Japan lost 1-0 to Spain in their Tokyo 2020 semi-final
Tough self-reflection followed Marco Asensio’s 115th-minute winner
Goalscoring a key area of improvement ahead of facing Mexico for bronze
If Japan fail to build on their Olympic adventure, it will not be for the lack of honest – even brutally honest – self-analysis.
Not for the Olympic hosts the seeking of excuses, of others to blame, that has become a hallmark of so many teams beaten on the big stage. Nor was there a rush to draw positives at the end of a quest for gold in which, to most observers, there have been plenty of positives to draw.
The hosts were, after all, the only team to advance from the group phase with an unblemished record and, for 115 minutes of yesterday’s semi-final, they kept pace with a formidable and star-studded Spain side. But as they prepare for a bronze medal match against Mexico, Hajime Moriyasu and his players seem to be brushing those achievements aside to focus squarely on where they are lacking.
“If you look at the game it was one big moment, that bit of quality Spain have, that made the difference,” captain Maya Yoshida told FIFA.com. “Of course they had better positions than us, more control of the game, but that’s normal with Spain and we expected it. Our plan was always to try to hit them on the counter-attack anyway.
“But it’s those moments of quality that decide games at this level, and that’s what our young players need to learn if they want to progress their careers and go and play in Europe against players like [Marco Asensio, scorer of Spain’s winner]. And they do still have a lot to learn and work on.”
Yoshida’s coach was in full agreement, and Moriyasu made no secret of what he sees as Japan’s most significant shortcoming.
“We must better ourselves in creating and scoring goals,” he said. “It’s something we need to work on and improve because it has been an issue not just in today’s match but throughout these Olympic Games. We have to aim for higher quality.”
Winger Yuki Soma, head bowed and seemingly close to tears, was perhaps the most candid and self-critical of all. “Any time you lose a game, there are always reasons why it has happened,” he said. “The bad things about our performance are not something we can turn our eyes from.
“And as the coach said, it comes down to quality. That quality to make a decisive move or shot is, I think, the difference between teams who will win on the world stage and those who won’t.
“Asensio’s move to get that turn and shot is really clear in my mind right now. I came into the game in the second half and, although I got some crosses in, I was not able to do anything as decisive [as Asensio]. I really feel very disappointed in myself.”
Wallowing too long in self-reflection is not, however, a luxury Japan can afford. Friday’s match against Mexico offers a chance to end their Olympic adventure on a genuine high, and two of their veterans know only too well how painful missing out on bronze would be.
“There is a huge difference between remaining just an Olympic athlete and going away as a medal-winning Olympic athlete,” acknowledged Moriyasu.
“Maya Yoshida and Hiroki Sakai were part of the London Olympics, went to the semi-finals but were not able to win a medal. They have already talked about that experience and I want to share that again with the players before we play Mexico.”
Yoshida will not be holding back. “We still have an opportunity to do something here and we’re going to keep pushing,” he vowed. “I played in that bronze medal match nine years ago and lost against Korea [Republic]. I’ll keep pushing because I really don’t want to feel like that again. Because let me tell you: that feeling is… ”
Unprintable language of a distinctly industrial nature followed. The words, spoken in English and uttered with the hint of a smile, reflect the lessons the Japan captain learned across eight years in the Premier League.
Yoshida’s brutal honesty, though, was 100 per cent Japanese.