feels appropriate. He insists that all is well, when it’s clear to anyone with the ability to read a scoresheet that all is not well.
Is it all his fault? Almost certainly not. Teams are complicated, and there is rarely a monocausal explanation for decline. But taking a top coaching job means bearing the responsibility. Whether it’s your ‘fault’ or not, you are the face of the team, and if things need to change, the first and easiest place to reset is with at the top.
Which brings us to the key point. Whether or not you think Neville is to blame, there’s no denying that a similarly-situated coach of a men’s program would already be out looking for a new job. Top five programs do not tolerate this degree of sustained mediocrity, nor should they.
So I’m not actually that interested in parsing out just how much of the fault should adhere to Neville. What I really want to know is: Does the English FA actually respect its players? Or does it still regard them as a pleasant distraction, one that’s not important enough to really get worked up over? Their treatment of Neville certainly indicates the latter. Try to imagine Gareth Southgate going through a stretch like this. You actually can’t. Because there’s no way he would have been allowed to continue after the results of the fall.
Perhaps Neville will still find success. Maybe they’ll beat Spain on Wednesday and be able to put a positive spin on this tournament. Maybe they’ll even ride the wave to success at the Olympics as Team GB. It wouldn’t be the most surprising thing in the world. After all, this really is an incredibly talented group of players. But the fact that he’s even being given these repeated chances at redemption proves that there is a clear double standard at the top of the English ranks.
Because if Neville does turn things around, it will only be because he was given a leash far longer than he’d ever have received if he were coaching the men’s team. And whatever you think about him or his specific tenure, that’s just not right.