Hours before England and Portugal gave us the best match of the tournament thus far, Japan gave us the best performance of the tournament thus far. The match took place next to Nostradamus’ former home in Salon de Provence, but as one witty commentator put it, not even Nostradamus could have predicted this.
Whilst Chile’s Bernardo Redín repeated his exact same line-up from their 1-0 win against Portugal, Japan’s manager Akinobu Yokouchi made 8 changes to his starting eleven. Despite such heavy rotation, Japan played even better than they did against England. The formation was largely the same, with center backs Makoto Okazaki and Takuma Ominami retaining their places in Japan’s three-man back-line, whilst Keiya Shiihashi, who formed a double pivot with standout performer Ao Tanaka in the opening match, dropped down into defense.
It’s hard to do justice to the gulf in class we saw between these two teams. Chile didn’t put in the worst team performance of the tournament, as the scoreline may suggest, but they were simply outdone in every single facet of play. Japan ended the game with a 6-1 victory, but they could’ve just as easily have had 8 or 9 goals.
Chile’s [lack of] standouts
It’s hard to pick out many standouts from this losing side, as so many players who did a few things right cancelled out their praise with head-scratching actions. Ángelo Araos did well to pounce on a poor piece of chest control from Okazaki and score Chile’s sole goal, but he also picked up a brainless yellow and was subbed off. Araos wasn’t alone though; as Japan cemented control in the later stages, Chilean players resorted to lazy, reckless fouls.
In general, it was an effort of individuals, rather than the effort of a team. In contrast to Japan, their press was loose and disorganized–a group of sprinters running for the sake of running. Their double pivot, if you can call it that, was isolated and didn’t really have any set patterns to control the play (or even stop the bleeding). Their defense was leakier than a broken faucet, their counterattacks were unimaginative and unthreatening, and their possession was horizontal and monotonous.
FC Dallas’ Pablo Aranguíz played a few trying balls over the top, but a strong wind often carried them out of bounds. The attacking play between Chile and Japan was day and night: unnecessary Hollywood passes over the top vs. controlled, yet unpredictable attacking combinations. Nicolás Ramírez had some decent balls out of the back, but those were cancelled out by his poor performance in central defense.
Ironically, two of the brightest performers on La Roja were Nicolás Fernández at right back and Williams Alarcón in midfield, both of whom came on when it was too little to late; Japan had already ran up a 5-1 scoreline, and the Chilean players were exhausted from chasing the game. By the time the referees called for the final water break of the game, Redín could not even look his players in the face.
Japan’s stellar team performance
If I could put Japan’s entire team under “standouts” without cheapening the label, I would. The fact is, this was a sensational performance from start to finish. They were the superior side in every single aspect. They were quick to close down passes, they were strong in the tackle, they went forward with coordinated, attacking moves, they simply had a perfect game.
Chile’s defense failed to play through Japan’s nonstop press, they were helpless to Japan’s wave after wave of attack, and they simply had no answer for the best team performance of the tournament thus far.
The opening goal was an exuberant piece of combination play between the attackers. As Reo Hatate tricked Chile’s defense with a lovely dummy, Karoru Mitoma peeled off the defense and made no mistake with the finish. A number of Japan’s attacking moves were of the same blueprint; one player drops back to drag the defender out of position, while another striker made a run in behind. It may seem simple, but it was so damn effective.
The second goal came five minutes later in the 12th minute, which saw Japan carve open Chile with a series of quick passes. Shunta Tanaka found Mitoma, who slid it in for Yuki Soma with a quality through ball, who then played it across the face of goal to Hatate. In their 12th participation in the Toulon Tournament, Japan have never looked more like favorites. Between their strength in depth and their fantastic teamwork, they should not only be considered contenders for the tournament, but for next year’s Summer Olympics as well.
Against a seasoned Chilean side with 4 full internationals, Japan made La Roja look like training dummies. They were more physical, more creative, quicker, and just about any other superlative you can find in the English dictionary.
The third goal came via a strong, yet clean tackle by Takahiro Ho, who was quick to close down a dribble and win the ball high up the pitch. Hatate picked up the loose ball, and fired in his second.
Unlike other losing teams, Chile actually did carve out a few promising chances, especially late on in the second half, but they had no match for Japan’s defenders. Takuma Ominami, one of Japan’s brightest performers, was always well-positioned to intercept and snuff out danger. As the outside center back, he covered runs over the corner of the box with speed and great anticipation. He also played out of Chile’s press with quick passing and found his wingers down the line with searching long balls, but the crown jewel of his performance came via a perfectly timed challenge to stop a surefire goal by Ángelo Araos. Had Ominami slid in an inch to his right or left, he’d have not only conceded a penalty, but would’ve probably gotten sent off.
Man of the first half
Japan’s performance was so good that I think it’s valid to give two different man of the match awards; the situation merits it. You could make a case for a lot of different players; Shunta Tanaka, who I’m not entirely convinced is the best Tanaka on this Japan team, was crucial in breaking up play, shifting to the left half-spaces in the second half and using his body to wrestle possession away. Yuto Iwasaki missed a few golden chances early on in the first half, but he redeemed himself just before halftime with a well-taken brace. Overall, he and Hatate made searing runs in opposite directions to misdirect Chile’s defense and carve out a bevy of chances.
However, the man of the first half (and probably the man of the match) has to go to hat-trick hero Reo Hatate. The way he stretched the defense, picked out teammates, and caused nightmares for Chile’s defense, you’d have thought he’d have a seven-figure price tag on his name. His most impressive action, though, wasn’t a goal, but a pass. Just before halftime, he received a pass, turned, and split two defenders to find Iwasaki with one of the most perfectly placed, incisive assists you’ll ever see.
Man of the second half
The only thing that was hotter than the weather was Japan’s attacking moves, and that was due in no small part to Yuki Soma. Operating essentially as a wingback, Soma’s blistering change of pace and fancy footwork was crucial in putting Chile on the back-burners, even after they had gone down 5-1. He gave Victor Retamal with his quick turns and searing runs in behind the defense. While he had a predilection to cut inside, he also hugged the touchline on occasion to surprise the defender, before picking out a good pass.
As stated before, this was a fantastic team effort. Takahiro Ko did well to intercept lackadaisical passes, Ayumu Kawai was key in Japan’s press, helping win the ball back high up the pitch, and Makoto Okazaki redeemed himself in the second half after a poor giveaway in the first half, with some timely interventions.
While Brazil will surely be considered favorites going into the latter stages of the tournament, Japan will pose a daunting threat to their title challenge. They aren’t an unknown dark horse anymore; they’re the real deal.
By: Zach Lowy
Photo: BEIN Sports