Meet the World Cup favorites: England hopes Neville gets his tactics right

With the Women’s World Cup just days away, we’re taking an in-depth look at the five perceived favorites by examining their strengths, weaknesses, and title prospects. Today, we break down England’s chances of success.

Fact file

  • FIFA ranking: No. 3
  • Best World Cup finish: Third place (2015)
  • Manager: Phil Neville

What you need to know

The Phil Neville era started well. In England’s first match under the former Manchester United veteran, the Lionesses dumped France 4-1 before a tight-fought draw with Germany set the table for a clash with the United States in the final of the 2018 SheBelieves Cup.

England lost that match by a narrow 1-0 scoreline, but a year later, Neville and Co. captured the tournament for the first time, continuing a noteworthy ascension that puts FIFA’s fourth-ranked side among the favorites this summer in France.

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It’s unclear if Neville is the tactician to lead England to a first major success, though his side’s adaptability to opponents suggests a team well-suited to tournament football. While the third-place finishers in 2015 were a counter-attacking side, the Lionesses now display the virtues of a hybrid team.

England’s squad is more technically gifted than ever. Young players like Nikita Parris, Beth Mead, Fran Kirby, and Georgia Stanway represent the changing nature of the team, an ideal mix with a veteran and experienced core highlighted by the likes of Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze, and Jill Scott. England has the pieces to win the 2018 World Cup, though injured Arsenal star Jordan Nobbs will be missed.

Neville is expected to employ either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation, the latter of which gets the best from Kirby in a central creative role. Whether or not the manager gets his tactics right could determine if the Lionesses better their shock result in 2015.

Group stage outlook

At first glance, England’s task appears straightforward: compete for top spot with a characteristically organized Japan side and get the full six points against debutants Scotland and Argentina, with the latter widely thought to be the worst team in the tournament.

In reality, this Japanese team is not nearly as solid as the one the lifted the 2011 World Cup, and a dearth of goals in Asako Takakura’s side means falling behind could be crippling. The rest of the world has closed the gap on Japan in terms of technical ability. Meanwhile, Scotland boasts a roster rife with difference-makers like Erin Cuthbert and Kim Little who could give Neville’s lot a veritable challenge.

Projected starting XI

Key player: Lucy Bronze

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Arguably the best right-back in women’s football, Bronze is a positional stalwart who’s also performed well in a midfield role under Neville. Should the gaffer employ the 27-year-old in a central duty, it will be a waste of a player who thrives out wide. A 4-3-3 formation could make that a reality.

No full-back in the sport dominates one-on-one situations better than Bronze. She’s also adept at both surging forward and tracking back, as the former Manchester City star put on full display in starting each of Lyon’s Champions League fixtures this season. With a potential semifinal matchup set for the familiar confines of France’s culinary epicenter, Bronze will feel at home on football’s biggest stage.

Breakout star: Beth Mead

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Arsenal attacker Mead was an irrepressible force this season in the WSL following her conversion to the wing after being the league-leading scoring striker with Sunderland. With five goals in a dozen England outings, the 24-year-old is a threat in all attacking roles.

Whether that motivates Neville to drop talisman Toni Duggan for Mead remains to be seen, though the Gunners star, who typically strays toward the right flank, is a pinpoint crosser of the ball. An ample target like striker Ellen White could thrive with Mead’s service.

Fans should be happy if …

England continues its international rise with at worst a podium finish. The Lionesses have improved technically by leaps and bounds, and their squad is littered with players plying their trades with some of Europe’s marquee clubs. All that experience against opponents of the caliber they’ll face in the knockout rounds will prove pivotal.

Winning Group D could be paramount to England’s chances of ensuring safe passage to the quarterfinals or even the semifinals, where host France would be the likely foe.