Throughout Spain’s ongoing golden era, football’s best and brightest have continually wrestled with the question of how to handle La Roja and their distinctive style. And though strategies have varied from coach to coach, all appeared to agree on one point: the Spanish cannot be beaten at their own game.
Earlier today, Japan begged to differ. Takashi Sekizuka, in demanding that his team pass better and press higher than the accepted masters of both, took a bold tactical gamble that paid off handsomely. And while a 1-0 victory over a team packed full of senior and U-21 European champions would have been impressive enough in any circumstances, it was the convincing manner of Japan’s win that left the biggest impression.
As team captain Maya Yoshida explained, it was a day on which everything went to plan. “We had a big meeting before we came here when everything was decided,” he told FIFA.com. “That was a big help. It was great for us to see the tactics laid out before us, and it really helped the players’ mentality and confidence. We left that meeting believing that we could beat Spain.
“You saw today that the strikers helped us a lot by pressing the Spanish defence very high up the field. That made it very difficult for Spain to settle and play their normal game. It helped us too that Spain started at a very slow pace as it made it much easier for us for stop their attacks.
“We had also decided with the coach before the game that the best way for us to win was to play a lot of passes rather than rely on individual play and instincts. That passing style really worked well for us. We all felt comfortable on the ball and were able to create a lot of good chances. I think we passed the ball better and also ran more than the Spanish team today, and that is something we can all be proud of.”
Though Yoshida makes it all sound so simple, he also knows only too well that the best-laid plans can come undone at a tournament such as the Olympic Games. He, after all, was a member of the Japan squad that made the short journey back from Beijing 2008 having lost all three of their matches, scoring just once in the process. So what has made the difference four years on?
“The two teams are totally different,” observed the Japan skipper. “In 2008, we only had a small number of players with experience of playing in Europe, whereas now we have players in Germany, Netherlands and other European countries. I think that has given us confidence for this tournament and allowed us to believe more in ourselves. The 2008 tournament feels like a long time ago now and I think you will continue to see a very different team here in the UK.”
And if that message sends shivers down the spines of their London 2012 rivals, Yoshida did nothing to allay those fears with his assertion that Japan, having outplayed the world champions, can still improve. He explained: “We should have scored a few more goals than we did, so we must be more precise in those moments. We were very strong in defence today and of course that is satisfying. But we cannot be too satisfied with this result because we need to go on and play to the same level in our next matches. And I believe we can be better than we were today.”