So, Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu: Is he a tactical genius or just a lucky, lucky guy? Was Japan’s win over Spain clever or fortunate? Can Japan progress further by beating 2018 runners-up Croatia in the Round of 16?
The answer to all these questions is probably yes, no and maybe.
It would be easy to look at Japan’s progress through Group E at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar from either side of the fence or even sitting right on top of it: a comeback win over Germany (2-1), a poor, poor performance against Costa Rica (0-1) and an inspiring victory over Spain. Japan’s record so far suggests Moriyasu is getting things right, but not completely right, and all three games have shown that.
Against Spain, sticking with a back three – that may have been a back five – made sense. Dumping Hiroki Ito, who had a dreadful game against Costa Rica, was a no-brainer, but it was perhaps surprising that he was replaced by Kawasaki Frontale’s Shogo Taniguchi rather than Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu who came on as a sub against Germany but didn’t play against Costa Rica.
Tomiyasu’s fitness no doubt played a part in that decision and Taniguchi did OK alongside Maya Yoshida and Ko Itakura, who both played very well – with one key exception when Spain scored. While Yoshida and Itakura were figuring out who to mark as Cesar Azpilicueta floated the ball to the far post in the 11th minute, Alvaro Morata had already found space to head in Spain’s goal.
It's been said that Moriyasu’s tactic against Germany and Spain was to contain the opposition in the first half and attack in the second half. Whether or not that is true or even makes sense, it failed against Germany as they were overrun in the first half. Spain seemed to be taking their time in the belief that they were destined to beat the team from the Far East. As usual, Spain dominated possession (82 percent) but they didn’t really dominate Japan and the heat map of the half showed that most of the game was played in Japan’s half but near the center line. In other words, Spain were biding their time and passing the ball to each other with little attacking intent.
Moriyasu’s selection of wing-backs was intriguing: Yuto Nagatomo, who, in his later years, has become a better defender than rushing wing-back, and Junya Ito, who is very much a winger rather than a defender. Both actually did good jobs. Spain’s right winger Nico Williams hardly got a look-in against Nagatomo and while Ito was less effective as an out-and-out defender, he was a key part of Moriyasu’s other tactic: harassing Spain in their own half.
Celtic striker Daizen Maeda once again was terrific in disturbing the Spain backline but the choice of Takefusa Kubo and Daichi Kamada to fill the remaining two spots up front were puzzling. Kubo was dreadful against Germany and wasn’t used against Costa Rica. Kamada has been Japan’s worst player but played the full 90 minutes against Germany and Costa Rica.
At half-time, Moriyasu brought off Nagatomo, even though he was shutting down Williams, and replaced him with Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma, who many thought should have been a starter. He soon showed why. In fact, on the BBC website, Mitoma has been voted Player of the Match in all three of Japan’s games so far. Against Spain, he was brilliant, both in defense and attack. Kubo was hooked at half-time for Ritsu Doan and suddenly Japan had some bite in attack.
Great credit for the first goal goes to Ito who made a terrific headed interception against Alejandro Balde to set up Doan for his net-busting shot that leveled the scores. He also started the move for the second goal, moving the ball to Ao Tanaka who fed Doan who stroked the ball across the Spain penalty area for the goal-line save of the century by Mitoma and the knee-in by Tanaka. All Japan had to do was to hold on to the lead to qualify for the Round of 16, something most people thought probably wouldn’t happen.
Moriyasu brought on Tomiyasu and Takuma Asano and Japan went to a 5-4-1 formation to repel the expected Spain onslaught. Goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda made a couple of important saves and Mitoma, Itakura and Yoshida made some great interceptions as Japan held on.
The most important factor in their game against Croatia is likely to be confidence. Japan have beaten two of the last three world champions. Also, 19 of their players are based in Europe and they no longer have the fear factor that held them back in the past. Croatia won’t present any more difficulties than Spain or Germany, but they might be different difficulties.
Croatia’s creative midfield – Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic – can open up the toughest of teams. While Japan’s defense should be able to deal with Croatia’s attackers, stopping Modric, Brozovic and Kovacic is a different matter and the most important issue for Moriyasu to address. Japan’s speedy attackers have a good chance of grabbing a couple of goals, so the key may be holding on to a lead and not repeating the collapse in Russia four years ago when the team’s 2-0 advantage disappeared as Belgium scored three times in the final 25 minutes.
Moriyasu has been able to see many of his players and a number of different combinations in Japan’s three games so far. He should have a clear idea of his team’s strengths, but he hasn’t made that clear with his selections. Gonda and Yoshida will almost certainly be the first names on the team sheet (Itakura is suspended), but you would think that Tomiyasu, Ito, Asano, Wataru Endo, Tanaka and Doan must also be included.
However, the “genius” Moriyasu has a vast array of options, which, if he follows wisdom of Sun Tzu from “The Art of War” could bring another great win: “The general who wins a battle makes many calculations before the battle is fought. … many calculations lead to victory.” Let’s hope Moriyasu has his calculations right.
Japan vs. Croatia, Monday, 24:00. Live on Fuji TV.© Japan Today