Japan – Spain: Lightning Strikes Twice (2-1)

On the back foot, a goal behind, and suffering in a low block, Japan had given up their spot in the knockout stages. But their manager’s masterful, befitting the tradition of his nation, pulled through in the second half to produce one of the most dramatic nights to grace the World Cup.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

In their first two fixtures, Japan have savored both extremes of the emotion that football stimulates. On the one hand, was the ecstasy of the 2-1 win over four time World Cup champions Germany. On the other hand, was the shame of a 1-0 loss to Costa Rica, whom many wrote off after a 7-0 rout at the hands of the Spanish. The product of these outcomes has been a precarious middle path. Now level on points with Costa Rica before kickoff, destiny was in their hands but required another impressive feat.

Spain have set about marking out the stylistic standard at the World Cup. Though a 1-1 draw against the Germans has kept them within reach of the chasing pack, La Roja‘s first two performances have not strayed from the stringent processes Luis Enrique has put in place. Their hegemonic control of the ball and endless waves of pressure demonstrate adamant faith in his commands and assurance in their execution. Now was the time to deliver a return to winning ways and entry into the Round of Sixteen.

Hajime Moriyasu changed tact, sending out his men in a 3-4-3 shape. The Japanese manager rotated his starting eleven, bringing in five new players. Right back Miki Yamane dropped to the bench, and Shogo Taniguchi earned his first start in the World Cup on the left of the back three. Junya Ito came back into the fold as a right wing-back, and Ao Tanaka came in for Wataru Endo in the double pivot. Daizen Maeda acted as the central forward in the attack, and Takefusa Kubo operated to his right.

Likewise, Enrique shuffled the pack. Rodri was the only member of the back four to retain his spot. Dani Carvajal made way for César Azpilicueta, Pau Torres took the place of Aymeric Laporte, and Álex Balde started for the first time for his country at left back. Continuity reigned in the middle of the park, where all three Barcelona midfielders started. Ahead of them, Dani Olmo was still the left winger, but Álvaro Morata reclaimed the striker’s role, and Nico Williams replaced Ferran Torres.

A strong Spanish start sets the tone

In contrast to the Germans, circumstances did not demand Japan to take all three points to progress from the off. So, Moriyasu chose not to take too much risk. His men dropped into a more passive 5-4-1 medium block, forcing Spain to take apart a compact arrangement. Man-oriented defenders moved out to defend the space between the lines, and the zonal midfield sought to block line breaking passes.

Spain’s spacing was similar to that from their first two fixtures. Azpilicueta was the deeper of the two fullbacks, sometimes flexing to form a back three. Pedri’s passing and technique handed him a more reserved role than Gavi, offering forward thrust from the right halfspace. Morata linked centrally to rotate the ball between central defenders, and Sergio Busquets sat in the middle of the park. If he was free to take the ball at the center of this dominant structure, the veteran sharply opened up the game.

6th minute: offensive sequence from Spain. Pedri, Balde and Olmo rotate on the left of the Spanish attack once Torres receives the ball at the back. Japan’s double pivot shifts laterally to protect the passing lanes to Olmo and Morata, dropping off the front. Since Kamada and Maeda had pressed the defenders and Taniguchi dropped back into the defense, a lane opens through Busquets’ legs to Gavi.

The breakthrough goal arrived in the 11th minute. Gavi pivoted to his right, slipped a pass to Williams on his outside, and bustled through the halfspace. Taniguchi paused, allowing the midfielder to drive a cutback into the box. Tanaka cleared the ball, but Yoshida and Ko Itakura had lost sight of Morata in the box. Azpilicueta picked out his teammate in the penalty area to score for the third game in a row.

Japan remain in the duel

Yet, matters were not plain sailing for the Spanish. Pedri tended to receive the ball far further back than in previous contests. Moreover, Gavi’s ball receptions in front of Japan’s midfield as part of his team’s rotations were more common, producing a less distinct midfield asymmetry in our passmap.

Enrique’s men shied away from taking much risk with their passing in the center of the pitch. Instead, they opted to move the ball around Japan’s 5-4-1 block rather than punching plays through and over gaps. To add to that, the Spanish lacked runs to stress the defenders. Following vertical passes to Morata as a central link, the central midfielders and wingers rarely motioned to carry the momentum forwards. Japan’s defense and midfield squeezed the space, limiting the danger of final third entries.

17th minute: offensive sequence from Spain. Rodri drives the ball into the path of Busquets, who is free to turn and face forwards. Morata motions towards the midfielder to break the lines for a second time, but Pedri drops out of the space between the lines. His teammate’s layoff pass then goes astray.

Morata’s inclusion in place of Marco Asensio was something of an antidote. His lateral movement along the offside line and deep runs kept engaging the central defenders. If Taniguchi tracked Gavi on the right, the striker frequently tried to cash in on deep passes through the channel he left open. But chances were at a premium before the break. Japan still had hope of pegging back their opponents.

Moriyasu masterminds another miraculous recovery

Moriyasu made a double substitution in the break. Kaoru Mitoma occupied the left wing-back berth in place of Nagatomo, and Kubo came off for Ritsu Doan. The same formation was in place, but the new faces produced a shift in momentum. Japanese pressure forced Unai Simón to clip a pass to Balde. He gave up the ball to Doan, whose shot went through the palms of the goalkeeper to level the scoreline.

Hardly any time elapsed for the Spanish to process this setback before another one undercut their endeavors. Following a long punt, Tanaka wandered away from Pedri, feeding Doan from the inside right channel. He did not go for glory, squaring the ball along the face of the six yard box. Mitoma hooked his delivery back in the danger zone, and Tanaka tapped home. The assistant referee chalked off the strike, claiming Mitoma had not kept the ball in bounds, but VAR overruled that decision.

Spain survive a serious scare

The only solace for the Spanish was their bank of points and goals ahead of kickoff. On only four points once more, their superior goal difference to the Germans afforded them the right to second place in the group. To their disbelief, Costa Rica soon engineered a two-goal turnaround, thrusting the Spanish to the brink of elimination. Enrique turned to his bench for a reaction near the hour mark.

Asensio roamed deeper than Morata from the central role in the attack, and Torres offered breadth as the right winger. More changes soon followed. Pedri stayed deep in the left halfspace, Jordi Alba moved higher up the flank to his outside, and Ansu Fati sought to offer a goal threat. Olmo took the place of Gavi as a central midfielder, and Torres saw out the game in a more traditional striker role. However, Moriyasu’s men prevailed. Japan claimed the victory and, thereby, bailed out the Spanish.


In victory and defeat, Spain have offered a familiar outlook. An 83% share of the possession barely gave the Japanese any chance to threaten their rearguard, yet a five minute collapse fatally laid bare gaps at the back twice. At the same time, presentable chances were sparse in a contest where a lack of risk or decisive off-ball movement within the final third pried open their opponents. They might have dodged the trickier bracket in the knockout stages, but Enrique’s men must take heed of this defeat.

Japan have seized a window of opportunity to end up at the top of the pile. Ahead of a fixture against the Croatians, whose maestros are in the middle of the park, they will aspire to make the most of a familiar plan. Indeed, they struggled to excel against Costa Rica’s low block. Conversely, against two nations whose aim was control of the ball to enforce a state of dominance, solid defensive efforts have maintained a foothold in the first half of matches. Moreover, substitutes and switches in their system can make a difference in tight encounters: can these custom-fit giant killers slay another big hitter?

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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