England women: ‘There is a gap to the best and Phil Neville has to close it’ – Rachel Brown-Finnis

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Phil Neville did not start by winning a trophy but the experience he got from the SheBelieves Cup was the next best thing.

The new England boss wants to turn the Lionesses into the best team in the world and he will have learned an awful lot about what that will take from his first tournament in charge.

I was in Orlando to watch England’s defeat by the United States on Thursday and there was not much between us and the world champions.

England women: ‘There is a gap to the best and Phil Neville has to close it’ – Rachel Brown-Finnis
England women: ‘There is a gap to the best and Phil Neville has to close it’ – Rachel Brown-Finnis

There was still a gap, however, and Neville has got until the World Cup in the summer of 2019 to close it.

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Highlights: USA women 1-0 England women

Defensively, it was disappointing that we conceded four soft goals in three games against France, Germany and the hosts. But there were plenty of individual player performances that impressed me, and so did Neville himself.

He not only played the bold attacking football he promised, he was willing to make changes quickly when things did not work.

SheBelieves Cup table: 1st USA, 2nd England, 3rd France, 4th Germany
England beat France 4-1 and drew 2-2 against Germany in their opening two games. But the defeat by United States ended their hopes of lifting the SheBelieves Cup

Neville was brave without being reckless

England only needed a draw against the US to win the SheBelieves Cup on goal difference but Neville did not want to settle for that.

He had demanded that kind of winning mentality from his team before the tournament started and he had a really positive mindset himself.

I don’t think England played their best football against the US, especially compared with the way they began their campaign against France. But the changes Neville made put their opponents on the back foot with the score at 0-0 and made it clear that he was going for the win, not the draw that would have seen us lift the trophy.

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SheBelieves Cup: ‘I’ve learnt a lot about my players today’ – Neville

There was no sense that he was stalling on any decisions either. I never got to a stage in any of the games where I thought something needed sorting out, because he had already acted on it by then.

He was brave without being reckless and although he adapted his tactics depending on what was happening in games, he never changed his ethos of taking the game to the opposition.

You could tell he has got 100% confidence in the girls from the way he was asking them to play and that trust will be reciprocated now they can see how his ideas work.

Neville saw his side put in a dominant and ruthless performance against France in their tournament opener, before they showed real character to fight back twice to draw with Germany. Then England stuck at it against the US when things were not going well, and upped their game in the final stages when they almost grabbed a leveller.

I think the US deserved their victory, but it was still a very positive way to end a tournament that we did not win.

Kirby shines as Neville takes the shackles off

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Phil Neville’s England beat France 4-1 in SheBelieves Cup

Cynics might put England’s performances in the US down to the effect of having a new manager but I know these girls, and that is not the case. They played their absolute hearts out and they love playing for their country. I think it shows.

The free-flowing football they played against France and in parts of the other two games was not a temporary improvement, it is a permanent quality that this team possesses.

It does seem like Neville has taken the shackles off, though. He has allowed them to play with some freedom and belief and this is what they are capable of – it is as simple as that.

I was particularly impressed by Chelsea’s Fran Kirby, who was in the number 10 role in the first two games, something she is probably a bit unfamiliar with for club and country.

She was our pivotal player in the 4-1 win against France, not only getting on the scoresheet herself but creating things too. It was the same against Germany and then in the second half against the US she came alive and began to drive at their defence, causing them to back off.

I really enjoyed seeing her utilised in that position and she seemed to develop a really good understanding of it quite quickly – her vision and awareness on the ball really stood out.

Around her was the tenacity and fire of Nikita Parris and the quality of Toni Duggan, who scored a wonderful goal against France.

England’s forward line was brilliant at times, even without much preparation time – they have only had four training sessions with Neville – which makes me think they can get even better from here.

Own goals down to breakdown in communication

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SheBelieves Cup: USA go ahead through Bardsley own goal

One thing that definitely has to improve is England’s defending. Three of the four goals we conceded were own goals and I totally understand why Neville was unhappy with them.

It is true that our defence was affected by injuries, with captain Steph Houghton not able to take part in the tournament and Anita Asante getting injured early in the first game.

But those goals were down to something as basic as a breakdown in communication, which should not happen whether you are new to the international scene or you have played for England 100 times.

Sometimes accepting responsibility is not easy to do but this group of players always analyses everything that happens during games. None of them will shy away from saying they could have done better, either individually or collectively as a unit. It is all part of the learning curve that these players face over the next few months, especially the ones who are relatively new to the squad.

I really felt for Asante, who had earned her chance to get back into the picture, but is now facing a lay-off with a knee injury. Abbie McManus was thrown in at the deep end when she came on to replace Asante for her debut against France and I was really impressed with her pace in all three games – she had to be fast to deal with the US attackers.

For players like McManus, Keira Walsh, Hannah Blundell and even Millie Bright, this was a chance for them to find out the difference between playing for your club and facing the very best international sides. In terms of the speed of the game and the speed of thought you need to cope with it, it is a massive step up.

Wales the next test on the road to the World Cup

World Cup qualifying group one
England will move above Wales into top spot if they continue their 100% winning record when the teams meet next month

Neville has made a very encouraging start – now he needs to build on it.

England’s next game is a World Cup qualifier against Wales in Southampton on 6 April, which will be a very different test to any of the three games the Lionesses have faced in the past week.

The US, Germany and France are ranked first, second and sixth in the world respectively – Wales are 35th.

Although Wales have some quality in their team, their approach will not be to go on the attack against England like the teams above – instead they will shut up shop and then look to be clinical when they do get a chance. England will need to be clever and organised to ensure that does not happen because they cannot afford to switch off for a second even though they are likely to see a lot of the ball.

So I want to see better discipline at the back and improved communication to avoid the lapses that cost us this week. We also need to show the kind of ruthlessness we showed when we were on top against France, when we did not let up at all.

Put all of that together and we should get the right result in Neville’s first competitive fixture to keep us on track for France 2019.

Rachel Brown-Finnis was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.

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