Reliance on Ellen White’s Goals Cost Team GB at Tokyo 2020

Getty Images/Atsushi Tomura

Well, that’s it for (at least) another… three years. Quarter-finals and out again for Team GB’s women’s football team. An Olympic champion herself with Norway at Sydney 2000, Hege Riise came into the Tokyo Games supremely confident that her 22 British players could become the most successful Team GB football team of all time, male or female. The way she spoke about the players, and the way Sue Campbell, the head of women’s football at The FA and former chair of UK Sport, spoke so glowingly about Riise said a lot. Team GB felt they were contenders.

But when they came out in their stellar royal blue away strip and won convincingly in their opener against Chile, the signs of how they would ultimately crash out of this tournament were already detectable. In a thoroughly dominant display, one of control but of wasted chances, only an Ellen White brace made it past Chile’s unusually shaky goalkeeper Christiane Endler. In amongst all the many wayward efforts, White cut through the noise and scored the goals Team GB needed.

The individual performances of White, as well as those of Lucy Bronze, young Lauren Hemp, and Scottish duo Kim Little and Caroline Weir, had excited the British early-risers tuning in from back home. Four of those five play at Manchester City, showcasing just how significant a provider of talent the club were to Team GB this summer. It had been a solid start, but GB would need to be much more clinical if they were to make a tangible splash at these Games.

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Facing the Japanese in their second group game, Riise’s players produced the standout display of their campaign. White’s intelligent looping header proved the difference. And from Lucy Bronze’s nicely dug-out cross — a familiar route to goal. Yet this had been an unfamiliar situation. Great Britain had beaten the hosts at their own game. Japan have rightly forged a reputation over the last decade as being one of the best possession-based teams in international football. Not here. 1-0 GB; and nearly 60% of possession to boot.

A third well-rounded performance earned Great Britain a draw with Canada to complete the group stage. If anything, a late draw was the least Riise’s team deserved given what had been another lively and laudable 90 minutes of football.

Australia awaited in the quarter-final ­— the stage at which Team GB went out at the home London 2012 Games following defeat to the Canadians. The Aussies would pose the toughest test yet, not least due to the fact they have one of the best centre-forwards in the world in their ranks: Chelsea’s Sam Kerr.

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Despite two quick-fire goals from Ellen White turning the tie on its head midway through the second half, Kerr struck a crushing late equaliser. The time she was afforded to pluck the long ball into her from the sky, to control it, to gain her poise, and to fire between Steph Houghton’s legs and into the net, was unacceptable at this level. The defending wasn’t as much slovenly as absent.

White claimed a hat-trick late in extra-time, but it proved to be in vain. By the time she scored her third, Australia had already pulled away by two. Team GB looked to be in a state of inertia in that added period. Tactically, they were out of ideas. And they were running out of time. Riise’s team — for all their dominant group games, and for all their periods of control in this fixture — just weren’t as clinical, weren’t as adaptable as their Aussie opponents.

And so in the end it came down to ruthlessness. For Team GB, it came down to a lack of it. Their reliance on the attacking nous and prowess of lone striker Ellen White had been masked in the first three matches by their opponents’ faltering forwards. Then they came up against a striker of a similar calibre to White, and a fluid attack of similar invention to their own. Sam Kerr’s Australia ended British hopes.

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Other than Caroline Weir’s wickedly deflected long-shot against Canada, every one of Team GB’s goals had been finished off by the relentless goal machine, Ellen White. Wonderful if you’re Ellen White; but a problem for Team GB that seems to have cost them a place in the semi-final.

A medal was well in sight for Hege Riise’s smiley bunch. In the end, they came up a little short. Ellen White was irrepressible in Japan. Many of her teammates also stamped their mark on these Games in other ways. But goals win games. Team GB found out the hard way that the converse of that is also true — a lack of goalscorers loses games. This was a decent summer’s showing, but there will be an air of regret when these players look back on it in years to come.

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