England versus Japan has so often offered up memorable moments. Whether it be Kelly Smith kissing her boot in 2007, Ellen White’s brilliant lob in 2011, or Laura Bassett’s heartbreaking own goal in 2015, it’s a match now steeped in history and more will be written this summer when the sides meet for a fourth consecutive World Cup.
But it was a completely different encounter in Tampa, Florida, on Tuesday night as Phil Neville picked up his first piece of silverware with the Lionesses and the squad’s first trophy since four years ago at the Cyprus Cup with a 3-0 win over Japan in the 2019 SheBelieves Cup.
At the home of the National Football League’s Buccaneers, it was England who were ruthless, opening up a 3-0 lead inside half an hour, and despite a very different Japan side in the second half, it was too much for Asako Takakura’s side to come back from.
When summarizing the match, everything should come with a caveat or at the very least a little asterisk next to each point, because like most of England’s tournament it was a bizarre game for so many reasons.
Japan, who all tournament has continued to impress with their quick passing style, continued to use the competition to bring in their less experienced players while Neville also made eight changes, giving starts to the likes of Leah Williamson and Lucy Staniforth.
Despite the dominance in which England controlled the first half, Neville and his players won’t be naive enough to think it will be the same in June and his side got a brief taste in the second half of just how difficult the Nadeshiko can be to play against when they find their rhythm.
But as it was, Takakura’s side couldn’t lay a finger on England in the first half and while it would be easy to discredit Neville’s side, they actually got a lot right themselves rather than relying solely on their opponent’s weaknesses.
The press worked throughout the side but was particularly effective when center back duo Steph Houghton and Leah Williamson continuously stepped out of defense to deny Japan’s attackers any sort of time on the ball.
Neville made a tactical tweak to suit his personnel too. With Fran Kirby not involved, Neville moved to a midfield three with Keira Walsh, who was sensational, sitting a little deeper behind Staniforth and Izzy Christiansen.
If there was one blot on an otherwise successful evening, it was the seemingly serious ankle injury Christiansen picked up just before halftime and left England thinner than ever in a position where players are dropping by the game.
Aside from the press, England’s passing in the final third was incisive and clinical; Jodie Taylor, for example, up top using her strength to roll a defender and set up Karen Carney for England’s second after slipping in Staniforth for the opener moments earlier.
The third goal was the best moment of the night. Walsh’s radar picked out Beth Mead on the right with a sumptuous ball and the Arsenal forward scored her second of the tournament, cutting in from the right and firing home with her left foot.
After being brought off at halftime against Sweden in England’s last game of 2018, it was Mead who probably walks away from the tournament having done the most to give Neville a headache. With Nikita Parris almost certain to start on the right, Mead’s performances will have given food for thought with the left wing slot seemingly still not settled on by the head coach.
Despite being in cruise control, it felt like England needed a test and Takakura duly provided one at halftime with the introduction of Rikako Kobayashi, Kumi Yokoyama, and Yuka Momiki, the latter Japan’s star of the tournament.
The game instantly saw a big momentum shift as Japan was more incisive going forward, providing England and Neville with a taste of just how difficult things will be in the burning French Riviera heat come June against a much stronger Japan eleven.
If Japan had their shooting boots on it could have been a more dramatic evening but in the end a lack of cutting edge ensured England maintained their 3-0 score line and lifted the SheBelieves Cup for the first time.
A few glaring misses in front of goal teamed with a couple of good saves from Carly Telford were all the warning shots England needed going into the summer and it was a 45-minute test England desperately needed after an opening 45 which was testimonial-like at times.
England switched back to Neville’s favored 4-2-3-1 in the second half and Neville can’t fail to miss that once again England started to leave gaps defensively once they lost the extra player in the middle.
Again, caveats and asterisks given Japan brought on more experienced attackers in the second half, but Takakura’s side constantly found space between England’s midfield and defense, a trait familiar against the United States and Brazil, and generally against any of the top sides the Lionesses have faced under Neville.
Moving to a permanent three seems unlikely so close to a tournament and would raise big issues for what happens to Kirby in the No. 10 role but there were clear differences in England’s ability to cut out Japan’s attacks through the middle after giving up a player in the midfield.
Of the questions raised about England before the tournament, some were answered and some remain open. Telford does indeed appeared to have nailed down the No. 1 position but there are still clear issues in terms of the defensive unit and problems coping with set pieces once again reared their heads against the U.S.
Chioma Ubogagu looked lively in her 25 minutes against Japan and it doesn’t seem anyone has nailed down the vacant left wing spot, assuming Fran Kirby and Nikita Parris are nailed on starters.
Ellen White was put straight back into the No. 9 role against Brazil and it looks like she will be Neville’s favored option up top but Taylor’s impressive first-half performance against Japan shows it’s not exactly a settled-on choice right now.
The Lionesses now face four tough tests to lead them into France this summer and in which Neville will continue to learn a lot about his team. Those games are now where England needs to start ironing out the issues that still ensure there are concerns about whether England can go all the way this summer.