While Japan’s goalscoring feats have been getting most of the credit for the Young Nadeshiko’s run to the semi-finals of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, a tenacious work ethic that also values defensive commitment has been ingrained into the players and laid the foundations for the team’s success.
Thursday’s 3-1 win over Korea Republic, which took Japan into the competition’s final four for the first time, brought the host nation’s goal tally at this year’s edition to 13 in four games. Midfielder Hanae Shibata received plenty of plaudits for her two goals, while Yoko Tanaka maintained her impressive record of scoring in every game at Japan 2012.
However, Shibata modestly played down her contribution to the victory. “I got a great pass threaded through from the midfield, which I just had to get a touch on,” she told FIFA.com. “The second one, I aimed for the corner and it went in, which surprised even me.”
She also laughed off suggestions that her left-footed second strike had shades of Argentina and Barcelona forward Lionel Messi – her football idol. “That’s going a bit far,” Shibata said, with a smile.
Despite playing against their Asian rivals in front of a crowd of nearly 25,000 at National Stadium in Tokyo, Japan put in a composed display all the way until the final whistle. According to Shibata, who also scored against Mexico in the opening game, preparation and careful analysis of their opponents’ tactics helped the players stay focused on the job at hand.
“We figured out how we could break down their defence,” she revealed. “They like to pour players out wide and try to steal possession, so we concentrated on supporting our players on the flanks and then putting crosses into the centre. That’s what led to my second goal.”
Quick in transition
The Young Nadeshiko have had little trouble finding the net, but the willingness of attack-minded players to carry out defensive duties has added another dimension to the team. “It wasn’t just this game, we’ve constantly been aware of the need to quickly switch from attack to defence,” Shibata said. “I want to help the team by getting back to give the defenders a hand. That’s why I got tired in the first half, and I couldn’t always contribute at the back. I’d only give myself 65 or 70 out of 100 for today’s performance.”
This urgency to help out defensively went up a notch after Japan found themselves down 2-0 early in its group game with New Zealand. Although the Japanese battled back to finish with a 2-2 draw, that wake-up call supplied by the Kiwis has been a blessing in disguise.
“It was a turning point,” said centre-back Shiori Kinoshita. “It was clear that we had to tighten things up, and the players have discussed what needs to be done. These four matches have been tough, but I think defensively we’ve been improving.”
Before the quarter-final, captain Nozomi Fujita told FIFA.com that she wanted her team to “stifle the opposition’s flow with our defence” and her team duly responded, with the only blemish coming when Jeoun Eunha headed an equaliser for the South Koreans in the first half.
“Communicating with our defensive midfielders is the most important thing,” added Kinoshita. “Hikaru [Naomoto] and Non-chan [Fujita] screened the defence and cut out so many passes. It made our job much easier.”
Despite their thorough preparations put in for the game, it is unlikely the Young Nadeshiko had planned for the noise of a fireworks display at a professional baseball event nearby. Nevertheless, the players were largely unfazed by the events elsewhere. “I was slightly surprised and wondered what was going on,” Kinoshita said. “But I kept concentrating on the game and everything turned out fine.”
Germany await in the semi-final but, as the interview concluded, Kinoshita was confident Japan have the ability and attitude to defeat the reigning champions: “If we play the football we’re capable of, we won’t have any problems.”