Monday, 19 November 2018

 

Samurai Blue Are Red Hot

 Japan 4 - 3 Uruguay

Date: 
October 16, 2018
  Location: 
Saitama Stadium

Japan 4

2 1H 1
2 2H 2

3 Uruguay

Takumi Minamino (10')
Yuya Osako (36')
Ritsu Doan (59')
Takumi Minamino (66')

Scoring Pereiro (28')
Cavani (57')
Rodrigues (75')  
  Cautions  Saracchi

  Shuichi Gonda; Hiroki Sakai, Genta Miura, Yuto Nagatomo; Gaku Shibasaki (Toshihiro Aoyama 74'), Wataru Endo; Ritsu Doan, Takumi Minamino, Shoya Nakashima (Genki Haraguchi 87'); Yuya Osako 
 Muslera; Caceres (Mayada 64), Coates, Godin, Laxalt; Pereiro (Gomez 77, Stuani 85), Bentancur (Valverde 46), Torreira (Nandez 74), Saracchi; De Arrascaeta (Jonathan Rodriguez 75); Cavani


Following a strong but ultimately anticlimactic performance at the 2018 World Cup, The JFA finally signalled that they were ready to close the book on the so-called "Platinum Generation" by appointing a young coach who spent his entire football career -- both as player and coach -- in Japan. Hajime Moriyasu is the first Japanese coach to be appointed to a regular position as the National Team coach (as opposed to an interim stint, as was the case with Akira Nishino) since 1998. In the wake of Moriyasu's appointment, there was a lot of discussion both inside Japan and in international football circles, questioning whether Japan is truly ready to "go its own way", after two decades of tutelage under a succession of South American and European bosses. As recently as last month, there were even rumours in the European press suggesting that the JFA was planning to sign a contract with Italian coach Roberto Donadoni. Of course, this proved to be just an empty rumour, but the fact that some people took it seriously reflects the tepid expectations for Japan, now that the era of Honda, Kagawa, Hasebe and Okazaki is at an end. Clearly, few people believe that the relatively inexperienced Moriyasu, and his even more inexperienced squad, can match the accomplishments of their predecessors.

Regular readers will be familiar with this writer's opinion on the matter. Not only have I been calling for the Samurai Blue to appoint a Japanese coach for the past two World Cup cycles; I also have noted for at least two years that the younger generation of players has greater underlying talent and competitive fire than the much-heralded international stars who made the trip to Russia. But even after two consecutive 3-0 victories over CONCACAF opposition, there were still many football pundits who firmly believe that Japan's best years are in the past. On Tuesday evening, that misguided notion was placed in the proverbial woodchipper and shredded into fine sawdust.

The final 4-3 score line of Japan's defeat of a nearly full-strength Uruguay should be enough of a wake-up call all on its own. But that score line does not reflect the fact that two of Uruguay's three goals should never have been scored (one came from a free kick earned on a blatant dive by Giorgian de Arrascaeta, and the second one came on a silly back-pass by young defender Genta Miura . . . several seconds after play should have been blown dead following an even MORE ridiculous dive in the Japan penalty box by Edison Cavani -- one so blatant that it even seemed to embarass the otherwise Uruguay-friendly Korean referee. Anyone who watched the contest could see only one team emerging from this contest victorious. And it wasnt the one that lost a World Cup quarterfinal clash to France.

The Samurai Blue have dominated all three of the matches they have played since Moriyasu took over as head coach. Part of this is a reflection of the energy, intelligence, technical skill and combative strength of the new generation. Only three of Japan's "old guard" took part in this contest -- Defenders Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo and Hiroki Sakai. The other eight positions were filled by relative youngsters, only two of whom have World Cup experience (Gaku Shibasaki and Yuya Osako, who both broke into the NT lineup only after Nishino took over from Vahid Halilhodzic, in early 2018). Shibasaki and Osako both displayed a physical presence and strength on the ball that Japan has always lacked, but even more impressive was the physical resilience and strength in possession shown by newcomers Ritsu Doan, Takumi Minamino and Shoya Nakashima. Time after time, Uruguayan defenders would slam into them from behind, expecting to muscle them off the ball and regain possession, only to have the Samurai Blue player fight through the challenge and burst into space for another dash on goal.

