Women's World Cup: Is Phil Neville's positivity masking England flaws?

England team at full-time
Former USA goalkeeper Hope Solo tweeted that England were "gaining momentum" and warned opponents to "watch out"

Three games, nine points and the prospect of a relatively easy last-16 tie; so far Phil Neville has passed his World Cup debut with flying colours.

The England head coach, who missed out on three World Cups as a player, is relishing his role at the helm in France and says he is "ready to attack the business end of the tournament".

But while his team sparkled in the first halves of victories over rivals Scotland and 2015 finalists Japan, they lapsed after the break in both games.

There have also been occasions when they have struggled to play out from the back, a style which Neville says is "non-negotiable" despite a nagging doubt that it might haunt them once they play one of the big teams in the latter stages.

So are England in good shape to reach their intended goal of the final, and does it matter how they get there?

Neville shifts his tone

Media playback is not supported on this device

England beat Japan 2-0 to top their group

On several occasions in France, Neville has paid tribute to his predecessor Mark Sampson, who led England to third place at the 2015 World Cup, their best finish, before being sacked two years later for non-football reasons.

That third place was considered an over-achievement by many, even if the football was not pretty at times. Sampson's mantra was built on "finding a way to win", with the idea that success would attract new fans.

Neville is cut from a different cloth, having grown up with Sir Alex Ferguson's standards of attacking football at Manchester United. Part of Neville's sales pitch to the Football Association was the idea that England needed to have success while playing attractively.

But with three games under his belt at the World Cup, and with England now expected to at least reach the semi-finals, Neville seems to have shifted his tone slightly.

Asked by BBC Sport whether it mattered how his side played, he said after the win over a young Japanese side: "When you get to the last 16, it's about winning.

"I place a big emphasis on winning and we like to play in a certain style. In the second half against Japan, because we were so open and fatigued, we probably got exposed a little bit. The style is non-negotiable, however far we go."

How good have England been?

Whether England are good enough to face better teams with the expansive style Neville wants is another matter. There have been signs it could cost them.

After a blistering first half against Scotland, England conceded following a mistake by Steph Houghton, who misplaced a pass when playing out from the back.

In the Japan victory, Keira Walsh's early error gifted Kumi Yokoyama a presentable chance, and Neville acknowledged that England, featuring eight changes from their previous match against Argentina, struggled to maintain the control they enjoyed in the first half.

Former England right-back Alex Scott called the second half "sloppy" and were it not for poor Japanese finishing, some fine stops from Karen Bardsley and a last-ditch tackle by Houghton, the game could have taken a different course.

This was not the same Japanese side that won the 2011 World Cup or knocked out England en route to the 2015 final. Seventeen of their 23-player squad were at their first World Cup and the focus for Asako Takakura's side is the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, especially as they failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio Games.

Neville's side are set to face much tougher opponents ahead, with the possibility of hosts France or the United States, the holders, if they make it to the last semi-finals - a stage at which England have lost in their past two major tournaments.

Is positive Neville masking the reality?

From the moment he was appointed England manager in January 2018, Neville stated that his aim was to win the World Cup. He needs little encouragement to eulogise publicly about his players.

He suggested right-back Lucy Bronze could be the best player in the world, then stated after the win over Japan that Bardsley was one of the world's top three goalkeepers. On midfielder Georgia Stanway, after her first World Cup start, he said: "If she keeps her feet on the ground, she is going to one of the best players in world football."

In addition, he said England dipped only for short periods during their wins over Scotland and Japan, when it appeared there were wider issues to contend with.

Is he guilty of masking the reality or is it a deliberate ploy, explained by Bronze before the tournament, where individual displays are regarded as important as tactics?

At times, the "stand-still football" he has previously warned of has been apparent, particularly when trying to link between defence and midfield.

England lost two of their four warm-up games, which Neville did not think were important and labelled them a "nuisance". The real England would turn up when it counted, he said.

After a perfect start, the results cannot be argued with. And despite questions about the team's performances, some of their key players are delivering.

Bardsley, who was rested for the Argentina win, showed top form against Japan. Bronze and Nikita Parris have been huge influences down the right, Jill Scott has been a consistent performer in midfield and Ellen White has scored three goals in two starts.

England's powerful team have shown glimpses of the style Neville craves - plus the substance to get the job done.

But every step England take is new territory for their manager and the challenge is only likely to increase.

BBC Sport has launched #ChangeTheGame this summer to showcase female athletes in a way they never have been before. Through more live women's sport available to watch across the BBC this summer, complemented by our journalism, we are aiming to turn up the volume on women's sport and alter perceptions. Find out more here.