England must be sharper in second half in knockout stages
NICE, France -- England go into the Women's World Cup knockout stage with three wins from three after beating Japan 2-0, but they will need to address their second-half performance where for much of it they were second best.
The raw statistics show a perfect record for England, who backed up their 2-1 win over Scotland and 1-0 victory over Argentina with a win on Wednesday thanks to clinical finishing from Ellen White, who scored both goals. It is a case of job done, but they have left room for improvement after a poor second-half showing.
Here are five takeaways from Nice:
'It was a game we needed to keep us focused.'
That was Phil Neville's message at full time, but there must have been mixed emotions for the England manager. He would have taken heart from their 2-0 victory -- it is no mean feat against a team that won the World Cup in 2011 and were finalists last time around -- but before this tournament, Neville said he wanted this group to be judged as contenders to win the whole competition. And on these criteria, England are still building.
White's finishing was ruthless, and she now has three goals in two matches here in the World Cup, but England only carved out one other real gilt-edge chance when Toni Duggan's volley was parried away by impressive Japan goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita.
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And then came the second-half malaise in which England struggled to find their rhythm and their impressive high-press tactic from the first half was less effective. They also failed to get the outstanding Duggan into the game -- keeping the play either in the middle third of the field or focusing play more down the right wing.
"When we get to the last 16, it's about winning," Neville said. "We do like to play with a certain style, and in the second half, because we were so open and a bit fatigued, we got exposed a bit.
"We got another clean sheet and we are just where we want to be -- in the last 16 and ready to attack the rest of the tournament."
England need a Plan B.
England's game plan is based around retaining possession and playing from the back. That's all well and good -- and can be brilliantly effective -- but Japan figured out their plan and at times kept England boxed inside their own half. That caused England to play some reckless football, with passes overhit as they attempted to force the tempo, rather than nurture it. They showed elements of having a backup plan when they played it longer to Jill Scott and looked for her to bring the wingers and game-changers into the game, but they could have played with more directness in that second half.
But don't expect Neville to backtrack or panic. "The style is non-negotiable -- we have to play a certain style," he said. "We played well for 90 minutes against Argentina; we played well for 78 minutes against Scotland."
Expect more rotation.
England have individual plans and profiles on each player in the squad, weighing their respective strengths and weaknesses and then comparing them against their opponent's capabilities. Their selection is not a case of throwing darts against a board, or picking names out of the hat, as Neville puts it. But it can catch you off guard, and it certainly keeps the players on their toes.
On Tuesday, Neville faced the press and said England would pick their best XI for Japan. A day later and he made a host of changes with the likes of Fran Kirby and Nikita Parris left on the bench. So continue expecting the unexpected as England head into the knockout stages.
Japan are building again and will challenge in 2023.
Neville said postmatch this World Cup probably will have come too soon for Japan. And it's hard not to agree with him. Japan have made widespread changes to the squad that won the tournament in 2011 and got to the final four years ago, knocking England out in the process. But these are with an eye on the long term.
The outstanding Kumi Yokoyama drew a brilliant save from Karen Bardsley. And as long as they have Lyon's world-class defender and captain Saki Kumagai in their ranks, they have a sturdy, authoritative presence at the back. They just lacked a ruthlessness up front, with Yuika Sugasawa getting in the right positions but failing to capitalise on the opportunity.
'Baby Shark' ... really?
The England band were at their trumpeting best in Nice, playing their usual repertoire of songs. But them booming out "Baby Shark" was new. But as chance had it, England grabbed their second goal soon after one rendition. So while parents up and down the U.K. are probably sick to the high teeth of the song, perhaps it was the fillip England needed to close out the match. That, or it was a handy way of silencing that particular song.