On a freezing cold night in České Budějovice, England battled to a 3-2 win over the Czech Republic.
The Lionesses were once again unconvincing in defence and found themselves behind after just 15 minutes through a Tereza Szewieczková goal, and after battling back to take the lead via Beth England and Beth Mead strikes, found themselves level once again after 20 minutes.
Leah Williamson was at fault for that equaliser but atoned for her error in the dying minutes, firing in a deflected shot from outside the area to give England a morale-boosting 3-2 win, ending 2019 on a high after some difficult recent form.
Here are five things we learned from Tuesday’s match.
1. Defensive woes continue
Given their progress in the 2019 World Cup, it seems ludicrous that England have won just two of their seven games since losing the semi-final against the USA. But such have been the post-tournament struggles of the Lionesses, that is exactly the case and an easy indicator as to why this happened lies in their defence.
England have kept just one clean sheet – in a 1-0 win over Portugal – now since their 3-0 World Cup quarter-final win over Norway in June, conceding 15 goals in eight games since then. On Tuesday, the likes of Williamson and Millie Bright were pulled out of shape far too easily by what was, on paper, an inferior Czech Republic side and England found themselves behind after just 15 minutes. In reality, they were lucky to have held on that long after conceding a number of chances to their hosts in the opening exchanges.
It’s this lack of discipline and solidity which cost them in France over the summer and continues to haunt them now. If the legacy of this fantastic year is to be a successful one, Neville must rectify this issue one way or another, and fast.
2. England need more time together
Ahead of Tuesday’s match, Neville suggested his Lionesses need some time apart to mentally regroup after a landmark 2019.
“I will give the players a bit of time off after this, free their minds from the England camp,” he said. “What these girls have experienced over the last three months is something they’ve never experienced in their lives before.
“There’s a soft side to me that has to look at the emotional impact of the media, the pressure, the expectation, the fame they’ve gone to, front pages of most magazines and stuff like that. That has a massive effect on you as an inexperienced young player.
“It happened to me in my first two years as a professional footballer. I wasn’t allowed to do an interview because of that effect of getting carried away, believing your own press, believing that you’re somebody that you’re not, cutting corners in some of the things you do professionally, and maybe the opportunities to go and do something instead of recovering and resting.”
On the basis of their final game of the year, as well as the 2-1 defeat to Germany on Saturday, it looks like England’s players actually need more time together.
Granted, Neville’s side did have some good moments in attack but, still, all too often, their build-up play was killed in its infancy by sloppy passes and static movement, while we’ve already touched on their unconvincing defending. No cohesion, no authority, no suggestion that this is a side ready to break up for the year.
Neville’s comments may show an intention for him to wipe the slate clean after this match. If that is the case, he’ll have to move quickly to get the train back on its tracks in 2020.
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3. Staskova has a bright future
She may not have been among the goals, but Czech forward Andrea Staskova proved on Tuesday night exactly why Juventus made sure of her signature over the summer.
The 19-year-old was the Czech First Division’s top scorer in 2018/19 with 32 goals and has been touted as one of the most exciting emerging talents in the game for some time now – England were certainly given a glimpse of that.
Staskova was a menace in the early stages as the Czech Republic moved quickly to assert their dominance, heading over from close range after just two minutes when, in all honesty, she should have scored, while she was unlucky once again just 10 minutes later. But she dusted herself off quickly and caused havoc in an already disjointed England backline – she might well have had an assist when she worked the ball to Lucie Vonkova, whose shot went mere inches over Carly Telford’s crossbar.
The teenager faded slightly as the game wore on and the snow grew stronger but still ended the game with two successful take-ons and one chance created.
Definitely one to keep an eye on as she makes her way with the reigning Italian champions.
4. Doubts remain over Neville
England’s wretched post-World Cup run has led to serious question marks regarding Neville’s future as England manager and whether or not he’s the right man to lead the Lionesses forward. The former Manchester United defender was defiant in his pre-match interviews, insisting it would be shameful for him to stand down.
“If I walked away from that challenge I’d be ashamed of myself and my family would be ashamed in me,” he said. “I love this job and this set of players and I believe in what we are doing, and they believe in me.”
Neville has lost just nine of his 32 games in charge of England so far and has led his side to SheBelieves Cup glory and fourth place at the World Cup during 2019. In context, questioning his position might seem incredibly harsh.
Then again, there’s no room for sentiment in football and this is a game well and truly predicated on progress. England’s defending has been laughable at times under Neville, who has never really settled on a consistent line-up at the back or in goal, while it’s hard to argue against recent results suggesting the bottom has fallen out of his tenure.
The wolves don’t appear to be at the door just yet, but they do appear to have caught Neville’s scent.
5. England close out 2019 on a win
Amid all the criticisms, both on the night and in the last few weeks, it’s import to remember that England did dig out a win in difficult circumstances on Tuesday and that their 2019 has brought some very, very fond memories.
It wasn’t pretty in the Czech Republic as England were worryingly tested by a team 23 places below them in the Fifa world rankings and as we’ve mentioned, there are serious problems which need fixing.
The goal that ends our year with a win ?
— Lionesses (@Lionesses) November 12, 2019
However, the Lionesses do deserve great credit for coming from behind quickly in this game, then taking the lead themselves all within the first 20 minutes.
England surrendered that lead as Williamson completely failed to deal with a routine long ball, but the centre-back then stepped up to deliver the winning goal in the final moments, showing that both she and her teammates do have some mental fortitude in the bank.
Lots to work on but for now, at least, give England some praise for heading to the Czech Republic and battling in the snow to deliver a win. Even more, praise must go to them for winning a trophy and finishing fourth at the World Cup in 2019, that should not be forgotten in a hurry!