Having 22% possession and scoring four goals against one of the world’s best teams may seem like a fluke but it was all part of a perfect gameplan from Japan against Spain. It showed a shift in dynamic and a willingness to adapt from Japan, who topped their group with three wins to breeze into the knockout stages, where Norway await on Saturday.

Zambia and then Costa Rica were brushed aside by an aggregate score of 7-0 in dominant performances Many would have expected Japan to go toe-to-toe with Spain in the shootout for top spot but Japan sat back and absorbed the pressure as they bided their time to strike. Three blistering counters culminated in goals and Spain had no answer, unable to break down the defence.

Spain did not change their style despite it being nullified by Japan’s defensive work and instead tried the same things repeatedly in the hope they would eventually pay dividends. What resulted was Spain being limited to shots from distance and barely forcing Ayaka Yamashita into a save.

apan used a back three but adjusted to ensure there were five defenders to cope with Spain’s attacking talent. Defensively, Spain also suffered, with most of Japan’s attacks coming down Spain’s right, but they never tried to solve the problem. Their full-backs were often caught out by the counters because they were so far up the pitch but this was not addressed.

I have played against Japan in World Cups and they have always been good technically and tactically, with a possession-based framework and an incredible work-rate. They are fantastic on the ball and I ended up chasing shadows trying to win it back. This is what they are known for but against Spain they showed pragmatism and removed their ego by setting up to play on the counter.

Japan accepted they were not as good on the ball as Spain, who are the best in the world between the boxes, and came up with a different strategy. Being adaptable in a tournament is a valuable skill because of the mix of styles – Japan have already played teams from three continents.

With a counterattacking gameplan, it is crucial to have a striker who can hold the ball. Riko Ueki performed the role superbly, often dropping deep to collect possession and bring others into play. It can be thankless at times as an isolated centre-forward but she maintained her discipline to defend from the front, scored the second goal and set up the third for Hinata Miyazawa in a fine performance.

Miyazawa scored two goals but Ueki was the standout performer and her teammates showed a great willingness to get up alongside her, knowing she has the ability to keep the ball. When a team have so little possession, players will not be as eager to sprint up on the counter if their striker is unable to hold possession because they know they will just end up sprinting back.

Japan’s first three touches in the Spain area resulted in goals, which shows how clinical they were. When a team operate with a defensive system and look to work on the counter, it is important to take your chances. It is an energy-sapping system because you have to stay so switched on and make a lot of sprints, and they were ruthless. Against Costa Rica, Japan were dominant, mustering 24 shots, but only half were on target and they won 2-0, which shows the difference to the final group match.

Riko Ueki scores past Irene Paredes

What made the downing of Spain more impressive was the fact that the coach, Futoshi Ikeda, made five changes to the team that had beaten Costa Rica. Often this can lead to a side looking disjointed but Japan were well-organised, everyone knowing their role to the last letter.

In 2011, the England team I was a part of defeated Japan in the group stage but Japan went on to win the tournament. Despite the loss they had the mindset they could still win every game. They were confident but humble and solely focused on winning the World Cup. That is a mentality that remains.

Japan’s last-16 opponents, Norway, had a miserable start, losing 1-0 to the co-hosts New Zealand in a game they had been expected to win. Their players admitted they had been subpar and needed to improve.

They managed a draw against Switzerland to steady the ship before a morale-boosting 6-0 victory over the Philippines took them into the knockout stages and provided much-needed momentum to take into a match against such an in-form team as Japan.

I expect Japan to bring back some of the players who dropped out against Spain but to keep the same shape that has worked so well for them and return to wanting more possession in the hope of dominating the tie.

Japan have scored 11 goals without reply in New Zealand and that means the players will be high on confidence and will fear no one. Humble and ruthless is a surprising mix but Norway will be well aware of it. They will not be the only ones and face an uphill battle to stop Japan from going further.

Lämna ett svar

Din e-postadress kommer inte publiceras. Obligatoriska fält är märkta *