Tokyo 2020: Riise’s group stage experiments prepare Team GB for quarter-finals

The best team to face Australia has emerged from the coach’s effective squad rotation, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys. 

Team GB may have lost their perfect record at the Olympics, but their 1-1 draw in the final group game against Canada was enough to see them top Group E and set up a quarter-final clash with Australia. Despite going 1-0 down, Team GB looked comfortable for large swathes of the match and were more than deserving of a point in a game where both sides rested players. 

Hege Riise continued to rotate her squad as she had against Japan with notable absentees including Ellen White, who was replaced by Nikita Parris up front, Steph Houghton, who was replaced by Millie Bright, and Lauren Hemp, who was replaced by Georgia Stanway. Despite these changes, Team GB looked relatively comfortable for much of the game, even as the weather conditions made it hard to play quick football. 

Demi Stokes and Stanway stood out as Stokes showed she had the beating of both Janine Beckie and Adriana Leon who were switching flanks. Team GB had struggled in both previous group games to get the left-backs up in support of Hemp but the use of Stanway seemed to give Stokes the confidence that the Man City attacker would provide defensive cover. On numerous occasions, Stokes drove into ‘Zone 14’, the central zone just outside the penalty area which tends to be seen as one of the crucial sections of the pitch when it comes to scoring. After half an hour, one such run allowed Jill Scott to play in Rachel Daly who was only denied a goal by a spectacular last-ditch tackle from Ashley Lawrence. Despite Stokes’ effectiveness being limited in the second half when Canada brought on Jessie Fleming and Jordyn Huitema, Team GB should feel positive about the impact she was able to have.

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Ahead of the match, Lucy Bronze had praised Team GB for not conceding any goals so far in the competition and they would have been reminded against Canada how much a small mistake can cost. Despite having been comfortable in possession for much of the game, Bright was caught out of position leaving Lawrence with the freedom of the left-hand side of the pitch as Bronze chose to tuck in with Leah Williamson rather than engage. Her cutback saw an unmarked Leon fire into the top corner. 

Team GB have focused on defending by holding onto possession in the group stages of the Olympics with an average of 60 per cent across all three games, and they have been incredibly successful in limiting opponent’s opportunities as a result, conceding only three shots on target in three games. The fact that Riise has used three different centre-back pairings in the tournament only makes this more impressive. Yet there were hints that some of those changes were causing some consternation across Team GB’s backline with Ellie Roebuck twice uncharacteristically playing the ball directly to Canada on the edge of the area. Whatever centre-back pairing Riise picks for the knockout stages, she will hope it restores some confidence to her usually reliable goalkeeper. 

The most pleasing aspect for Riise to take away from this game is probably the crystallisation of her best GB team. The level of other teams in the group and order of matches played was always going to give Riise a chance to try out some different options but it has become clear who should play in the knockout stages. Caroline Weir has excelled throughout and will likely partner Keira Walsh in midfield, while Hemp, despite being muzzled by Japan doubling up on her, has been GB’s most electric attacker. Kim Little has changed the game against both Japan and Canada when she has come off the bench and looks like the glue to bring midfield and attack together. 

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In fact, Riise’s only question mark might be whether to start Fran Kirby. Her fitness has been left somewhat ambiguous by the Team GB staff with only mention of a knock and a vague suggestion that she should be fit to participate at some point. Kirby played 13 minutes against Canada and was an immediate problem, making runs that carved out space like no one else in the GB team had been able to do so far in the match. The reaction from some of her team-mates suggest that her return has been more unexpected than Team GB made it seem so it is unclear whether she will be fit enough to make a start. Yet if there is a possibility of her doing so, she could yet add that attacking thrust that GB have not quite captured. 

Australia will not be an easy ride when Great Britain meet them in the quarter-finals on Friday, having held the USA to a draw and putting Sweden under considerable pressure in their 4-2 loss. Bright will no doubt be aware how much her club defensive partner Magda Eriksson struggled against team-mate Sam Kerr. Yet the match against Canada hinted that this team might just be starting to really move into motion. From here on out, there will be no room for error.

Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph

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