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How Phil Neville changed the mentality of his Lionesses

Mark Pitman
SENIOR ANALYST
Feature
346   //    01 Jul 2019, 23:01 IST

Phil Neville has made significant changes to the approach of this England squad
Phil Neville has made significant changes to the approach of this England squad

On Tuesday evening in Lyon, Phil Neville's England will discover just how good they really are when they take on the United States in the first semi-final of the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup.

Although his side have reached this stage of the competition on merit, their convincing 3-0 win over Norway in the last round was not reflective of their overall performances so far. England have laboured in stages of games, despite maintaining a perfect record, and now they must show their worth against the world champions.


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The best of the best

The United States celebrate against Thailand in the group stages
The United States celebrate against Thailand in the group stages

The United States set a high benchmark in the women's game, and their model is the blueprint for other nations to follow. But they have no equal, and their confidence is a result of their long-standing domination. Although they may appear arrogant, they have very good reason to be.

The brutal 13-0 win over Thailand in the opening match said a lot about the culture that exists within this United States team. Their goals celebrations were a statement of their tournament status, and they took the opportunity to strike fear into their next opponents.

They are loud in their actions and words, and while co-captain Megan Rapinoe is using her status at the tournament to voice wider issues, she does it in the confidence that she will not let it distract her from the task ahead. The United States play only to win in the women's game. Anything else is failure.

But they have a rival for their crown, and while England once again compete in this tournament as the Lionesses, there is a very different animal underneath the surface of this squad. Neville is the man solely responsible for this change, and the former Manchester United and Everton defender has simply applied the values responsible for the most successful period in his own playing career.

The values of Manchester United

Phil Neville achieved success at Manchester United with a winning mentality
Phil Neville achieved success at Manchester United with a winning mentality
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Learning his trade under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, Neville was programmed from a young age to accept nothing but victory. He made bold statements about the success that England could achieve following his appointment, and he is doing everything in his power to ensure his team achieve what he has always believed they could.

But while Neville's early ambitions were not unusual from the mouth of a new manager, it was the fact that they came from a man crossing the divide between the men's and women's game that meant they carried more weight. Neville has instilled a different attitude into this squad, with an openness in his demands that has not always been apparent in the women's game.

Neville has challenged his players to be harder on each other in training and in games. He wants mistakes highlighted, not praise. He wants players who will not be satisfied if the performance does not produce the result, and he wants his players to adopt a winning mentality in every aspect of their game. This is not a marathon for Neville, but a series of sprints.

His predecessor, Mark Sampson, delivered the platform for the current England squad. Under his control, England challenged at the final stages of major tournaments, but there was always a lack of necessity to win the competition. The positives that Sampson took from his role were wide-ranging, but Neville has clearly focused one outcome only.

Inherited attitude

Captain Steph Houghton is a key figure for Phil Neville's side
Captain Steph Houghton is a key figure for Phil Neville's side

There was complacency about England following Sampson's controversial departure in 2017, a belief within the camp that their status in the world game at the time could not be bettered due to the likes of the United States. However, it is the ambition to be the very best that has forced Neville to change the culture within the group, and they now accept that they were indeed within their comfort zone before he arrived.

Although England have some excellent individual players, highlighted by the world-class performances of Lucy Bronze who continues to get better and better, there are significant vulnerabilities that the United States can take advantage of. While the results so far have been convincing, the performances have not.

Careless in possession and often vulnerable in defence, England have been fortunate in this tournament so far, and Neville will not have enjoyed the majority of play from his side. His demands set a high standard, and there is a fear and frustration about the team when things are not going their way. But they still produce, and that is why they are now preparing for this final four match.

The United States will take advantage of England's flaws, and any mistake by Neville's team will be punished on Tuesday evening. How England react to that will determine the final outcome. In Ellen White, they boast a natural goalscorer, but she needs service. In Steph Houghton, they have a natural leader at the back, but she needs support.

The mental test

The United States claimed an impressive victory over hosts France in the quarter-finals
The United States claimed an impressive victory over hosts France in the quarter-finals

The United States will be a loud, aggressive animal on Tuesday evening, and will be desperate to stamp their authority on the match early on. Meanwhile, England will be calculated in their early play, and will look to frustrate their opponents while trying to chip away on creating that one decisive opening to turn the tables of belief in their favour.

There is a pressure on the United States to win every single match they play, and when you consider that veteran striker Carli Lloyd as played 279 international games, that's a lot of pressure to deal with. Pressure is a relatively new concept for England, and it is a direct result of Neville's determination to make his side the very best, without excuse.

England must now embrace this pressure and expectancy in the same way as the United States have over many years. The smiles and celebrations are the result of the hard work behind the scenes that has made them the best in the business, and that is the culture that Neville has brought into this England squad. He has seen what success such an approach can bring.

The previous culture of the Lionesses was very different. A happy, relaxed environment, there was a challenge to the players to compete against the best, but no demand to beat the best. That has now changed, and if the best cannot be beaten, then a new plan is applied. It is a cycle that Neville will continue to implement until his side become the best, and even then, there will be no complacency.

A plan built on beating the United States

Phil Neville has set a high standard for his team on and off the field
Phil Neville has set a high standard for his team on and off the field

The United States will not fear England on paper, they will believe that they have more than enough quality to win. What they will not enjoy is the aggressive determination of Neville's side to frustrate them, and his work in this area until now has been with this one game in mind.

Neville was introduced to the United States women's team early in his career as England manager, and saw then where his team were, but more importantly, where he needed them to be. Everything he has implemented since then has been to ensure his team can produce the physical and mental performance needed to beat the United States.

There has been no sentiment of sympathy, but a focus only on reaching that level. This is a new England under Neville. His approach has been tough for some to take, and the constant demand for perfection has changed the culture that exists within the group from the previous era.

The United States fear no opposition, but the mentality of this England is a very different challenge to what they have come up against so far, and that could be crucial.

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