England head into the Women’s World Cup with expectations, interest and coverage like never before. Having finished third in Canada four years earlier, big things are expected of Phil Neville’s Lionesses going into this summer’s tournament.

Attention was drummed up with the England squad announcement at the beginning of May. Big names from sport, screen and music revealed each squad member via short video clips on Twitter. Demi Stokes had Emma Watson, Leah Williamson had Ian Wright, Fran Kirby had Ellie Goulding and Jade Moore had… Dan Walker. Poor Jade.

The appointment of Phil Neville raised multiple eyebrows due to his absence of managerial experience and the fact he had never worked in the women’s game. However, Neville has done a stellar job of keeping the doubters at bay during his 16-month stint in the dugout. England topped their group to qualify for the World Cup, despite a strong challenge from Wales, and won the SheBelieves Cup, a four-team invitational tournament against a selection of the world’s elite nations, earlier in the year. Neville has a similar demeaner to Gareth Southgate, whose personable nature and tactical astuteness was so vital to the success the men’s side enjoyed last summer. Was that a waistcoat we saw Neville donning against Denmark? I think so…

Phil Neville congratulates Jill Scott for her goal against Denmark, waistcoat and all (Photo: 90Min.com)

England head to France with a stronger squad and more creative style of play than in 2015. However, the Lionesses have a tough group to navigate before we get carried away with talk of it coming home. So what do we know about the England team and their upcoming World Cup campaign so far?

Are there any certainties in England’s starting 11?

There are probably four players assured of a starting position for England’s opener. Karen Bardsley has been handed the number 1 jersey and will be expected to start in between the sticks against Scotland. Bardsley is a super shot stopper, but has been in and out of the Manchester City team this season. The American born keeper has won her starting spot back from Carly Telford, who was the preferred number one at the beginning of Phil Neville’s tenure due to her prowess with her feet.

Three members of her back four are arguably the only other guaranteed starters against the Scots. Captain Steph Houghton, cool, calm and composed, a reassuring presence at the heart of the defence, is the first name on the team sheet. A remarkably consistent figure for club and country over the last seven years, her form this season is even more impressive given she has had to contend with her husband’s diagnosis with motor neurone disease. Houghton has been the face of the women’s football revolution in England.

Her centre-back partner Millie Bright should also be assured of her starting position. The Chelsea defender was England’s standout performer at Euro 2017. An absolute rock, Bright is defensive solidity personified. England looked fragile when defending set pieces at the SheBelieves Cup without Bright’s height, bravery and aerial dominance. Her and Houghton have a fantastic defensive partnership.

To their right will be Lucy Bronze, the world’s greatest right-back. The question remains whether she will be played in her favoured fullback position, or whether Neville will opt to deploy her in a more advanced role as he has done, often to little effect, in occasional friendlies. Defensively sound and so effective at driving forward down the flank, Bronze is vital to England’s success.

Who will play at left back?

It’s a toss-up between Manchester City’s Demi Stokes or Manchester United’s Alex Greenwood. Stokes is arguably more dependable defensively, whereas Greenwood has the edge with her delivery, particularly from set pieces, which can be a real asset for England. Neville may rotate the pair according to the opposition.

What positions are up for grabs in midfield?

Phil Neville has played a 4-3-3 throughout qualifying and friendlies, with a number 4, 8 and 10. Keira Walsh has dazzled since making her England debut in 2017, boasting sublime vision and an unrivalled ability to pick a pass. She can pull the strings in the middle of the park, and operates as a number 4 or 8. Jade Moore would be the more defensive option to play in the deeper midfield role. The unsung hero of England’s 2015 World Cup campaign, Moore is excellent at breaking up play and protecting the back four.

With 135 caps and making her fourth World Cup appearance, Jill Scott is still as energetic and effective as she was at her first World Cup back in 2007. Intelligent, athletic and tireless, she can have a telling impact at either end of the pitch. Expect two from Scott, Moore and Walsh to get the nod in the middle against Scotland.

Vying for the number 10 spot are Fran Kirby and Georgia Stanway. Chelsea’s Kirby possesses the star quality to win a game in the blink of an eye, whilst young player of the year Stanway has already enjoyed three sparkling seasons in the Manchester City first team, despite being just 20 years old. Kirby burst onto the world stage as a 21-year-old in Canada four years ago. Could Stanway do the same this time around?

Who will line up for England in attack?

