Women's World Cup 2019: 'England miss out on eureka moment again'

England players look dejected following semi-final defeat
England have lost their past three major tournament semi-finals

The taste of tears after a World Cup semi-final defeat is all too familiar for England, but under Phil Neville it was supposed to be different.

The former Manchester United and Everton player was billed as the missing piece of the jigsaw after the Lionesses' third-place finish in 2015.

He brought the "winning mentality", he "got the players" because he had been one, and he made sure they played in an attractive way.

Yet, for all the positivity, a 2-1 defeat by holders United States means England have now suffered three successive semi-final exits in major tournaments.

In 2015, reaching the last four was new and unexpected - England overachieved and left Canada with smiles and bronze medals.

Four years on, Neville said a semi-final exit would represent "failure" and his players would be "sick of" any plaudits they received, despite also being upbeat about the future.

There have been many positives: record TV audiences, unprecedented media coverage and inspirational stories. But, once again, it feels like a missed opportunity for a sport which is still seeking its eureka moment in England.

Have England progressed since 2015?

Off the pitch, the reach of women's football has increased hugely. Social media has been swamped with tales of new fans watching their first games, and Neville said his side had "touched the hearts of the nation".

On the field, England's progress since 2015 has been more difficult to quantify, especially against a superior opposition, who reached their third consecutive final.

Four years ago, England were knocked out in the cruellest fashion against Japan by Laura Bassett's late own goal. Yet there were questions about former boss Mark Sampson's tactical approach to see out the game in Edmonton.

This time, the scoreline suggested a similarly tight match - particularly when you add in an Ellen White goal being ruled out for offside via the video assistant referee, and Steph Houghton missing England's third penalty of the tournament.

But questions remain about England's methods under Neville.

The England boss has drawn praise for introducing a more attractive brand of football since he was appointed 18 months ago. It hasn't always been convincing in France, but he has said his style is "non-negotiable", citing it as one of the key components of growing the game in England.

The problem is whether England are good enough to successfully play that way yet and if it was the right choice against the US.

Former American goalkeeper Hope Solo had warned before the match that her compatriots would lap it up and England should go more direct. Once the US went ahead, they were happy to defend, let England have the ball and showed little sign of relinquishing their lead.

At half-time, BBC Sport pundit Dion Dublin said: "Phil wants to play in a certain way, but he needs to be brave enough to say 'not this time'."

Only three teams had more possession and only two had better pass completion rates than England, and time will allow Neville to bed in his methods.

But it showed that against the world's best teams, being able to adapt is a crucial part of a manager's armoury.

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Steph Houghton's post-match reaction following England World Cup exit

Players fail to reach US level

There are also legitimate questions to be posed about some of the players' performances when it mattered most.

Neville has not been shy in showering them with praise, but there has always been a sense they could improve in each game.

Even after their most convincing performance - in the quarter-final win over Norway - defender Millie Bright said England "weren't at their best".

Many felt they would need to hit their peak against the US but, despite a spirited display from goalscorer Ellen White - who is now the tournament's joint top goalscorer with Alex Morgan - most suffered a drop-off.

Drawing 2-2 against the US in the SheBelieves Cup earlier this year was seen as a sign England could be considered their opponents' equals.

Yet many of White's team-mates failed to shine - Lucy Bronze did not live up to Neville's claim she is the "best player in the world", failing to pick up Christen Press at the back post for the US opener.

Bright, who was sent off for two bookable offences, and Demi Stokes struggled during the first half against the USA's right-sided attackers, and Nikita Parris was largely anonymous after starting behind White in a 4-4-2 formation, which didn't seem to suit England as they were outnumbered in midfield.

England might not have been helped by having to replace goalkeeper Karen Bardsley with Carly Telford, but - though she made one error - she pulled off some good saves.

The shame for Houghton, who has excelled in France, was she ended up missing the penalty that might have saved England.

Ultimately, though, the USA showed Neville's players they will need to improve to reach the world-class status he desires.

The head coach said: "I'd like to think people can see we're heading in a direction that's actually pretty exciting."

Phil Neville consoles Ellen White after the defeat but spoke of a brighter future
Phil Neville consoles Ellen White after the defeat but spoke of a brighter future

What next for England and Neville?

Neville said after Tuesday's match that his team "had the time of our lives".

White's now famous celebration has been replicated up and down the country by young girls and boys, who have found a new love of women's football.

There were only four English journalists at the 2011 World Cup, and about 10 in Canada four years ago, but dozens have followed England in France, leading to unprecedented media coverage. The record TV audience for England games was broken three times en route to the semi-finals.

England's third-place finish four years ago brought about a clear bounce, with attendances at Women's Super League games increasing, helped by a summer season which resumed after the World Cup finished.

With the WSL now in winter, and not starting until September, there is a danger the upsurge in interest may die away. But there are signs the World Cup has had a tangible effect, with 20,000 tickets sold for England's friendly against Germany in November.

England players and fans can take solace from the fact they have qualified a Great Britain team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

That provides an important bridge to the 2021 European Championship, which will be held in England and marks the end of Neville's current contract.

He has shown he clearly has an appetite and capability to succeed, especially as this is his first taste of management. He has the incentive to make amends in Japan, and were he returning home a World Cup winner, offers to go back into the men's game may have been more numerous.

Despite a familiar ending, he remained upbeat about the future. "We've got a three-year project to win 2021 and if we keep creating this type of euphoria, success and momentum then we will be one of the most successful teams in world football.

"We are proving that already."

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.

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