Phil Neville Aims to Continue England’s Forward Momentum against Japan

England head coach Phil Neville during the 2019 World Cup in France. (Daniela Porcelli)
Daniela Porcelli

Phil Neville says he will pick his “best side possible” in order to finish top of Group D in Wednesday night’s deciding game against Japan.

A win or a draw will secure top spot and in theory, an easier second-round encounter, with the runners-up facing either Canada or the Netherlands in Rennes.

Neville also confirmed his whole squad is now fit with the return of Toni Duggan and said Japan’s biggest strength come kickoff will be their system.

“We want to pick our best side to finish top of the group and continue the momentum,” he said. “Japan know how to play [their system] and are fantastically disciplined. They’ve got good movements down the right and left and their forwards are really mobile. We’ll have to be at our best.”

Japan has brought a very young side to the tournament and have well over a dozen players who have never been to a World Cup compared to the 11 in the England squad.

Their lack of experience perhaps showed in their opening encounter with Argentina but Neville says he “admires” his fellow head coach Asako Takakura for her decisions.

“I admire her for making these brave decisions, bringing an inexperienced side and putting them on the big stage, trusting them. It’s brave. Young players are sometimes fearless, not afraid to make mistakes. You see that fearlessness around the hotels every day. Some players have been at three or four World Cups.”

Lucy Bronze, who was also speaking at the official press conference, knows all too well the threat Japan carry, having been part of the team that lost to them in the semifinal four years ago.

Bronze also made her senior England debut against Japan back in 2013 and admitted the feeling is more “intense” this time around with the tag the Lionesses now have thanks to their bronze medal success in 2015.

“In 2015, we may have overachieved by making the semifinal, although we played really well and could have won.

“Coming into this World Cup, we have a lot more belief. That’s changed. We’re not here to make up the numbers. We want to win, get to the final, and beat any team in front of us. We know that we can.”

Despite Bronze’s admission that England overachieved four years ago, Neville didn’t necessarily agree and commented on the quality in the squad during that tournament.

“People underestimate the quality of that 2015 team,” he said. “People talk about them being underdogs, I don’t like references to the style of football, there were some world-class players in that team. People referring back negatively, they got to the semifinal of the World Cup and Mark Sampson and his players deserve unbelievable respect.

“They didn’t kick the ball long. They played good football. If I was in that team, I’d be saying to the 2019 team, ‘You try to beat that.’ They did the job. I don’t like playing down the 2015 team or the manager’s contribution to that. Winning football games is winning football games, you just have to do that.”

Bronze said the feeling left after the last-minute defeat four years ago leaves the team hungrier this time around, more so after another semifinal defeat at Euro 2017 against hosts the Netherlands, but neither are looking too far ahead or plotting potential routes to Lyon.

“We’d be very silly to underestimate Japan,” said Bronze. “They still have players who have won a World Cup, been to finals, won trophies. We have the utmost respect for Japan.”

Neville added, “We’ve got a long way to go and we’ve not looked beyond tomorrow night. Last night, there were five or six permutations and it’s been whittled down every night. There are pitfalls to finishing first or second but my view is we want to win seven games at this World Cup.”

Both Bronze and Neville also commented on the effect VAR has had so far on the tournament, with Monday night’s controversy in the France versus Nigeria game still fresh in everyone’s mind.

While the decision to allow Wendie Renard to retake a missed penalty for goalkeeper encroachment sparked plenty of debate and discussion, both said the players were well aware of the new law changes.

“We’ve had two referees giving us lectures on it,” said Neville. “For anyone who has had those meetings, it was not a grey area. We were not surprised. Our three goalkeepers grilled the refs on what’s expected. That is the rule. It’s like our penalty against Scotland. We were taught that would be a penalty and you’d say VAR is working.”

Bronze added, “Every team has the ref’s meeting. We pay attention to all new rules, practice them in training, listening carefully, asking questions. Last night followed the rule book. You have to stay on your line. Our goalkeepers asked the referees over and over about this question.”