With eyes already turning to the Tokyo Olympics (helped by England’s lack of qualification matches for Euro 2021), I’ve outlined some of the concerns that Phil Neville will have to take into consideration and come up with who is [logically] the most likely group of 18 he will pick.
Picking a squad to go to the Olympics, Neville has no easy task on his hands. Unlike all the other managers in his place – assuming team don’t chop and change before July – Neville will only have one or two friendly matches before the start of the tournament in Japan.
Each international window from the end of the World Cup right up to the last [in June] before the tournament are not ones he can utilise to test out players from other nations. Kim Little, Erin Cuthbert and co will be busy with Scotland as Jess Fishlock and Sophie Ingle will be tied up with Wales; both nations, as well as Northern Ireland, focused on individual European Championship qualification.
For this reason, it’s imperative Neville – if he is to include players from outside of England – calls upon those with preexisting partnerships and understanding with his English crop. If he were to take Jennifer Beattie, for example, she has spent extended time playing alongside Steph Houghton and Leah Williamson at centre-back and would [theoretically] fall into place next to either in a Team GB set-up. WSL a good hunting ground as all who play in it are full-time – something that can’t always be said of those elsewhere.
A lot has been made of the reduced squad size of just 18 players (with four reserves allowed to be named but often, not needed). Less players means those who go will have to have shown more virtuosity and adaptability; wingers who have the defensive nous to play full-back, centre-backs who are adept in a midfield role, those who can play numerous positions will always be more attractive when the squad size is diminished.
The [comparative] best
Neville has been careful to state that he isn’t looking in terms of an all-English squad, nor is he looking for tokenism but rather is assessing all available British and Northern Irish players. Only the best players will go. But, it’s imperative to note that it’s not necessarily about the best 18 players but about those who work the best in his system and with each other and because of his favouring of a 4-2-3-1, there’s a clear limit to the amount of creative midfielders he can take. This area of the pitch, somewhere around the 4-10, is possibly the area with the most depth and will cause the biggest selection headache.
If we assume he will [mostly] continue with the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 style he successfully employed at the World Cup and also continue to rely on Jill Scott and Keira Walsh to anchor the midfield, that raises the question of the first choice for the #10. This is one of the areas he’s consistently struggled with, trying to find the right player – although injuries haven’t helped – and, arguably, in this rigid system it’s a role best filled by Georgia Stanway or Lucy Staniforth. However, when looking across the gamut of players available, Kim Little becomes the more obvious choice, but unlike at Arsenal, there is no room for her to partner with Jordan Nobbs.
This is where the headaches start as there already exists the argument for Little, Staniforth, Stanway, Nobbs but so too for Caroline Weir and Jess Fishlock. If you were to err on the side of caution and look at players who could play that central role just a deeper version; Sophie Ingle, Hayley Ladd, Rachel Furness, Fara Williams and Jade Moore immediately spring to mind (and this is before we start to consider Izzy Christiansen, Lucy Graham et all).
In trying to decipher who is more likely to feature in Neville’s GB squad, I tried to factor all considerations in and work out who his first choice starting XI was (based on current form), followed by his second XI. With the reduced squad size, I then pruned off one player and relegated three to the reserves to be joined by a third-choice goalkeeper.
The decisions were purely based on logic (and trying to get into Neville’s head) with no personal bias, as my 18 would look markedly different. And it’s worth noting that my overriding feeling has been (and likely will continue to be) that the minimal preparation time with the final 18 will have the greatest impact.
Goalkeepers: Mary Earps, Carly Telford.
Defenders: Millie Bright, Lucy Bronze, Rachel Daly, Alex Greenwood, Steph Houghton, Leah Williamson.
Midfielders: Kim Little, Jordan Nobbs, Lucy Staniforth, Jill Scott, Kiera Walsh.
Attackers: Erin Cuthbert, Fran Kirby, Beth Mead, Nikita Parris, Ellen White.
Reserves: Ellie Roebuck, Beth England, Georgia Stanway, Demi Stokes.
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