But personnel is only half the story. Under coach Moriyasu, Japan is playing a stylev of football that we have never seen from the National Team before, but one which is familiar to any J.League fan, and has come to typify the sort of philosophy and style adopted by leading domestic teams. With a tight formation, a crowded midfield and lots of movement, Moriyasu Japan plays with the sort of team coordination that has always been the greatest strength of Japanese players. Rather than trying to beat opponents one-on-one, the focus is on quick, short passes, constant changes of direction and quick outlets towards open areas of the pitch. Rather than marking opponents one-on-one and trying to contain opposition thrusts with dogged front-checking, this team is constantly scrambling to double-team, constricting the effective playing area to a minimum, and using the power of "the swarm" to frustrate the adversary and pressure them into stray passes. Panama and Costa Rica simply had no answer to this philosophy, and even the experienced Uruguayans struggled to keep their heads. The only aspect of play n which the visitors managed to hold their own was in sheer physicality -- size, strength, and the ability to manhandle Japanese players off the ball (thanks in part to a generous referee).

Japan opened the scoring after just ten minutes, when Minamino collected a ball at the top of the penalty arc, spun past his defender and drove a shot past Fernando Muslera. The play was almost identical to so many of the chances created against Panama and Costa Rica, with a quick exchange at midfield followed by a vertical pass straight to Minamino in a one-on-one situation. As he has done repeatedly over the past three NT matches, the 23-year-old midfielder fought off pressure from behind, and began his move even before he had collected the ball. His spin towards the middle put him two steps clear of his marker before he fired the shot, and it easily beat the keeper into the corner.

As already noted, Uruguay got their first tally thanks to a generous free kick call from the referee. Maya Yoshida appeared to use only his shoulder to muscle Arrascaeta off the ball, but the Uruguayan made a meal of the contact and won a kick just eight yards outside the box, on the right side. His cross for the far post was headed down by Cavani and Gaston Pereira stroked it into the net from point-blank range. The Samurai Blue were immediately back on the attack, and had three or four dangerous chances before Doan teamed up with Nakajima to send the Portominense striker into the box for a shot. The ball was parried away from the right post, but fell right to Yuya Osako, who drilled the ball between the keeper's legs and restored Jaapn's advantage.

Uruguay made two changes at the break, and immediately began pressing their physical advantage after play resumed. The first ten minutes of the second half were perhaps the only phase of the contest that was controlled by the visitors. Yet despite a great deal of Uruguay pressure and possession in Japan's defensive end, it took a blunder by young Miura to restore parity. In the 56th minute Edinson Cavani dove deliberately in the Japan box, prompting Maya Yoshida to loudly demand a yellow card for diving. Miura collected the clearance and without checking for opposing players, passed the ball back towards the keeper. Cavani had remained on the deck for almost 20 seconds, vainly trying to attract the attention of the officials, and was still in the box as Miura passed the ball back towards goal. Cavani snatched up the pass and levelled the score line. .

The Samurai Blue responded immediately, and restored their lead from a corner kick. After the ball was cleared from the box, Shibasaki collected the ball and fed it to Sakai, cutting into the middle. Sakai exchanged passes with Doan, and the 20-year-old claimed his first National Team goal with a lovely finish past Muslera.

The next five minutes were a torrid affair for the visitors, as the swarming Samurai Blue midfield won the ball back again and again before Uruguay could clear their lines. Japan pounded the ball into their box over and over, with both Doan and Osako missing chances to extend the lead. In the end it was Minamino once again, who got the crucial tally, finishing off a deflected shot from Doan, following a sequence of passes that shredded the Uruguay defense like cabbage in a Cuisinart.

With fifteen minutes to go, Moriyasu made his one mistake of the evening, opting to sub out Shibasaki for veteran Toshihiro Aoyama, rather than the clearly inferior, and rapidly tiring Endo. Shibasaki's excellent ability to read the passing lanes and step in to break up budding attacks had kept Uruguay from achieving any sort of fluidity over the opening 75 minutes. Their only chances (including both goals) had come from either Japan mistakes or set pieces. But as soon as Shibasaki departed the visitors put together their most coherent attack of the evening, and cut Japan's lead to 4-3. The setback woke Japan up and the team refocused their efforts on defense from that point on. Uruguay struggled to find any sort of opening, and the Samurai Blue ran out the remaining time to claim their third victory on the trot.