?Phil Neville loves it when a plan comes together.
“I’m going to play my best team. I want to finish top and win the game,” he told the assembled media the night before Wednesday’s Group D decider against Japan. 24 hours later, the very same press corps were handed teamsheets with an England lineup that featured eight(!) changes from the win over Argentina five days previous.
It’s fair to say that eyebrows were raised. At least one person half-joked about looking up train tickets to Rennes, where the Lionesses would play their round of 16 match if they lost to Japan and finished second in the group.
Four players in the lineup hadn’t started either of the first two games. The left-hand side was made up of two players who hadn’t played a single minute in the tournament. Only three starters – Lucy Bronze, captain Steph Houghton and the tireless Jill Scott – had been on the pitch for more than 50% of England’s minutes.
The Stade de Nice was well under half full, the atmosphere was flat, and the scene was set for a thoroughly underwhelming night. Then England started by giving the ball away, and had to be bailed out by a stunning Karen Bardsley save from Kumi Yokoyama’s free kick.
Even if you didn’t watch the match, you know roughly what happened next. England scored (Ellen White, delightfully cultured finish, 15 minutes in) and held out.
Neville vindicated, England on track and on target, and some squad players given valuable minutes. Right?
It’s tricky to say. In the short term, yes – the Lionesses won, that’s about as successful in a single match as you can be. But they looked sloppy, a lot of passes went astray, and the midfield completely failed to stop Japan from creating chances.
England have now made more changes than any other team in the tournament, with 12 across two games (granted, at the time of writing there are still eight teams waiting to finish their group campaign). As good as it is that Neville has depth in the squad that he trusts, the lack of consistency of selection could prove a problem when the knockout rounds start and that momentum bred by familiarity becomes key.
That’s not to say there weren’t positives. Toni Duggan’s return from injury is a big boost and she’ll contribute a healthy amount in the coming weeks, while Rachel Daly’s performance as part of a completely changed front three will give Neville pause for thought when putting together his lineup for the round of 16 game against a team yet to be decided.
‘Hello, would you like to score?’ – England’s midfield to Japan for most of this match
— Chris Deeley ? FORGOTTEN NATIONS OUT NOW ? (@ThatChris1209) June 19, 2019
Georgia Stanway’s performance deserves a special mention, providing something in a deepish number 10 role that Fran Kirby has thus far failed to deliver on, despite her undoubted talent. She was denied a goal when her wicked, dipping, bending shot was clawed away by Ayake Yamashita. There were flaws in her performance too, but her range of shots should have her considered for an increased role as the tournament draws on.
The front three played well. But.