Japan are the best side at the World Cup so far – Spain didn’t know how to cope with them

Several other sides haven’t yet played their final group game of World Cup 2023. But whatever happens — perhaps with the exception of another fine Colombia display – it seems safe to crown the best side of the group stage already.

Japan have recorded three wins from three games — and, in the first half of their eventual 4-0 win over Spain, recorded three goals from three touches in the opposition box. Considering the standard of the opposition, this was surely the most convincing victory of the tournament so far.

This encounter seemed set to be a clash between the two most stylistically similar sides in the competition: short passing, long spells of possession and a centre-forward dropping deep to link play. But here, Japan proved more flexible, more wily, more direct and more efficient. Spain dominated possession without creating much. Japan scored the goals despite not seeing the ball much.

It was a tremendous tactical victory, in part because of Japan’s use of a 3-4-3. “We have played Spain already in the last year and lost 1-0,” pointed out defender Moeka Minami the day before the game. “But at that point we’d just started using a back three for the first time. Now, defensively, we’ve had more experience to work on our shape.” You could tell.

No other side in this competition understands their system as perfectly as Japan. Notably, they are the only contender at this tournament using a 3-4-3, a formation which, when deployed properly, drags four-player defences across the pitch and finds a spare player on the far side.

Spain pushed their central midfield creators, the Barcelona duo of Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmati, forward into the channels to form a front five. But Japan had five defenders to take care of them.

On the other hand, when Japan’s wing-backs pushed forward, they found space on the outside of Spain’s back four. On one occasion, early in the game, Spain’s right-back Ona Batlle was dragged forward to Japan’s left-wing-back Jun Endo. That meant right-sided centre-back Irene Paredes, who endured a wretched first half, got drawn out wide to shut down Hikaru Naomoto, and resorted to a cynical foul. It wasn’t the last time.

Spain didn’t know how to cope with Japan’s system. Afterwards, coach Jorge Vilda said he was surprised by the intensity of Japan’s press. He shouldn’t have been — his opposite number Futoshi Ikeda said that would be Japan’s tactical approach in his pre-match press conference.

That said, Japan didn’t actually spend long inside the opposition half. This was more about quick counter-attacking. Spain’s full-backs pushed forward, left space in the channels, and Japan’s wide players broke into that space. The first three goals were all direct but also neat, with clever passes finding penetrative runs.

The first was left-wing-back Endo playing the ball in behind and all the way across to the right-winger Hinata Miyazawa. The second was the right-winger Miyazawa slipping it in behind for the centre-forward Riko Ueki. The third was Ueki returning the favour for Miyazawa to score her second.

With Japan, it can be more revealing to talk about positions rather than names, because the patterns were familiar from their previous two victories, over Zambia and Costa Rica, but the identity of the players have changed. Only four outfielders (defenders Minami and Saki Kumagai, right wing-back Risa Shimizu and central midfielder Honoka Hayashi) have started all three matches.

In dynamic attacking positions, just as their men’s side did to a remarkable extent in Qatar last year, Japan are happy to rotate in the knowledge everyone knows their role in the side. Another link to the men’s side comes from a superb Opta stat — the biggest share of possession for a losing side on record in the men’s or women’s World Cup are Spain’s 2-1 defeat to Japan in Qatar, and Spain’s 4-0 defeat to Japan here.

Japan have scored 11 goals without reply in this World Cup. Notably, in a tournament where teams have struggled to create chances with passing combinations, with rather too much attacking down the flanks and crossing, all of Japan’s goals have been incredibly neat. Nine of the 11 have been assisted with a clever, deliberate pass. One exception was a penalty against Zambia – which was won courtesy of an excellent through-ball in behind from Yui Hasegawa. The other was the fourth goal here, when substitute Mina Tanaka collected a long throw down the line, and ran, and ran, and ran, and then blasted the ball into the top corner to make it 4-0. Two days ago, Italy lost 5-0 on this ground to Sweden. We expected some big victories at this tournament, but we didn’t expect the victims to be established European nations.

This Japan side mixes clever tactics with a bit of fun. Twice, when they lined up wide free kicks and Spain stereotypically defended with an extremely high line, two Japanese players stood over the ball. The first one dummied it, and then the second one dummied it too, before the first played the ball in behind. The intention was to disturb the Spanish defensive line, tempting a player to retreat too early. On both occasions, the move drew a roar of appreciation and amusement from around Wellington Regional Stadium.

Defensively, Japan were near flawless, with Spain barely creating a chance. The wide centre-backs were both extremely composed, and happy to move forward into midfield to close down opponents when needed. Between them, the vastly experienced Kumagai was the spare player, sweeping up as reliably as Japan’s fans did at full-time.

In hindsight, we probably underestimated Japan, a side whose last three participations at the Women’s World Cup have included a famous triumph in 2011, a runners-up place in 2015, and then only losing thanks to a last-minute penalty from eventual finalists Netherlands in the second round four years ago.

In general, the European-based players have a reputation for being technically impressive but sometimes struggled to nail down a first-team place at major clubs. Meanwhile, the likes of Hikaru Naomoto, Hinata Miyazawa and Riko Ueki, all still based in their homeland, are a good advert for the excellently named Japan Women’s Empowerment Professional Football League.

Japan will now face Norway in the round of 16, in what will be a real clash of styles. Norway offer superstar individuals but no cohesion. Japan have modest, understated players but perfect team harmony. Usually, in those situations, the latter prevails.

(Photo: Maja Hitij – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

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