LYON, France — Before she became a fantastic analyst for Fox Sports during the 2019 Women's World Cup, Eniola Aluko played 102 times for England, including in the last three Women's World Cups. And with England facing the U.S. in the semifinals on Tuesday (3 p.m. ET, FOX, Telemundo), she has a unique perspective with which to dissect the USA-England game and explain why she thinks England has taken the next step to join the world’s elite teams over the past five years.
Aluko, 32, still plays for Juventus. She has a law degree and big plans to become a technical director soon enough, and on August 29 she will release a memoir: They Don’t Teach This: Lessons From the Game of Life. Our full conversation (full disclosure: we are working together as part of the Fox Sports TV team here) can be heard in the next episode of the Planet Fútbol Podcast.
Why does she think the Lionesses have made The Leap in the last five years?
“I think the Olympics [in London in 2012] was a big kick-starter for the game in England,” Aluko says. “Prior to that, there were a lot of semi-professional teams that were sort of paying it lip service but weren’t taking the game seriously. From a Chelsea perspective, we didn’t have a proper set-up per se. We were training at the training ground, but we were training in the evening at 8 o’clock at night on the Astroturf. If we were lucky, we had the whole Astroturf, sometimes we had half the Astroturf. We didn’t have water bottles. It wasn’t something that was taken seriously.
“After the Olympics,” she continues, “I think all the major teams had a Eureka moment and thought, ‘Hold on a second, there’s something in this. If we invest in the women’s game, it’s a win from a public relations perspective, and then we can also engage with a wider fanbase.' It became a trend. As you can see just in this tournament, when there’s major investment in the professional structure of women’s football, it helps the national teams. And that’s pretty much the story across Europe.
“That’s been the story for England. It’s been steady investment from the FA, but also from clubs since 2012, which has culminated in now having a team of fully fledged professionals who can call football their only job or their main job. And we’re benefiting from a long-term vision from the Football Association to have a professional league. I think the Football Association deserves credit for putting criteria in place for saying if you want to come into our league, you need to have certain requirements. I respect that.”
There was plenty of skepticism when the FA gave the head coaching job of the England women in January 2018 to Phil Neville, the former Manchester United and Everton player who had never been a head coach and had never been involved in the women’s game before. But Neville has now gotten England to its third straight semifinal of a major tournament and answered most of the critics who questioned his appointment.
“I think people almost felt like he skipped the queue a little bit, because there were female managers who sort of put their work in for a long time who deserved the job,” Aluko says. “I wasn’t one of the people who thought it should be a man or woman. I think it should be the best person for the job. I don’t think it should be gender-specific at all. But I do understand the skepticism around him not having any women’s football experience. That’s also not a reason not to give someone the job.
“What you have seen is he’s very committed to understanding the women’s game, to understanding what players need. I know he studied the U.S. team and the mentality. I think he’s been humble enough to understand that’s what it’s going to take. You can’t just rock up as Phil Neville and expect it to happen overnight.”
In Aluko’s opinion, Neville has found an approach that fits his personnel, and he has taken advantage of the greater investment being put in by the English clubs in the women’s game.
“The main thing for me, obviously being in the team in 2015 under Mark Sampson, is he’s completely changed the style of play,” Aluko says. “The style of play wasn’t suited to the players back in 2015. Yes, we got to the semifinals, but it was a very ugly way of playing, in my opinion. It was very front-to-back possession football. There wasn’t a lot of trust in the players’ ability. There was a lot of panic in the way we played. A lot of sort of beating other teams up physically.
“But that can only get you so far. I think Phil Neville has utilized the fact he has top players in his team: Manchester City players, Arsenal players, Chelsea players, who week in and week out play a brand of football that is possession-oriented, that is counter-attack-oriented. So he’s done that very quickly, and you can see now that England are dominating games in possession. I think Tuesday is going to be the key test. It’s going to be, 'O.K., England are in the semifinals, everyone expected them to be, that was the minimum expectation, to be honest.' I don’t think there’s lots of cause for celebration. I think if they beat the U.S., that’s when we’re talking.”
Much of the focus in Tuesday’s semifinal–a rematch of a 2-2 draw in the SheBelieves Cup in March–will be on the enticing battle between the U.S.’s left side (Megan Rapinoe and Crystal Dunn) and England’s right side (Nikita Parris and Lucy Bronze). All four players can get forward in the attack, but how and when they do it—and how their counterparts react—will be fascinating.
But there are other aspects of Tuesday’s matchup that are on Aluko’s radar, too.
“I think England really showed their level against Norway,” says Aluko, who hasn't played for England since 2016, after the fallout of allegations that Sampson racially abused her and a teammate. “They showed their dominance, their attacking prowess. They’re very clinical at the moment. Ellen White’s on form. But the U.S. have showed the same. I was impressed with the U.S., particularly against France. Just their defensive discipline and their ability to say, ‘O.K., we don’t have to attack, we can soak it up and let you have the ball, but we can still win this game.’
“I think USA have shown a different way of winning the game, whereas England defensively have looked a bit shaky in every game. I think you’ve seen some weaknesses in every game. I think the U.S. have only showed a weakness against maybe Spain, which wasn’t exploited by France. Some big defensive performances for the U.S.: Crystal Dunn was immense. Abby Dahlkemper, who nobody seems to talk about, was solid. [Goalkeeper Alyssa] Naeher was solid. So I think the U.S. defense are playing better than England’s defense.
“I think both attacking lines are very, very good. The difference between England and the U.S. is that England have a great goal-scorer in Ellen White that’s sort of leading the way. The U.S. have Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath, who can all score at any moment. So I think the U.S. edge it slightly in terms of winning the game. I think it will all come down to the first 20 minutes. [The U.S. has scored within the first 12 minutes of every match; England has scored in the opening 14 in four of its five games]. So the first 20 minutes will be absolutely huge, absolutely huge.
“Who comes out on the front foot? I can’t wait.”