Our Lionesses have navigated a safe passage through to the World Cup knockout stage but are yet to truly dazzle. Here are five key questions that tonight's game should hopefully provide the answers to:
Has Phil got the flex?
Ever wondered where Phil Neville gets his enlightened coaching philosophy from? Being an impressionable youngster around the Fergie-era, perhaps? Certainly not from a spell hacking about Goodison Park under the Moyesiah. Perhaps his stint coaching at Valencia wasn’t quite so disastrous for him personally, as it was the team?
Either way, Neville the manager boasts far loftier ideals than his demeanour as a player might have suggested and he’s got England dancing to his tactical tune.
Playing out from the back may not be to everyone’s tastes but it’s produced largely good results and the growing confidence his charges show with that style is tangible.
In their win over Argentina centre-back pairing, Steph Houghton and Abbie McManus, completed more passes than all of their opponents put together. What this indirect approach lacks in goal-getting dynamism, it makes up for in defensive solidity and the ability to control and smother games.
That said, their measured game plan also makes gear changes when chasing games difficult and it’s notable that Neville has won just once from a losing position as England boss. Yet to be tested in France, his ability to change things up when England are under the cosh remains to be seen.
Can Kirby get back to her best?
The Chelsea star has scaled some lofty heights in the early days of her career. A cornerstone of the Blues’ 2017-18 double-winning side, she netted 25 times and snagged a host of individual prizes for her efforts including PFA Player of the Year.
Whilst last season was always going to tough to live up to her performances have tanked at times this term. The good news is that shoots of recovery are apparent. Against the Argies, England’s number 10 was busier than Michel Platini’s lawyers, regularly ghosting between the lines and demanding possession. This is where she excels and knows exactly when to play a final pass that delivers maximum perplexity for defenders.
Kirby is the key that can unpick compact, low-block defences, that the Lionesses often find themselves pitted against – the anti-football types that Sean Dyche would delight in orchestrating.
Found her mojo just in the nick of time.
Clinically impotent but does it matter?
There isn’t much to be displeased about this campaign so far, but if you did fancy a little whinge you could definitely justify squealing at England’s lack of ruthlessness in front of goal. Other front runners in the tournament have been pummelling the lesser nations like there’s no tomorrow.
It’s no guarantee that knocking 10 or more past the competition’s minnows will take you all the way to the chequered flag and vice-versa. France at the 2018 World Cup are a testament to that, scratching their way through the group stage before finding form and a few goals as the tournament wore on. USA have scored 16 so far without conceding and the way they celebrated their 13th v Thailand you’d think they’d already bagged the trophy. Can they sustain that through to the grand prize?
England look slightly unsure of just how much quality they possess. They’ve dominated possession in their opening group games and managed 31 shots which makes their three-goal haul (just two from open-play) look paltry. Whilst Neville won’t truly care so long as the wins keep coming, he no doubt bite your arm off to see his forwards chalk up a couple of confidence-boosting strikes against Japan.
Lessons from March?
England blew the sushi-fiends away with a 3-0 win in the SheBelieves Cup just three months ago. The Lionesses flew out of the blocks in Florida, chalking up all three goals in the opening half hour. But the second-string side Japan fielded that day is unrecognisable from the current outfit so be careful analysing that result too much.
Where England have looked most threatening in this tournament is from crosses. Japan’s average height is 5 foot 3 inches so they’re far from the tallest side in this competition. You’d be shocked if Neville doesn’t instruct his veritable giants to exploit this height advantage. Jill Scott, Jodie Taylor and Ellen White have looked keen as punch to get on the end of deliveries floated in from wide. With this in mind, England would be fools not to cast aside (very briefly) the game plan and throw the heavy cavalry at any set piece going in Nice.
Jill Scott manged a goal with her noggin the last time out against Japan.
Change is good, but how much?
With qualification already in the bag, will we see Uncle Phil tinker with the starting line up as he often loves to do?
There’s a host of talent yet to feature in France – Leah Williamson, Toni Duggan and Lucy Staniforth to name a few – and the temptation to rest legs ahead of the knockouts may prove too much.
He may well be wary, however, after some patchy results during the warm-up series fuelled by continually changing a winning side. Perhaps a couple of tweaks rather than a wholesale shakeup Phil?