24.05.19

BLOG: England’s evolution under Phil Neville

Article by Andy Cooper

Key takeaways

– England are now attempting a higher volume of passes compared to their tournament matches in 2017, with a slower build-up.

– During those matches in 2017, central defender Steph Houghton delivered more passes into the attacking third than any other player.

– In the final third they are now having more touches in the opposition box and their xG output has jumped from 1.15 to 1.54 per 90 minutes.


In less than three weeks, England will start their 2019 World Cup campaign looking to build on their SheBelieves Cup success from earlier this year.

The Lionesses reached the semi-finals at the 2015 World Cup, a feat which they matched at the 2017 European Championships.

Since the appointment of Phil Neville in January 2018, the national side has undergone a transformation in their playing style, which has seen the introduction of a more possession-orientated approach and more goalscoring opportunities being created.

In this blog, we compare England’s tournament performances from 2017 (based on their SheBelieves Cup and Euro campaigns) with the matches overseen by Neville to identify the key areas of their evolution.

For the purposes of the analysis, we have chosen not to include data from the matches played during the World Cup qualification campaign, which Neville became involved in midway, due to England’s domination in several matches. England won by at least three clear goals on five occasions, including comprehensive 6-0 victories over Russia and Kazakhstan.

Controlling possession and staying patient

For most of the 2017 SheBelieves Cup England adopted a 4-3-1-2 formation, before changing to 4-2-3-1 for the Euros.

In Neville’s early matches he experimented with a number of formations, before returning to a similar set-up seen at the Euros, which he predominately retained during England’s triumphant SheBelieves campaign. In recent friendlies he has experimented again, adopting 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3.

Whilst the formation has undergone revisions, the biggest change from 2017 is England’s use of possession.

In 2017 England attempted just 316.2 passes per 90, with an average share of possession of 41.8%. More significantly, over 75% of their sequences ended after two or fewer passes.

This indicates that England didn’t look to pass their way up field, a point backed up by the sequence framework. Their average sequence speed was 1.9 metres per second and almost two-thirds of all their passes ended in the opposition half, so they were looking to gain territory quickly rather than retain possession of the ball.

Under Neville, this approach has changed completely.

In the games analysed, the number of passes increased to 474.8, with fewer than half ending in the opposition half. This demonstrates how the Lionesses now look to retain the ball in their build-up, with the average number of passes per sequence rising from 2 to 2.9. The direct speed has also dropped.

During this year’s SheBelieves Cup they attempted and completed more passes than USA, Japan and Brazil and they are now completing 23.3 sequences of at least 6 passes per 90, compared to just 7.5 in 2017.

Steph Houghton’s pass maps from the 2017 and 2019 editions of the SheBelieves Cup highlight the change. In 2017, over 65% of the central defender’s passes were directed forward, with a high volume played down the right-hand channel.  Two years later her total pass count had more than doubled, with just 50% going forward. This was partly a result of more passes being played sideways to Leah Williamson, but there was a noticeable increase in passes played into central midfield – 10.6 per 90 compared to 4.3.

Green arrows = successful passes. Red arrows = unsuccessful passes.

Controlling central midfield – and offering a threat down both flanks 

One player who will not be appearing this summer is vice-captain Jordan Nobbs. The Arsenal midfielder was ruled out after suffering an ACL injury in November, shortly after featuring in three of England’s autumn friendlies.

In those matches Nobbs was utilised in central positions, both as a number 10 and in a slightly deeper role, both of which were different to how she operated in the 2017 tournaments.

In those matches she operated in wide areas, predominantly on the right where her link-up play with Lucy Bronze was central to England’s attacking play. Across eight matches they passed to each other 119 times, which was by far England’s most frequent passing line and as highlighted by the graphic below, the majority of all England’s attacking play came down the right.

In addition to being England’s main outlet, receiving substantially more passes per 90 than anyone else, Nobbs created more chances (1.51) and delivered more crosses (3.43) from open play than any other player, which further emphasises how integral she was to England’s attacking play.  After moving to operate centrally, Nobbs continued to be a key recipient of passes alongside Keira Walsh.

However the key change under Neville has been how the full backs have been used, with Bronze (43.8 passes received per 90) and Alex Greenwood (42.3) now seeing high volumes of ball. In 2017 England’s full backs were delivering very few crosses from either side, but under Neville Greenwood has been delivering 2.8 crosses from open play down the left, with Bronze contributing 1.9 from the right. Of the two Bronze has provided the greater threat, creating 0.6 chances from crosses, whilst recording a higher success rate of take-ons (74% to 29%).

As shown by the heat map below, the end location of all passes since Neville took over has a more even spread across the pitch.

End location of England passes: tournament and friendly matches under Phil Neville.

In 2017 Houghton was the player delivering the most passes into the attacking third (9.1) from central defence, which again reemphasises how previously England were looking to get back to front as quick as possible.

Creating better quality chances in front of goal

In addition to creating more chances per 90 under Neville, England’s xG output has jumped from 1.15 to 1.54, demonstrating that they are generating more goal attempts from higher quality locations.

England are also now having more touches in the opposition box, with a lower proportion of shots from outside the penalty area. A rise in goal attempts from open play has also coincided with a drop in attempts from set pieces.

The increase in penalty area action can be accounted in part to an increase in open play crosses, which has risen from eight per 90 to 11.3, as well as the number of through balls doubling, with Georgia Stanway (1.1) and Toni Duggan (0.6) recording the most amongst the players selected for France.

Another of the main beneficiaries of England’s new approach has been Fran Kirby, who is now seeing more of the ball in central areas and is the leading chance creator with 2.9 per 90, contributing four assists.

Remaining compact and regaining possession in defensive areas

One thing which has remained constant since 2017 has been a desire to remain solid whilst the opposition has the ball. Under Neville England actually win the ball back less in the final third than they did previously, with most possession gains occurring within their own defensive third.

Despite looking to remain compact, England have been conceding more shots (12.25) with a higher xG value (1.1) than they did in their 2017 tournaments (10.38 and 0.76). One reason for this is an increase in the proportion of shots occurring inside their own box, 62.5%, compared to 52.1% in 2017.

Looking to make a strong start

England enter the World Cup ranked third in FIFA’s rankings and now have two friendly matches with Denmark and New Zealand before their opening match with Scotland on 9th June.

Given their recent experimentation with different shapes, it is unclear whether England will retain the same eleven and formation throughout the tournament, however we can be confident in predicting that the Lionesses will be adopting a substantially different approach compared to their 2017 Euros campaign – looking to control possession and play through opposition, both centrally and down either flank.

Whilst in 2017 it appeared that there was a clear emphasis to attack down the right, exploiting the duel threat of Nobbs and Bronze, it looks like England’s opponents will have to prepare for a wider range of threats across the pitch in order to stop them creating high-quality goal scoring opportunities in and around the box, as the Lionesses look to build momentum in their group which can be used as a springboard into the knockout stages.

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