Phil Neville has made clear his desire to shape England into a possession-based side. By this evidence it remains a work in progress.
After unspectacular wins over Scotland and Argentina, the Lionesses were faced with their biggest test of the Women’s World Cup against Japan in Nice. They passed the test – but, despite the 2-0 scoreline, it was not with flying colours.
The first half contained flashes of composure and class, reminders of the technical ability of Neville’s side, and a well crafted and well taken goal by Ellen White.
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But with Japan goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita on form, England couldn’t push home their advantage and, after weathering severe pressure and relying on some lacklustre Japanese finishing, it was White who raced through to bury her second and send the Lionesses through as Group D winners with a maximum nine points.
From the kick-off it was clear England wanted to go toe to toe with their familiar foes; Japan were beaten 3-0 in the final of the SheBelieves Cup in March, but crucially beat the Lionesses 2-1 in the 2015 World Cup semi-final.
Centre-backs Steph Houghton and Millie Bright were happy to hold the ball and probe for openings, but in truth it was the more direct style into outstanding forward White which worked best at bypassing the hard-working Japanese midfield.
With the 22-year-old Keira Walsh playing the pivot role on her 17th cap at the base of midfield it was a bold style – and one which brought its fair share of mistakes. Had the recalled Karen Bardsley not produced some sharp stops, England’s efforts could easily have been undone.
The win came. They top a World Cup group for only the second time. But it was not vintage.
Tuesday evening showcased the shining talent of Manchester City’s Phil Foden in action for England’s Under-21s. Tonight was a chance to enjoy another outstanding young playmaker on the club’s books.
Georgia Stanway won the PFA Young Player of the Year award this year and her presence in the Lionesses’ midfield provided a point of difference.
It was her spin, drive, strength and poked through-ball which sent White in for the first goal after 14 minutes and her vision which provided the best moments in the final third throughout.
Her inexperience showed at times when taking on inadvisable pot-shots from distance and losing the ball in dangerous areas, but it was a bright showing from the young gun.
Ultimately though it was the assured finishing of White which won it. The 30-year-old striker lead the line tirelessly, holding the ball up superbly and bringing in runners, but it was her instincts on the shoulder of the last defender which brought the goals.
Having scored in the opening 2-1 win over Scotland, White was confident and it showed. A deft finish past the onrushing Yamashita got England under way before she repeated the trick at the near post from Karen Carney’s pass to made sure of the points late on.
Given her finishing prowess it’s no surprise Manchester City have already swooped to sign her on a two-year contract for next season.
Overall it was a high-quality contest in Nice, with two of the world’s best, most technical teams trying their best to out-manoeuvre each other. Given the standard, it was a shame to see so many empty seats in the Allianz Riviera.
Just 14,319 people were inside the 35,000-seater stadium, leaving an empty feel which has unfortunately been a theme of the World Cup so far.
The consensus seems to be that there has been little visibility around France to suggest a major tournament is taking place, while governing body Fifa and their social media channels apparently have not been compelled to push ticket sales.
It may be a footnote to a positive night for English women’s football, but it is an important one nonetheless.