Ellen White scored twice as England secured top spot in Group D with a 2-0 victory over Japan at the Women’s World Cup.
The Lionesses kept up their 100% record at the competition with a relatively composed performance, although they were forced to survive an improved Japan display in the second half.
White opened the scoring in the 14th minute and added another six minutes from time, ensuring England made history by winning all three of their group games for the first time.
Here are five things we learned.
1. England work rate proves crucial
The key component in England’s match-winning performance was the team’s work rate on the night, an approach led by goalscorer White and Rachel Daly. The non-stop runs of Daly, whose versatility meant Japan didn’t know where she was going to pop up (it was down the right), gave England’s opponents all sorts of problems.
The Lionesses mostly kept the ball on the ground but from time to time they bypassed the Japan press with a long ball. Daly was always a willing runner in those situations and was unlucky to see a finely struck shot tipped over after making one of those runs in the first half.
Meanwhile, White chased down every sloppy Japan pass at the back and stretched her counterparts by working off the shoulder of the centre-backs. Doing so led to her first goal; White latched onto an inch-perfect Georgia Stanway pass and finished brilliantly, becoming the joint-third highest scorer for England in World Cup history. She added another similar goal late on, and deservedly so.
England’s increased work-rate perhaps stemmed from Neville’s squad management. The England boss made eight changes to the team that beat Argentina last time out, which seemed to revive the energy of the group.
2. Free flowing moments not enough for Japan
If England’s methodology on the night involved working hard and doing the majority of the running, Japan’s was more akin to what they know: quick passing and creating attacking opportunities through clever movement.
However, Japan’s problem on the night was that they didn’t have enough of the ball to fully stick to their philosophy. Every now and then, they would work the ball attractively and find themselves in three vs two scenarios against the England defence, but those scenarios were all too rare and their final ball was wasteful.
In the end, bar a couple of Yuika Sugasawa chances, Japan’s best opportunity came from a free-kick 30 yards from goal. Kumi Yokoyama stepped up and smashed the ball over the wall. It was heading straight for the top corner before Karen Bardsley pulled off an impressive stop to tip the strike onto the bar.
Japan will rue the fact they were unable to play their usual game, but at least they are through to the knockout stages.
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3. “Smaller goals” argument falls flat again
Bardsley’s save from Yokoyama’s free-kick wasn’t the only piece of high-quality goalkeeping we saw on the night. Japan ‘keeper Ayaka Yamashita could do little about White’s finishes, but she was otherwise in inspired form between the sticks.
Last week, Chelsea Women manager Emma Hayes suggested smaller goals may help to improve goalkeeping in the women’s game, but former England defender Alex Scott rejected the idea at half-time after seeing Bardsley and Yamashita pull off some impressive saves.
During BBC Sport’s coverage, Scott said: “The whole debate around smaller goals – no, it’s actually the investment in goalkeepers [that is needed.] Get them the right training and the right investment and we can continue to praise goalkeepers.”
It’s impossible to argue with Scott’s comments. The standard of goalkeeping in the women’s game seems to be improving all the time, as proven by yet another stop by Bardsley in the 89th minute.
4. Houghton pivotal to England’s chances of going far
If there is a weakness in England’s game, it is their inability to put in a consistent level of performance over 90 minutes. Japan stepped things up in the second half and deserve credit for that, but the Lionesses became sloppy in possession just as they did in the opener against Scotland.
With that comes an opportunity for the opposition to get back into the game, and Japan started to create half-chances when England lost their momentum. One of those opportunities came when Sugasawa was put through on goal. All she had to do was get her shot away, but before she knew it, the chance was gone.
Steph Houghton produced a sublime goal-saving challenge to prevent Sugasawa from levelling the scoreline. If Neville’s side are to go far in the competition, they will need Houghton to keep coming up with similar miraculous moments, particularly if the team doesn’t improve its consistency as a whole.
5. England substitutes make their case
As alluded to above, Neville made eight changes to keep his side fresh. If he was thinking about sticking with his new-look side in the first knockout round, the usual suspects may have changed his mind late in the game.
Substitutes Karen Carney and Nikita Parris both played a part in the second goal just as England were beginning to tire. Parris produced a typical dribble before finding Carney, whose through-ball gave White the best possible opportunity to score her second goal.
Carney and Parris will surely be back in Neville’s plans for the Lionesses’ next test now, and it’s testament to the squad’s quality and depth that there are so many options for the manager to choose from.