We have entered the final Lionesses’ camp of 2018. Two games remain for England as they look to finish the year on a high and continue building the foundations for a huge 8 months to come.
England have played varied opposition throughout the year, many with differing styles of play. After facing non-European opposition in the last two friendlies, Austria and Sweden will provide a different test.
While sides of different reputations – Sweden sit 9th in the world while Austria are 21st – they play similar styles of football.
Toni Duggan is anticipating at tough test in both games:
“They’re going to be difficult games. Phil’s done really well in cementing top teams for us to play against. Off the back of Australia and Brazil, they’re two very different nations who we don’t have the luxury of competing against on many occasions. Going to a World Cup, you need to be competing against these types of teams because that’s who you’re going to be facing throughout the tournament. Sweden and Austria are obviously European teams, so we know a bit more about them, but they’re going to be difficult. They’re going to be tough but it also allows an opportunity for the youngsters coming through to get into the squad and hopefully get some minutes and show Phil what they can do.”
There have been several changes to the squad since the October camp as Phil Neville looks to bring some younger players into the fold. Manchester City’s Georgia Stanway and Ellie Roebuck both received a call, while Houston Dash’s Chioma Ubogagu was the major surprise from the squad announcement.
Ubogagu has been on Neville’s radar for a while after meeting her at the SheBelieves Cup in March and feels she can offer something different to this England squad:
“I’ve been monitoring Chi now for 8 months but the group has been playing so well that it’s been difficult to find an opportunity to bring her in. I’ve watched a lot of her games in the USA and she’s impressed me. We haven’t got a left-footed player in that role so she offers us something different. She’s got blistering speed and she has had to be patient. But I think these two games are a great opportunity for her to stake a claim to go to a World Cup. She’s someone that I think could be a surprise package and someone who nobody probably knows about in England and Europe, but I think when you see her play on Thursday or Sunday, you’ll be really impressed.”
The call up of Stanway was the opposite of surprising. After an impressive U20 World Cup, the youngster has been in flying form for City this season and it is little wonder that she has caught the eye.
Despite the excitement of earning a second call up to the England squad – she travelled to America in March but didn’t play – Stanway is keeping her feet on the ground as the 2019 World Cup approaches:
“I’ve just come back from a World Cup which was absolutely unbelievable, so to think that I could do that again in 8 months’ time is something very special. But I know that there are still 30 girls that I’m competing against and I’m only getting my opportunity now, so I’ve got to grasp it. But I’ve also got to respect that the girls have put in 4 months’ work that I’ve not been there for. Hopefully, I can do what I can to better the team and make it harder for people in challenging for places. I’ve just got to support the girls as much as I can to hopefully bring back the Gold in the summer.”
2018 has been a transitional year for England, with Phil Neville taking over in January. With a new style of play and philosophy to take on board, it was going to take a bit of time to settle. In the last few games, it has been evident though that things have started to click, with the Lionesses playing some of the most enjoyable football of the last few years.
Neville is happy with the way his team have progressed and with just over 7 months before the big kick off, feels his side are on the right track.
“Looking back on the performances against Brazil and Australia, I think that the style that we’re playing is fantastic. The players are beginning to understand what I want from them, the intensity in their play is great and I think we’re now making a steep climb. I would say the last 8 months have gone exactly how I would have wanted, and I’m pleased with where we are. But there’s still a long way to go.”
Toni Duggan also feels that the Lionesses have made strides this year and is particularly enjoying the brand of football that her manager is implementing:
“I think it’s evident on the pitch. Under Mark, we were very successful playing direct football. But Phil’s come in and he’s seen our qualities; he knows that we can play with the ball out from the back, be positive, be brave, and get on the ball. This style suits me perfectly because I’m coming from Barcelona and they’re the champions of playing that way. It’s difficult – we need to be braver; we need to press high, react when we lose the ball, make sure we keep possession, and express ourselves in the final third. One thing that we’ve always tried to base ourselves on and one of the main reasons the fans come to support us and have got behind us is because of the nice attacking football that we’re playing.”
England captain, Steph Houghton, is one away from winning 100 caps for England. With the game in Rotherham on Sunday, Phil Neville is going to hold her back so that she can mark the special occasion in front of her family and home crowd:
“Steph won’t play on Thursday. I wanted to make Sunday her special day; I wanted it to be her 100th cap. She’s earnt it, she deserves it and Sunday will be about her and celebrating her international career. She actually doesn’t want the celebration and she doesn’t want it to be about her because she’s so humble; she wanted to make her 100th cap in Austria. But the FA and I have almost banned her from doing that. It will be very doubtful that she will even be on the bench on Thursday.
The football that Steph is playing from the start of the season until now is the best I’ve seen her play. She is unbelievably fit. I actually think that the rest has helped. She had been on this train of tournaments into league for the last 3 or 4 years. Now she’s back, she’s at a level that is probably the best she’s ever been. I think she’s a special person; she’s a brilliant player and an even better person who is fully respected by the players. I don’t think she realises how much respect she’s got across the whole of football. That’s why I’m not playing her on Thursday because I want to Sunday to be about Steph Houghton.”
As a result, Phil Neville has handed the armband to Toni Duggan for the first time against Austria.
“It’s a challenge for Toni now. When I first got the job, I saw an experienced player with great knowledge and underneath it all, a really good leader. She has done a couple of speeches for the team and they have been fantastic. She’s got great authority and great qualities in terms of leadership. I felt that this was the right moment to say well done as to captain your country is a great honour, and to send a message to her that she’s really important to the squad.”
England travel to Austria on Thursday where their game will kick off at 17:00 GMT.
They will then return home to Rotherham on Sunday 11th to face Sweden. Kick-off is at 13:30 GMT and the game will be streamed live on the @Lionesses Twitter.