Out wide, England are spoilt for choice. Nikita Parris is lightening quick and a nightmare to mark. Her form over the last two years was recently rewarded with a move to European champions Lyon. Beth Mead, who shone at the SheBelieves Cup, is direct with an excellent delivery, whilst Karen Carney, another figure appearing at her fourth World Cup, is gifted with the skill, balance and technical ability of no-one else in the squad. Barcelona’s Toni Duggan is perhaps the biggest direct goal threat out of the four, more than capable of finding the top corner from outside the area.

Former Manchester City teammates Toni Duggan and Nikita Parris will be hoping to start on either flank for England (Photo: Sky Sports)

Down the middle, either Manchester City’s new marquee signing, Ellen White, or Euro 2017 Golden Boot winner Jodie Taylor will lead the line. Taylor, intelligent, lethal inside the box and excellent at playing off the shoulder of the defence, hit a hat-trick against Scotland in the opening group game of Euro 2017. White is tireless and smart, with the ability to get in behind or bring others into play. Expect the unexpected from White, as the former Birmingham striker has a wonder goal or two in her locker. Choosing between Taylor and White is an unenviable decision for Neville, but certainly a nice problem to have.

Squad rotation was utilised well by Mark Sampson at the 2015 World Cup and was key to the squad harmony the Lionesses enjoyed. Just one player, third choice goal keeper Carly Telford, did not feature during the tournament. It will be interesting to see if Phil Neville opts for a similar tactic, or whether he will pick his favoured starting 11 and stick to it.

Who is England’s key player?

It is rare for a right-back to be considered a team’s star, but that is a testament to the talent of Lucy Bronze. Fast, strong, skilful, good in the air and endearingly humble, Bronze is the complete player. She is vital defensively, and at times carried England’s most potent attacking threat at Euro 2017. Bronze can be seen charging forward from fullback one minute, before making a last ditch tackle the next. Neville has to play her at right back if we are to see the best from Bronze. The Lyon star set the world alight in Canada four years ago. If she can do it again, England have a real chance of capturing the nation’s attention once more.

Who should we look out for?

Keira Walsh is a class act in the middle. Blessed with incredible awareness, intelligence and passing range, it is easy to forget she is just 22. The Manchester City midfielder can orchestrate the tempo of the game with her calmness and composure. With all the natural ability in the world, Walsh can be key for England this summer.

The world class Lucy Bronze and rising star Keira Walsh can have a telling impact for England this summer (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Any notable absentees?

Vice-captain Jordan Nobbs will be a huge miss in the middle of the park. The Arsenal midfielder did her ACL earlier in the season, and the Lionesses will miss her boundless energy, tenacity and superb passing ability. However, the likes of Walsh, Moore and Scott are more than capable of stepping into her shoes.

Isobel Christiansen was unable to fully recover from an ankle injury sustained at the SheBelieves Cup. Although the Lionesses will miss her creativity, it is a sign of England’s strength in depth that Phil Neville was able to not risk Christiansen. At previous tournaments, players of similar stature have made the 23 despite not being fully fit.

How’s England’s group shaping up?

England are in Group D alongside Scotland, Japan and Argentina. Although Scotland suffered a humbling 6-0 defeat when the two sides met at Euro 2017, this could be a real challenge for the Lionesses. Scotland will have the talismanic Kim Little dictating play in the middle, after injury ruled her out of the European Championships two years ago. The Arsenal playmaker is so deserving of finally being able to represent her country at a major tournament. Jennifer Beattie was also absent in 2017, and will add steeliness to the heart of Scotland’s defence. Beattie’s former Manchester City teammate Jane Ross, one of the most natural goal scorers in the WSL, will reap the benefits of Little’s creativity. With major tournament experience now under their belt, Scotland represents a tough opening fixture.

Scotland’s Kim Little would slot into the starting 11 of any national side (Photo: Malde Photography)

Argentina are a somewhat unknown entity. Ranked 37th in the world and appearing at only their second World Cup, England will be expected to pick up three points against the South American outfit. However, the skilful Estefania Banini will certainly pose a threat going forward. England cannot afford to be complacent.

If results go according to the form guide, England’s final group game against Japan will determine who tops Group D. The Japanese infamously halted England’s World Cup progress at the semi-final stage four years ago courtesy of a heart-shattering last minute own goal. England comfortably beat Japan at the SheBelieves Cup; however, they came up against an almost second string 11 that day. Although Japan are not the same side that won the World Cup in 2011, their fluid and dynamic passing system remains. The final group game promises to be a compelling watch and a real test of England’s credentials.

What could England’s route to the final look like?

If the Lionesses win the group, they will most likely be handed a much easier path to the final. Topping the group would see them face a best third place side from Group B, E or F in the last 16. This would most probably be Thailand, Chile, New Zealand, Cameroon, China or South Africa. Their quarter final draw would then pit them up against the winner of the last 16 match between the runner up in Group A and runner up in Group C. This would most likely be Norway, Australia or Italy. A semi-final tie would probably be against either the winner of Group A or Group F; more than likely either hosts France or holders the USA.

