Just 54 days after playing what Phil Neville called a “nonsense” third-place play-off at the World Cup, England face a new challenge as they begin their quest to conquer Euro 2021.
Hosting the European Championship for the first time since 2005 means the Lionesses qualify automatically and will instead play friendly matches in the build-up – starting in Belgium on Thursday and Norway next Tuesday.
The England manager is not a fan of non-competitive games, but says the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – for which he takes charge of the Great Britain team – will act as added motivation for his players.
So what are the key challenges facing Neville as he prepares for a huge two years?
- England must be braver and tougher to win trophies – Neville
- How to watch England’s friendlies live on the BBC
Are England over their World Cup hangover?
For all the record TV Audiences, the momentum gained and sceptics won over at the World Cup, England finished with a damp squib after missing out on a bronze medal to Sweden.
Thursday’s game against Belgium will be the first opportunity for the players to demonstrate that they are “braver and tougher” as Neville demanded in Brussels on Wednesday.
He also said his players are not at the required standard to win a gold medal – a change in tack, as during the tournament he indicated that they had the credentials to win a major tournament for the first time.
But the players will have no room for an ‘off season’ if they want to play at the Olympics, as Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish players will also be vying for places in his Great Britain squad.
That should ensure there is no post-World Cup complacency. With new and old faces in the squad, Neville says the players will use the “hurt and frustration” from the summer as “fuel”.
Does Williams signify a step forward?
The Lionesses squad has not seen wholesale changes from the World Cup, but those that have come in are intriguing nonetheless.
Williams was not picked for the World Cup either, but Neville said before the tournament that her England career was not over. Former Reading team-mate Becky Jane, now at Liverpool, says the 35-year-old midfielder has been eagerly awaiting a recall.
There is no doubt that Williams will bring her guile and experience to the squad, which lacked inventiveness in midfield at times during the World Cup. But she was not at her peak during her last major tournament at Euro 2017, not least in the semi-final defeat by hosts and eventual winners the Netherlands.
However, she showed with Reading last season that she is still one of the Women’s Super League’s top performers – and Neville said: “Fara wants to be picked for footballing ability and I will only pick her on that.”
Can the newcomers take their chances?
The head coach says they have been picked for their strength of character as much as for their football ability, which he says is increasingly important for England.
“They bring character, they never moan, train hard and do the extra bits,” Neville said.
Neville said England and Mannion, who has represented her country at every youth level, would have been “frustrated” by their lack of chances after a “fantastic 12 months”.
The Chelsea forward had a sterling end to last season, scoring 12 goals in 12 WSL starts. Her inclusion comes in place of the injured Ellen White, who was England’s top scorer at the World Cup.
Mannion’s path to a centre-back berth has been blocked by Steph Houghton, Millie Bright, Abbie McManus and Leah Williamson, and has not been helped by a manager willing to rotate his central defenders.
But after moving to Manchester City from Birmingham in July, she will be able to tap into the experience of new club-mate and England captain Houghton, while Chelsea’s England could take advantage of the fact that White is set to miss out on the next “two to three camps” according to Neville.
Will Neville’s tactics still work?
For the most part, Neville impressed at the World Cup, his first major tournament, but there were questions about some of his tactical decisions.
His desire to play stylish football out from the back is “non-negotiable” and while it brought in new fans, it also carried an element of risk.
At times, it did not suit England’s defenders, and their attempts to move the ball forward quickly with short, sharp passing looked like a work in progress.
Neville says he won’t change his methods but admitted “it might take 12 months” for his style to fully take shape. Fortunately, with only friendly games to come, he can fine-tune his tactics rather than worrying about results too much.
Are friendlies better than qualifying?
England have not lost a European Championship or World Cup qualifier since 2002 – when they were beaten by Germany and then in a play-off by France – denying them a place at the 2003 World Cup in China.
In more recent years, qualification has been almost inevitable with some particularly one-sided games against European minnows. This time, England have a chance to organise friendlies of a more testing nature. In the build-up to the 2019 World Cup, the Lionesses lost to New Zealand and Canada, which provided plenty of food for thought.
England drew and beat Belgium in qualifying for Euro 2017, while Norway will offer a stern test even if the Lionesses produced their best performance of the World Cup to beat them 3-0 in France.
After that, England will hope to defend their SheBelieves Cup title next March, by which time the Olympics – and a massive 18 months for Neville and his players – will come firmly into view.