England’s lack of fitness may come back to haunt them in Women’s World Cup pressure cooker 

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The power failed and the lights went out on England’s Fran Kirby on Tuesday, for what you might say was the second time in three days.

The flick of a switch re-illuminated the darkened room at a hotel on France’s Normandy coast where the No 10 was talking, though the problem was more profound when England ran out of steam in the Stade de Nice against Scotland, the world’s 20th ranked nation.

Kirby’s own mobility as the Scots came back into the game was not good and her player rating from the notoriously tough L’Equipe — a five — reflected a disappointing opening to the tournament by her own standards.

Kirby, whose domestic season at Chelsea was plagued by three injuries, said the humidity was suffocating in the stadium on the French Riviera. ‘You did feel like you couldn’t catch your breath,’ she said. ‘But we trained in it up until the game and everyone knew it was going to be hot.’ 

There is a fear among some who know this England team best that the creation of a fully professional Women’s Super League, running in tandem with the men’s season, may paradoxically make winning this World Cup more difficult. ‘This is the first time we’ve gone into a tournament on the back of a winter league,’ Alex Scott told the BBC. ‘I have question marks over how tired England looked.’

Kirby responded to that in the way you may expect. ‘We don’t think too much about it,’ she said. ‘Whether it’s in the summer or the winter, we just want to play football. Everyone has had a tough year. A lot of games, a lot of travelling. Some people playing more fixtures than others.’

Yet there is a very distinct change in philosophy. Neville’s predecessor Mark Sampson put a capacity to run to the last above all else. The current manager does not.

‘Before, [under Sampson], it was long-ball orientated,’ Kirby said. ‘It was: “Make sure you are fitter than everyone else when you run after the ball.” Under Mark, we had that thing: Be the fittest team at the [2017] Euros. Now, I’d say we are more conscious of how we are playing on the pitch. I’d say the volume of training is more touches on the ball, possession, more than 11 v 11 and trying to get your legs going. I’d say it is more technical work. That’s probably been the difference in training.’

Neville is making the very bold assertion that he believes England can prove themselves as the best passing side in the world. And, just like Gareth Southgate’s the men’s side, his players will stick devoutly to the script. 

Midfielder Keira Walsh said on Tuesday that she anticipated very little deviation from the passing game, even if England are struggling. ‘On the sideline, Phil is always telling us to keep calm and keep the ball and play passes,’ she said. ‘He has this thing where he says “rondos” — keeping the ball, playing short passes.’

The players like the fact that Neville has invested more faith in their technical ability, though outplaying France and the USA will bring the same degree of difficulty that Southgate’s players faced in the World Cup semi-final against Croatia last summer.

Time will tell whether the decision to undertake less warm weather training will tell on England. Sampson took his players to the heat of Toronto before 2015 and Valencia before Euro 2017, where they were semi-finalists. This team visited Qatar in January, when the state was far from its hottest. Some of the training in Doha was scrapped as the players were tired.

The former US goalkeeper Hope Solo has said these more prosaic considerations matter hugely. ‘They have a great squad and a fresh way of looking at things with Neville,’ she told the BBC. ‘But if fitness ends up haunting them I will be very sad and upset for the team, because it’s something the coach and the players can control.’

England’s optimism about fitness is born of their work with Ben Young, who had worked in rugby union with Saracens and England before Sampson drafted him in ahead of the 2015 tournament. 

Young, the senior of the two strength and conditioning coaches with Neville’s squad in France, said a few years ago that he had been ‘shocked’ by how little strength and conditioning work had previously been done by a side who ended up finishing third in 2015.

Kirby also attests to how far England have come. ‘I was probably a lot smaller than a lot of the girls [back then],’ she said. ‘I am a lot smaller than them, so I need to try and build something somewhere else. I’ve learnt a lot more about my body now. But I think, going to my first World Cup then, I’d never been in a gym before.’

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