Finishing runner up in the group would see the Lionesses in the opposite half of the draw. Their last 16 tie would be against the winner of Group E, almost certainly either European Champions the Netherlands, who beat England in the semi-finals of Euro 2017, or Canada, ranked fifth in the world, who beat England in a recent friendly. Victory would see the Lionesses most likely face Brazil or Australia in the quarter-finals. Germany would probably await in the last four.

Which other nations do we need to watch out for?

The United States have star quality across the pitch, and will be confident of defending their title. They possess winning experience and household names in the shape of Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe, along with the exciting youthfulness of Mallory Pugh. France also have an exceptional squad. Despite dominating European domestic football, they are long overdue success on the international stage. Being on home soil can only boost France’s chances. Germany will be looking to bounce back from their quarter-final disappointment of Euro 2017. It is unlikely the Germans could underperform at consecutive major championships. The Netherlands were superb at Euro 2017, and will be looking to replicate their performance on the world stage. Canada and Japan are equally strong and will be hopeful of progressing into the latter stages of the tournament.

Do England have a good chance?

On paper, this is the strongest squad England have ever had. If they play as well as they are capable of, the Lionesses could do something special this summer. This could be the catalyst for real change in women’s football in this country.

The squad is an exciting blend of experienced heads in Jill Scott and Karen Carney, and fearless youth, in the shape of Keira Walsh and Georgia Stanway. From Hope Powell, to Mark Sampson and now Phil Neville, each manager has helped the side progress. Powell laid the foundations, created a sense of professionalism and helped England grow accustomed to appearing at major tournaments. Under Powell, there was always a struggle when competing with the world’s best, which Sampson rectified, England registering wins against Germany, the USA and France during his tenure. However, with Sampson, there were question marks over tactical naivety and a one-dimensional style of play. Neville has got England playing more exciting possession football. The next natural step is now a major trophy.

How do England handle expectation?

When there is expectation, England have a history of coming unstuck. At Euro 2017, they went into their quarter-final tie with pre-tournament favourites France as the underdogs. The Lionesses nicked a Jodie Taylor goal on the counter attack and defended for their lives to seal a famous victory. England then entered their semi-final clash with Holland as favourites. With giants of the women’s game Germany already out, the Lionesses path to securing their first piece of silverware seemed clear. But England were outclassed by an energetic Dutch side. They seemingly had one tactic: can we get Jodie Taylor in behind? The Lionesses had no answer to the Netherland’s electrifying forward line and lost 3-0.

England crash out of Euro 2017 against hosts Holland (Photo: BBC Sport)

A similar pattern can be traced back to the 2012 Olympics. Team GB defied the odds to beat Brazil, led by the sensational Marta at the peak of her powers, in the group stages in front of a raucous home crowd at Wembley. However, with the nation’s attention grabbed and expectations mounting, they fell at the quarter-final stage. Although they came up against a good Canadian side spearheaded by the imperious Christine Sinclair, Team GB seemed to wilt under the growing anticipation of the British public.

Will it be all change this time around?

England have enjoyed mixed fortunes under Neville. Unquestionably, he has made the Lionesses more entertaining to watch. He has also overseen a vast improvement in Beth Mead and Nikita Parris, who have shone under his management. Neville has done an admirable job of bringing through young talent, with Leah Williamson, Georgia Stanway and Keira Walsh all establishing themselves in the first team during his reign.

However, in recent friendlies against Canada and Denmark, the Lionesses have looked sluggish. Additionally, their SheBelieves Cup victory, impressive as it was, should be taken with a pinch of salt. England came up against a USA side whose domestic season had not yet started, an aging Brazil team and an under strength Japan side. But you can only beat what’s in front of you. With a squad brimming with promise, England have the potential to make their mark in France.

If everything comes together, football could quite possibly come home this summer. Although England will be judged on how deep they go in this tournament, the legacy they can leave behind and path they can forge for those who will come after them will be a more poignant achievement than any trophy they may or may not lift on July 7th. Regardless of results, England can change perceptions, smash stereotypes and inspire the Lucy Bronze’s of tomorrow. Alex Greenwood perfectly summed up aspirations with these sentiments: “if a seven-year-old girl can pick up a football because of us this summer then we’ve done our job”.

Ali Rampling
Loughborough student. Previously written for When Saturday Comes and the Guardian. Writing for Sportsgrape - the number one student sports platform in the U.K.

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