If there were numerous questions to be asked about England’s future under Phil Neville, then this narrow victory did little to answer them. A late tap-in from Ellen White, after a defensive howler, secured a desperately needed win against a Japan side they convincingly beat at the World Cup last summer. There will be relief in the dressing room but once again the Lionesses looked unable to get the better of a team that appeared to have nullified the attacking threat posed by Neville’s side.
“It’s good for everybody to feel the win,” the manager said. “Winning will give us the ability to build a new team spirit, a new togetherness. You can’t manufacture togetherness.”
Neville had been heavily criticised for his team selection in the SheBelieves Cup opener, a tepid defeat by the USA. That 2-0 loss, their sixth defeat in nine games, heaped pressure on the games to follow and, when the teamsheet arrived, there was a buzz in the air. The 19-year-old Lauren Hemp, who impressed against the world champions, was again entrusted with a place out wide. She was joined by Everton’s 22-year-old Chloe Kelly on the opposite flank and Chelsea’s top scorer, Beth England, up top. It was a fighting move from the publicly stoic England manager and one fans and critics alike have been crying out for: to play the in-form young players ahead of the less convincing stalwarts.
“They did really well,” said Neville. “There was a freshness and an unpredictability.” Neville’s is a tough position for any manager. Phasing out an old guard that have given so much to the game without disrupting the dressing room is no easy task. The inexperienced group began brightly against a Japanese team that had, until their defeat by Spain in Orlando, won all their games since their World Cup exit. But with Keira Walsh alone in front of the back line, Japan’s tricky attacker Mina Tanaka and best forward Mana Iwabuchi found success between the lines of England’s 4-1-4-1.
After a frantic start Hemp got the better of the right-back Risa Shimizu but her shot was low and too close to Sakiko Ikeda, who palmed wide. With half an hour gone a neat backheel from Jordan Nobbs enabled England to force a fine save from Ikeda before Georgia Stanway’s follow-up was blocked. “Love it! Love it!” shouted Neville from the sidelines.
The longer the Lionesses went without a goal, though, the more nervy proceedings became. Pressing harder and higher after the break proved fruitful but on the hour mark Neville reverted to a much more conservative line-up with the lively Kelly and Hemp swapped out for Toni Duggan and Nikita Parris, while Leah Williamson, played somewhat cruelly at right-back against the USA, came on for an overworked Walsh in central midfield.
“When the senior ones came on at the end they had that game knowledge and game management that we need along the journey,” said Neville. That was one take. An alternative was that, when push came to shove, he copped out of entrusting his young charges to find the winner in the dying, intense minutes.
Less than 10 minutes later England found herself taken off for White. It was a strange move when anything less than a win would likely see England plummet further down the world rankings, having occupied third place before the World Cup.
For Chelsea England has scored 14 goals and performed well in a front two with the Australian Sam Kerr. While White is more used to leading the line alone, playing a lone forward seems an odd hill for the manager to die on. “We do play a system where we don’t play two out-and-out centre-forwards,” said Neville, before he conceded that it would be something they could “look to integrate into our future planning”.
The substitutions took the sting out of England’s tail. With seven minutes remaining, though, White lifted the pressure a little. Shiori Miyake conceded the ball to Duggan just inside the box on the right and the Atlético Madrid forward chipped a neat pass into the feet of the striker, who poked home.
There was palpable relief in the familiar goggles celebration, and from the bench, but this was a much tougher and laboured win than it should have been against a team ranked four places below them. It was a victory Neville needed but it was not a pretty one.