Wednesday, 17 July 2024

 Young Samurai Blue Maturing

 Japan 2 - 2 Uruguay

June 20, 2019
Porto Allegre, Brazil

Japan 2

1 1H 1
1 2H 1

2 Uruguay

Koji Miyoshi (25')
Koji Miyoshi (59')

Scoring Luis Suarez (32' PK)
Jose Giminez (67')
Naomichi Ueda
Shoya Nakajima

  Eiji Kawasjima; Tomoki Iwata (Yugo Tatsuta 87'), Naomichi Ueda, Takehiro Tomiyasu; Daiki Sugioka, Gaku Shibasaki, Ko Itakura, Hiroki Abe (Ayase Ueda 66'); Koji Miyoshi (Takefusa Kubo, 66'), Shoya Nakajima;  Shinji Okazaki

Japan put on a very convincing performance against Uruguay, in their second Copa America pool match, twice taking the lead before eventually settling for a 2-2 draw

The lineup for this contest was dramatically different from that used against Chile -- no surprise there, but the formation Japan adopted may have come as a surprise to the Uruguayans. Instead of the four-back system that Japan has used for the past two decades, the Samurai Blue lined up in the 3-6-1 alignment that the used in two recent friendlies against El Salvador and Trinidad-Tobago. The two midfield wings -- Ko Itakura and Daiki Sugioka -- were clearly selected for their defensive qualities rather than attacking skills, but even so, the formation achieved its basic purpose of flooding the midfield and winning possession in more advanced areas of the pitch. As a result, Japan dominated the early run of play against an Uraguayan team that seemed to have taken the Samurai Blue a bit too lightly.

The attacking unit of Hiroki Abe, Koji Miyoshi, Shoya Nakajima and Shinji Okazaki covered a lot of ground and pressured Uruguayan possession and worked the ball forward into dangerous positions, with extremely effective orchestration and support from Gaku Shibasaki. The team's most noticeable weakness in the first half came when Uruguay counterattacked into space, as the one-on-one defending skills of young side backs Tomoki Iwata and Takehiro Tomiyasu still need some work.

Nevertheless, Japan seemed to have a slight edge in the general run of play over the first 25 minutes. Thus it was no real surprise when Shibasaki found Miyoshi with a perfectly weighted crossfield pass that sent the Consadole Sapporo midfielder down the right channel one-on-one, with Okazaki and Abe dashing forward on the opposite side of the box. Miyoshi dummied a cross, cut back, then launched a rising shot from just outside the six yard box which rocketed past the keeper just inside the near post, and gave the Samurai Blue an inspiring lead.

Though the early strike gave the young Japanese players increased confidence, it also triggered a disturbing change in the behaviour of the referee, who would emerge from this contest as Uruguay's most valuable player. Prior to this goal, and again in the early second half, he seemed to be calling what was always a fairly physical contest with an even hand. But both times that Japan took a lead, he began blowing his whistle every time a Uruguayan went to the ground, regardless of how much contact (if any) there had been. On the stroke of the half-hour, Ueda and Cavani challenged for a ball on the right edge of the box and Cavani went down at the slightest of contact. After consulting with VAR, the ref awarded a Penalty kick. Conversely, Japan had at least two legitimate PK claims and a few minor ones, over the course of the contest, yet all were waved off.

Having already conned their way to one free goal, the likes of Suarez, and Bentancour took this as all the encouragement they needed, and began actively seeking contact at every opportunity. This would provide the South Americans with a series of set play opportunities and forced the Samurai Blue to back off on defense and concede possession more readily on 50:50 balls in midfield.

Nevertheless, it was the Samurai Blue who controlled the better possession over the remainder of the first half. Uruguay had the more dangerous scoring chances, but Okazaki also came within a whisker of putting his team back in front just two minutes before half time with a lovely steal in the Uruguay back line. Japan were legitimately level at the break, and might have felt that they deserved even better.

The second half followed much the same pattern as the first, with Japan creating a lot of pressure in midfield for the opening 15 minutes. Though Uruguay had a couple counterattacking rushes as well, it was the Samurai Blue who seemed to hold the upper hand as the hour mark approached. Sure enough, in the 59th minute Nakajima fed Sugioka into the left corner, on the overlap, and Sugioka looped a cross in for Okazaki at the near post. With all defenders collapsing on the veteran striker, there was a vast area of greenspace near the penalty spot, as the keeper batted the ball clear, and Miyoshi had the easiest of finishes from six yards out.

Once again, the match officials took this as a command to lend the Uruguayans as much assistance as possible. For the remainder of the contest every time a Uruguayan went to the ground (regardless of the reason) they were awarded a free kick, whereas every time a Japanese player was bowled over, play was allowed to continue. With so many talented divers . . . I mean . . . attacking players in their lineup, Uruguay were bound to take advantage eventually. Sure enough, in the 67th minute defender Jose Giminez rose to head home Rodeiro's set-piece delivery and the contest was level once more.

Although Uruguay's abundant use of flopping, flailing and diving tactics probably would have given them an edge in possession over the final half hour regardless of personnel, hindsight suggests that Coach Moriyasu got his substitutions all wrong. Immediately after the equaliser, he took off Abe, who seemed to be just settling into a comfort zone in his first NT appearance ever, and brought on Ayase Ueda, who seemed incapable of even putting an unchallenged shot on target in his first outing against Chile. Though Abe might have been tiring, it made far more sense to bring on someone like Daizen Maeda or Yasushi Matsumoto, who could have provided the physical presence needed to hold the ball up on attack.

The next player off the bench was the even less-physically-imposing Takefusa Kubo. Ayase once again proved unable to get a shot off, whereas the game bypassed Kubo altogether. If he managed a single touch in his seven minutes of play, I must have missed it. He certainly has not given Real Madrid fans (or coaches) any reason to take notice of his recent move to the Spanish giants. Uruguay had the only real chances to break the deadlock, down the stretch, and the contest predictably petered out with each team claiming a point. Samurai Blue fans will definitely be asking questions about the soft PK call in the first half, though given the number of shots Uruguay had on target (or off the woodwork),the draw was probably an accurate reflection of the two teams' performances.

Though the result ensures that Japan will return home this summer with their best performance ever in South America, they will need to secure a convincing win against Ecuador, in their final pool match, to have any hope of progressing. Until we know the result of that contest we should avoid making any bold claims, but given the extreme youth and inexperience of the squad Coach Moriyasu took to Brazil, one can already view this trip as a positive experience.

Naomichi Ueda and Tomiyasu have acquired useful NT experience, with performances that suggest favorable possibilities for a three-man back line, with Gen Shoji playing between these two. Koji Miyoshi proved himself capable of handling the pressure of international play. Though he may struggle to replace Ritsu Doan or Junya Ito in the Samurai Blue lineup once the team returns to full strength, he certainly increases the range of options Moriyasu has at his disposal. Gaku Shibasaki again displayed his skill in organizing both attack and defence, and staked a strong claim to retain the captain's armband even when veterans like Shoji and Maya Yoshida return to the lineup.

At the same time, Moriyasu has been able to observe the shortcomings of players like A. Ueda, Daiki Sugioka and -- yes, it has to be said -- Takefusa Kubo. The youngster has now played roughly 120 minutes of NT football, and despite creating two or three good attacking chances in the Chile contest, he is visibly unprepared to handle the physicality of tom international play, especially in terms of his defensive contributions. Obviously, having just turned 18, he has plenty of time to develop the skills that he still has not perfected. But at least for now, he looks like a child trying to play an adult game. The Real Madrid B-team coaches have a lot of work to do, if he is ever to succeed in La Liga.