Japan's tactical prowess shines through in exit on penalties
KOLKATA -- Japan's postmatch news conference after losing to England on penalties in the round of 16 of the Under-17 World Cup on Tuesday began with some words of commiseration for coach Yoshiro Moriyama and ended with ripples of applause as the former defender announced his departure.
"My two-and-a-half year journey with this team is over. We showed the world the Japanese strength of working as a unit against strong opposition," said Moriyama, whose team began in India with a 6-1 win over Honduras, but then fell away in the group stages, losing to France and handing debutants New Caledonia their first points at a FIFA event.
Tuesday's match, against a much-fancied England side, provided a glimpse of how good Japan can be on their day.
They came out of the tunnel 15 minutes ahead of England to train and carried that intensity into the game. Moriyama went back to the starting lineup from the Honduras game, a conventional 4-4-2 with Takefusa Kubo and Taisei Miyashiro leading the attacking line, and it was Kyoto Sanga's left-winger Soichiro Kozuki who fired in the first shot, darting in to test goalkeeper Curtis Anderson inside the first four minutes.
"It panned out almost as it was planned. We wanted to defend well in the first half, and as in boxing, go for the clinch," Moriyama said later, holding his clenched fists up to emphasise the boxing reference to his tactics on the night.
Centre-backs Yuki Kobayashi and Yukinari Sugawara played a compact game, leaving little space between them for Liverpool's Rhian Brewster to exploit as centre-forward. Captain Shimpei Fukuoka and Rei Hirakawa played their role as holding midfielders to perfection, using up whatever space England's 4-2-3-1 formation could have hoped to exploit by playing a high line from time to time. It also left space for Kubo, the man they call the "Asian Messi," to exploit on the counter.
Kubo was marked out of the first half by the muscular Marc Guehi, but he eventually got into the game by dropping deeper and distributing balls for Miyashiro and Japan's top scorer Keito Nakamura.
Kubo and Miyashiro ensured their tireless efforts saw Japan finish the 90 minutes in the ascendancy and Kubo's best effort, following a delicious side-of-the-heel release by Fukuoka, was well saved by Anderson.
"We wanted to use the last 20 minutes to build on our attacking rhythm. All that we lacked today was the last ball, and we failed to get the ball into the net," said Moriyama, who used only one substitution through the 90 minutes and said later that although he felt some of his players were tiring, they kept creating chances in the last 20 minutes and he didn't want to change anything.
That one substitute was midfielder Naoki Tsubaki. He replaced Nakamura and would have been considered a defensive option initially - as right-back Hinata Kida was exposed by the pace and power of England's Callum Hudson-Odoi -- but proved to be Kubo's best ally in creating panic in the England defence in the closing stages of the game.
England coach Steve Cooper made three aggressive changes of his own in search of an elusive goal -- Crystal Palace's Nya Kirby, who later slotted home the winning penalty in the shootout, Morgan Gibbs White of Wolves and Arsenal's Emile Smith Rowe -- playing with a four-man forward line at times. It was high-risk stuff, and left the England midfield vulnerable to quick counters, which unfortunately for Japan translated to openings but not enough shots on target.
"During the group stages, we tried our own Japanese style of football. It worked out some of the time, and sometimes it didn't," said Moriyama. "Today, by respecting a strong opposition, we played according to that game plan. We had our chances, but what we need to improve on is our technique, accuracy, speed, on-pitch intensity and we need more battles of high intensity within Japan to keep improving."
Asia's most prolific team in qualification with 24 goals, Japan head home from their eighth U17 World Cup with a sixth finish beyond the group stages, but failed to emulate their quarterfinal appearances of 1993 and 2011.
But Moriyama saw plenty of positives to suggest there is hope for the future of Japanese football.
"There are several leaders on the pitch. I could hear a lot of voices, especially in the first half when there was plenty of pressure from England," he said. "The last 20 minutes, we couldn't get the result. Now we need them to change these tears into hard work."