England boss Phil Neville said his side might need to “suffer more pain” in future friendlies after they drew with Belgium in their first game since the World Cup.
Having led 2-0, Nikita Parris’s late penalty saved England’s embarrassment as they avoided a first defeat by the Red Flames since 1980.
England were sloppy in defence as the hosts, ranked 15 places below the Lionesses at 19 in the world, entertained a lively crowd in Leuven.
Neville said: “The goals were really disappointing in a week where we have worked hard on being compact and hard to beat and three crosses into the box beat us. I’m not happy.
“I feel that with the plan we have for the next three camps we might have to suffer some pain a little bit. But I don’t want us to suffer pain in the areas we are working on. I want us to be better in those areas and that was the disappointment tonight.”
The Lionesses began positively as Jodie Taylor opened the scoring from Georgia Stanway’s through ball before Beth Mead followed up after Taylor’s shot was saved.
Steph Houghton then hit the post from a free-kick as the Lionesses threatened to run riot.
But poor defending let Belgium back into the game as goalkeeper Carly Telford’s own goal and an Ella van Kerkhoven header levelled matters on the stroke of half-time.
It got worse for Neville’s side in the second half as Houghton’s fluffed clearance fell straight to Van Kerkhoven to make it 3-2 before Parris’ penalty earned a draw.
Neville said before the game that he was looking for improvement from his side after their fourth-place finish in France, but on this evidence there is plenty to work on as England play a series of friendlies in the build-up to hosting Euro 2021.
“We cannot waste time on any camp thinking we will get it right at the Olympics, get it right at the SheBelieves Cup or Euro 2021,” Neville added. “While we are waiting, other teams are improving and we have to make sure we are improving faster than anybody else.”
Sloppiness costs England
Prior to the match, Neville also said England were still “hurting” from their failure to make it past the World Cup semi-finals and had an “incredible desire” to do better.
But there were several periods of sloppiness which were also a feature of some games in France, and it is a trait the team can ill-afford if they have designs of winning a gold medal in two years’ time.
The Lionesses were missing several key players through injury, including Ellen White, Jill Scott and Fran Kirby, as Lucy Bronze, who became the first English player to win Uefa’s Women’s player of the year award, moved into midfield.
Neville said there “was a never a moment in the game where Bronze looked like a full-back playing in midfield” and it was a strong England side, who once again were clinical but failed to manage the game once taking the lead.
The match was characterised by a home fan who attempted to stir the team on her own via a megaphone as they fell behind to two slick England goals.
As Stanway’s clever pass set up Taylor, Mead seemingly put England in control and Houghton rattled the woodwork, the supporter was an isolated voice.
But by the end of the first half, she had the stand she occupied rocking after England let their lead slip and then went behind.
Thankfully for the visitors, Parris helped them avoid a terrible start to their Euro 2021 campaign as she slammed home a penalty after Janice Cayman’s handball.
Having missed two at the World Cup it was at least one sign that some lessons had been learned.
Williams extends cap record
On a chaotic night for England, Fara Williams came on during the second half to extend her caps record to 171 and she did help to steady things for England later on in the game.
Chelsea forward Beth England made her debut from the bench and impressed Neville, but there were still chances for Belgium as Tine de Caigny’s shot was blocked late on.
The worrying aspect for Neville will be that his side also suffered friendly defeats by teams ranked lower than them in the build-up to the World Cup.
At the time, he brushed them off saying England would come good in the World Cup, which they did to some degree based on the record TV audiences which followed them to their third successive semi-final at a major tournament.
However, the inclusion of 35-year-old Williams underlined the limited midfield resources that Neville has at his disposal.
With Scott rested and Jordan Nobbs and Izzy Christiansen still recovering from long-term injuries, Neville needs them back in the team.
The England head coach, who has said he will pick players based on their character, also needs to ensure his players can concentrate for longer periods in games.
There will be no inquest given it is a first game of the season, but Neville will want England to improve when they face Norway in their next friendly game in Bergen on Tuesday.