The Little Nadeshiko’s big appetite for goals

  • Japan have the most potent attack in U-17 Women’s World Cup history

  • The Little Nadeshiko have already hit seven goals at Uruguay 2018

  • They will take on New Zealand in the quarter-finals

It is 12 November and Japan’s players have arrived at the Estadio Domingo Burgueno Miguel in Maldonado on the eve of their opening match at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup. The players take to the field to familiarise themselves with their surroundings at the venue of their three matches in Group B.

Little by little, a strange spectacle starts to take shape. The Japanese players take part in an impromptu competition for the team’s best goal celebration at Uruguay 2018, before their tournament has even got under way. It may all seem a little presumptuous, but that is not Japan’s style; rather, the Little Nadeshiko are preparing for a scenario that is all but inevitable.

Over the course of the previous five U-17 World Cups, the 2010 champions of Asia had found the net 98 times in 27 matches. And predictably enough, following the team’s three outings in the group stage, they have already flown past the 100 mark. To be precise, the team have added seven goals to take their total to 105, a tournament record.

MALDONADO, URUGUAY - NOVEMBER 16:  Haruka Osawa #12 celebrates a goal with Sara Ito  #6 of Japan against South Africa during the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Uruguay 2018 group B match between Japan and South Africa at Estadio Domingo Burgueno Miguel on November 16, 2018 in Maldonado, Uruguay.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

“The U-17 players are the product of our youth training methods, which promote the philosophy and principles of attacking football,” explained manager Futoshi Ikeda. The former Urawa Red Diamonds defender is perfectly placed to pass comment on Japan’s football identity, having led his country to victory at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in France back in August.

“Decision-making is the key. Having the technical fundamentals is not enough, you have to be able to call upon them at the right time,” added the 48 year-old coach. “Then it’s about mastering the positional game. The reasoning behind each decision is always linked to the position of the other players on the pitch.”

Ikeda, one of the many architects behind Japan’s impressive achievements in the women’s game, is thus clear about what he considers to be the ingredients of that success.

However, he is still searching for the answer to another conundrum: why is it, tournament after tournament, that Japan’s women’s teams seem to find goals so easy to come by? The Little Nadeshiko’s average goals per game at U-17 World Cups is twice that of their male counterparts. “I too would like to understand why,” said Ikeda. “After all, the players grew up with the same football identity.”

The women show the men the way

  • The men’s U-17 teams have scored 44 goals in 29 matches (an average of 1.15)

  • The women’s U-17 teams have scored 105 goals in 29 matches (an average of 3.62)

  • The women’s U-20 and senior teams also average more goals per game than their male counterparts

Practice makes perfect The team captain offers one possible explanation. “The boys are generally quicker. So we have to find ways to compensate, and that often means working on our technique to allow us to make an impact. We’re constantly working on it, with precision and intensity, perhaps more so than they are,” explained Sara Ito as she attempted to shed light on the Japanese goalscoring phenomenon.

“We have specific training sessions for the forwards that involve the whole team. It’s important to play as a unit and to develop the reflex of attacking as quickly and effectively as possible. We rehearse attacking combinations before our matches,” continued Ito.

Having scored two of her side's six goals against South Africa, the captain is now looking ahead to the quarter-final clash with New Zealand on Saturday 24 November in Colonia.

Her manager reiterates the importance of this tactical aspect, which is learnt by Japan’s players at a young age before being implemented with quite breathtaking ease out on the pitch. “The first step to scoring a goal comes with the defence. That’s perhaps one of the most unique aspects of Japanese football. We start from the back and move forward as quickly as possible thanks to rapid and automatic offensive transitions involving the whole team,” detailed Ikeda.

Clearly, as far as Japan are concerned, defence is the best form of attack.