There’s probably no team with more regret over the 2015 World Cup than England. The Lionesses were knocked out in Canada four years ago by Japan via a cruel 92nd minute own goal by defender Laura Bassett, who sliced a clearance into her own net. That was the painful end to a World Cup where England looked, if not the best team in the tournament, at least the most likely to give the United States a hard time in the final. (Japan, uh, did not succeed in that endeavor.)
Now, England return even better than before, with a solid track record in tournaments since: a semifinal exit to hosts and eventual champions the Netherlands at the 2017 Euros, as well as a victory in the 2019 SheBelieves Cup (the Lionesses also finished second at the 2018 edition of that four-team invitational). Coached by Phil Neville (yes, that Phil Neville), England have adapted their formerly route-one style reminiscent of Premier League days of yore and turned it into a more visually appealing and successful possession style that still allows them to go for counters when the situation requires.
It all starts with their playmaking ace, Fran Kirby. The Chelsea star has been in poor form for her club recently, but she’s still the engine that makes England move at maximum velocity. She also pops up all over the place, hassling opponents for the ball and turning around and pinging passes out to the other attackers in what appears to be England’s go-to 4-2-3-1 formation. One of those attackers is Manchester City’s Nikita Parris, who scored 19 in 19 for the club in league play, adding six qualifying goals for the Lionesses. Finding Parris in open space will be Kirby’s number one priority (when she’s not doing the shooting herself), and that connection is what could take England back to the semifinals and beyond.
The crazy thing about this English side is that neither Kirby nor Parris are the best players on the team. That honor goes to Lucy Bronze. Yes, a right back is England’s best player and their best hope for stopping the litany of dangerous wingers that the Lionesses will face on the way to hopeful glory. Fresh off winning the Champions League with Lyon, the 27-year-old is in her physical and mental peak, a veritable wall on England’s right side who allows the front six to play with a bit more reckless abandon. (Neville has played her at center midfield, but English fans should hope he sticks with the duo of Jade Moore and Jill Scott behind Kirby.)
Really, England have no excuses if they disappoint this summer. The squad is stacked top to bottom, and what remains is the matter of fitting all these different jigsaw pieces into one cohesive puzzle. The nature of their talent and flexibility means that the puzzle should look different from one game to the next, something England should be comfortable with; famously, previous coach Mark Sampson changed up tactics every game during the 2015 World Cup.
If Neville can find the right formations and attacking plans for each of the required seven games to lift the trophy, England could be celebrating their first World Cup victory, men or women, since 1966. But if he gets paralyzed by choice, there could be an uglier ending than Bassett’s own goal on the horizon. Their path is not easy: they landed in the group of death, with Japan and neighboring Scotland (also Argentina, who really got the short end of the stick), and their path to the final would likely involve Brazil and the United States, before a potential meeting with one of the power three on the other side of the bracket (Australia, Germany, or the Netherlands) in the final. When on top of their game, England are as good as anyone in the tournament, but if they come out in the wrong set-up, they can also lose to anyone at any time.
Goalkeepers: Karen Bardsley (Manchester City), Carly Telford (Chelsea), Mary Earps (Wolfsburg)
Defenders: Lucy Bronze (Lyon), Alex Greenwood (Manchester United), Steph Houghton (Manchester City), Millie Bright (Chelsea), Demi Stokes (Manchester City), Leah Williamson (Arsenal), Abbie McManus (Manchester United), Rachel Daly (Houston Dash)
Midfielders: Keira Walsh (Manchester City), Jill Scott (Manchester City), Jade Moore (Reading), Georgia Stanway (Manchester City), Karen Carney (Chelsea), Lucy Staniforth (Birmingham City)
Forwards: Nikita Parris (Lyon), Jodie Taylor (Reign FC), Fran Kirby (Chelsea), Toni Duggan (Barcelona), Ellen White (Manchester City), Beth Mead (Arsenal)
This is the million dollar question. England’s style of play is defined by not having one style of play, and as such they are hard to analyze but, more importantly, hard to prepare for. What does seem likely is that Neville will line up the Lionesses in a 4-2-3-1 formation; he’s tried a 4-3-3 as well, but Kirby works better as a classic No. 10 than as a more withdrawn central playmaker. Flanking her will certainly be Parris, and then one of a handful of talented, goalscoring wingers. Barcelona’s Toni Duggan seems the likely choice there, but converted Arsenal striker Beth Mead has also shown promise out on the wing. Jodie Taylor will almost certainly take on the No. 9 role, where she has shined for England; she won the Golden Boot at the 2017 Euros with five goals, including a hat trick against first World Cup opponent Scotland.
As stated above, the likely midfield pairing will be Scott and Moore, both of whom are talented and complementary to each other. Keira Walsh will enter for one of the pair when England need a steadier presence in midfield. She’s the definition of a lunch-pail player, breaking up counters and letting her teammates swashbuckle without fear of repercussions. Walsh started all three games in the SheBelieves Cup, so perhaps Neville will start with her and then adjust if the team needs more creativity from deep.
And then there’s the defense. Aside from the aforementioned Bronze (who is the best right back in the tournament, and maybe the world), the center backs won’t cause fans too much stress; Millie Bright and Steph Houghton are solid, while Neville has also played Leah Williamson with Houghton in recent matches. Left back Alex Greenwood is arguably the weakest player on the backline, which says a lot about how loaded England are; she’s still class at Manchester United, and is one of the better corner and free kick takers in the tournament.
June 9, 12 p.m.: England vs. Scotland at Allianz Riviera
June 14, 3 p.m.: England vs. Argentina at Stade Océane
June 19, 3 p.m.: Japan vs. England at Allianz Riviera
All times Eastern