Ellen White’s flash of subtle brilliance lights up Team GB’s sluggish display

For long periods in Sapporo, as this Group E game between Japan and Team GB meandered and sagged at the edges, Ellen White did very little of note.

White moved into useful spaces, found interesting angles and offered a sense of lurking menace. She also resembled at times somebody taking a gentle evening stroll, enjoying the air and the wide green spaces while nearby a football match occasionally threatened to break out.

But the 32-year-old is also a wonderful close-quarters footballer, with the confidence to move away from the ball, to wait, wait some more, then produce that razor edge when the day suddenly lurches her way – as she did here on 74 minutes with a finish that decided the game.

It was a goal that looked a little scruffy at first but which was also, in the replays, a lovely little miniature. There were three parts to it.

Primo, as Team GB found a belated note of intensity, White saw Lucy Bronze with the ball out on the right and began to move instantly for the pass. This has been a potent combination, with Bronze providing the crosses that led to both of White’s goals against Chile. White got the picture instantly here, picking up one of those flickering little premonitions, the goalscorer’s voodoo.

Part two: she didn’t loiter or waste time calling for the ball but instead sprinted straight across the front of the Japanese defence, certain of her own little prickle of anticipation.

The third part was the finish itself, which was deceptively smart. Initially it seemed as though Japan’s goalkeeper, Ayaka Yamashita, might have punched the ball back into her own goal, or back in off White’s head.

The run was so swift Yamashita was made to look cumbersome, barrelling through her own defender but getting to the ball just too late as White flicked it over her with a clever little wrench of the neck muscles.

And that was pretty much that for a game that became, in that moment, a good tournament win for the British team. Good because, frankly, they didn’t play very well. They were sluggish in the first half, harried by a slick and waspish Japanese midfield.

And good too because a 1-0 scoreline means, Southgate-style, that Team GB have now achieved qualification for the quarter-finals without conceding a goal. And good also because winning at a tournament so often coincides with a team’s best finisher having one of these spells when the game seems to bend towards them, when suddenly they find that goalscorer’s light.

So much of the narrative of success turns on winning those sharp details, small moments that validate an entire tactical plan. White did that here, helped by a proactive substitution from Hege Riise that energised a limp midfield.

The Sapporo Dome is another of Japan’s ghost stadiums, monuments to the alternative timeline in which these Games were conceived. At kick-off it was a little sad to think this would have been a genuinely rare occasion for the host nation, and for a Japan team that had won its last five matches before these Games by an aggregate of 28-1, but which now faces a possible early exit.

Riise had picked a team that seemed full of edge and running power on the flanks, with Nikita Parris on the right and the highly impressive Lauren Hemp on the left. But after some early surges this Team GB selection congealed like a lukewarm tray of custard. Japan pressed with real energy at times. Either side the game drifted into spells of sterile possession.

Riise has brought a sense of calm control to England and now also this team, such a contrast with the Brent-ish posturing of Phil Neville. She was clearly concerned by the passivity of her double midfield pivot, which sat too deep and watched at times as Japan played in front of them.

She changed the gravity of the game by bringing on Caroline Weir, providing a link higher up the pitch to the wide players. E 16 minutes later, White had her moment.

She now has 13 goals in her last 14 internationals. To Neville’s credit it was also a part of his shtick to urge White to run less, to become this pared-back finisher.

By the end Team GB looked comfortable. If they did seem a little quiet in that first half then this is to be expected in a competition where the finalists will be asked to play six games in 19 giorni, to travel more than anyone else at these horribly complex Games, to spend more time staring at hotel rooms, pacing corridors and generally hiding from the sun.

A tournament like this can be won by following your nose and finding your combinations on the hoof. On a night marked by an avalanche of goals elsewhere, Riise and her players will take heart from their own decisive moment of stillness.

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