Pressure earned Japan two big wins. Will Croatia be No. 3?

DOHA, Qatar — Japan have already made statistical history at this World Cup, and they may yet leave Qatar having given the game a new and devastating way of taking on the top teams and beating them.

It is ultra-defensive and passive, but with a sting in the tail. Football’s version of rope-a-dope has taken Japan into the round of 16 and their opponents on Monday, Croatia, are precisely the kind that is most vulnerable to their shock tactics.

While Japan’s approach has been successful in Qatar, though, it is yet to win hearts and minds back home.

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“Coach [Hajime] Moriyasu has achieved historic victories against Germany and Spain,” journalist Masatoshi Mori of Hochi Shimbun told ESPN. “However, he is taking a defensive approach in this Qatar World Cup.

“His game plan is 0-0 in the first half, or 0-1 at worst. It therefore can be seen as a problem that the opponents have scored the first goal in all three games. Worryingly, with two successful examples of come-from-behind victories against Germany and Spain, it is likely that this approach will continue against Croatia.”

But the approach has beaten two of the favourites to win this World Cup, with four-time winners Germany eliminated as a consequence of Japan’s ability to soak up pressure and hit hard on the break.

According to Opta, since detailed World Cup records began in 1966, there have only been two instances of a team losing a game despite attempting more than 700 passes and both have happened in Qatar: the first when Germany were beaten 2-1 by Japan after recording 820 passes during their Group E opener at Khalifa International Stadium, the second when Spain, who recorded 1,070 passes, lost 2-1 at the same venue against Moriyasu’s team.

On both occasions, Japan fell behind to their well-fancied opponents and surrendered possession throughout the game, but they overturned their one-goal deficit each time to win following a brief, but frenzied, period of attack and pressure in the final third. Against Germany, two goals in eight minutes from Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano turned the game on its head to secure a famous victory. Versus Spain, the turnaround was even quicker, with Doan and Ao Tanaka scoring two goals in three minutes to cancel out Alvaro Morata’s opener and give Japan a 2-1 lead that they held until the end of the game to enable them to win the group.

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Spain had an incredible 78% of possession during the 90 minutes against Japan. Germany were similarly dominant, enjoying a 65% share of the ball on the pitch.

The key detail in Japan’s success on each occasion, though, was their tenacity and readiness to defend and press their opponents in every area of the pitch, led by the work rate of Daichi Kamada and Junya Ito in midfield.

Against Germany, according to official FIFA data, Japan recorded 487 defensive pressures, compared with 164 by their opponents. In the win against Spain, Japan took that number up to 637, with Luis Enrique’s players amassing just 150.

To underscore the high-pressing energy of Japan’s players, they recorded 87 forced turnovers against Germany and 85 against Spain. Quite simply, they refused to give their opponents any time to settle on the ball.

Ironically, when Japan lost 1-0 against Costa Rica in their second group game, it was the Central American team who sat back and soaked up pressure, forcing Moriyasu’s players to have much more of the ball — 48% of possession. And in terms of defensive pressures, Japan’s number dropped to 300, just six more than Costa Rica, and they only managed 47 forced turnovers.

Croatia are a team cut from the same cloth as Spain, though, with playmaker Luka Modric orchestrating play from midfield and ensuring that the 2018 World Cup runners-up dominate possession and pin opponents back. So Japan’s tried-and-tested approach, which proved the downfall of Germany and Spain, seems perfectly designed to catch Croatia out too.

“Our first priority was to not concede any goals, followed closely by trying to score as many goals as possible,” Moriyasu said after the Spain victory. “The players who came out in the first half tried to achieve our first priority. This I believe helped lead to the victory in the second half.”

Despite Japan’s success in Qatar, coach Moriyasu divides opinion in the country because of what is perceived to be a negative approach that fails to harness the more creative talent at his disposal. Celtic pair Reo Hatate and Kyogo Furuhashi were both surprisingly omitted from Japan’s squad, but results in Qatar have justified Moriyasu’s selections.

Still, there is a concern in Japan that Moriyasu’s safety-first approach will work against the team in the knockout stage.

“Moriyasu has been criticized for his passive attitude, as he has been late in making substitutions at key points, so these tendencies leave us uneasy on the tournament stage,” Masatoshi said. “The media has questioned Moriyasu’s choice of choosing Daizen Maeda over Furuhashi. It is because Maeda is a centre-forward player who applies pressure and contributes in defence and this choice also reveals Moriyasu’s defensive strategy tendencies.”

But while Moriyasu’s Japan are more pragmatic and cautious than previous teams, who have borne hallmarks of the deep-rooted Brazilian influence in Japanese football, this side is winning and beating the strongest opponents. Japan are one win away from reaching the quarterfinals for the first time and they just might have the perfect game plan to do it.