Here I raise an issue I wanted to discuss all time since the Olympic. I’m posting this because I think the world misunderstands the Nadeshikos. I know what I’m going to state defies everything we hear in media. It sounds crazy. Please read it through only if you are not disgusted by a rebel. This article consists of 2 main topics. First, how Japan’s national team won, and how they lost. Second, their future growth – or decline.

First, I pick Japan’s 4 epic victories in 2011 and 2012 that paved way to their world championship and Olympic silver medal. See the number of shots of their opponents and their own. (All numbers from FIFA.com)

2011 quarter-final: Germany 23, Japan 9 (Japan won by 1-0)

2011 final: USA 27, Japan 14 (Japan won by PSO after 2-2 tie)

2012 quarter-final: Brazil 15, Japan 8 (Japan won by 2-0)

2012 semi-final: France 25, Japan 6 (Japan won by 2-1)

Seeing these numbers, we can’t dismiss easily such criticism that Japan won “undeserved” victories. See what Brazil’s head coach says immediately after his team’s defeat.

“If they play the way they are, defending and playing like a wall, then I don’t believe they will (win the tournament).”

“I am used to Japan playing from the back and passing the ball, this team that played today is not the team that has been playing, so they are not always going to be able to play like that and score.”

Barcellos interview

Suppose Mr. Barcellos is right, then what is the reason of Japan’s winning of those matches? A pure luck? A fluke? An accident? Well, you may call it that way if you saw one isolated case. If you saw it repeated four times, in short period of two successive summers, and in the most critical matches with sky-high stake, you better suspect more than fluke was working.

And here I like to show another set of numbers. Again the number of shots, but in the games Japan failed to win.

2011 first stage: England 10, Japan 14 (Japan lost by 0-2)

2012 first stage: Sweden 12, Japan 10 (0-0 draw)

2012 final: USA 15, Japan 12 (Japan lost by 1-2)

Here we see a different landscape. Shots-wise, Japan fares much better here than in the previous list, but the game result was 2 losses and 1 draw. Still call it a fluke? Act of random chance?

The big surprise is the performance of USA whose shots against Japan was almost cut by half from one final to another, remarkable even if the 2011 match was 120 minutes. Japanese fans take pride in this – Nadeshikos are even better after becoming world champion. However, if the poor stats of USA is purely due to the performance on the Japanese side, why Japan so underperformed against other opponents? Is USA so inferior to Germany? or Brazil? or France? or themselves a year before? That’s hard to accept. My strong suspicion, and near conviction, is 2012 final proceeded just as designed by USA who intentionally refrained from engaging a full-scale assault – to win the final victory. And of course it worked.

And here I like to speak of another set of numbers. For the Americans, 2011 final was the fourth game against Japan for the year, and 2012 final was again the fourth of the year. They played the Nadeshikos eight times in two years (actually, 16 months) span. On the other hand, Germany played Japan in July 2009 for the last time before 2011 World Cup. Their quarter-final was the first match after 2-year hiatus. Brazil played Japan in April 2012 which was the first time in 5 years. France and Japan played 6 days prior to the Olympic opener when 3 years had passed since their last game in August 2009. It is the Americans who knew the Nadeshikos best. Their acts must be studied seriously.

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Now it’s time to talk about the Japan’s renowned “Barcelona-style” soccer, to which both media and general public attribute championship and silver medal, and which is exactly what Mr. Barcellos expected to see and felt betrayed when he didn’t see it. However, if you scrutinize 2011 Germany you will find that such beautiful “passing” was displayed in only 2 games – against Mexico and Sweden. But Mexico is ranked #24 and no match for Japan in the first place. And Sweden was way more fatigued than Japan in SF because they had only 2 days after QF to recuperate while Japan had 3. No wonder Japan outran and outshot them. Those 2 games are more exception than norm. How was 2012? Japan momentarily showed its “Barca-style” when it scored the tournament’s first goal against Canada. This opening goal was a result of beautiful passing from Ohno to Sawa to Ohno to Kawasumi. However, it was in the final against USA that their “Barca-style” went into full display. Japan’s other victories, not only of 2012 but 2011 too, were obtained in more mediocre style. Its strategy was to “defend and play like a wall” to quote Mr. Barcellos, catch the smallest opening in opposition’s defense, score, then rebuild the wall.

And here, let me introduce an event that took place on July 16, 2012, or 9 days prior to the opening game. The public broadcaster NHK aired a TV show to discuss if Japan wins gold medal in London, and one of the panelists was Brandi Chastain. The discussion was largely focused on if, and how, the Nadeshikos can beat the United States. As the debate went on, the mood turned pessimistic for the Japanese as they saw little chance against USA co-spearheaded by mighty Wambach/Morgan. Finally, the Japan side asked a direct question to Chastain. “Is there any weak point in US that Japan can exploit?” Chastain laughed but gave her answer. (Here I have to do an awkward job as all I heard from TV was the Japanese translator’s voice. I’m putting it back to English guessing what was Brandi’s original words.)

“In my opinion, it’s the American back line. They didn’t spend much time together, and mutual trust is incomplete. Occasionally, some back-players must go forward, raising problem for the ones staying behind to manage the opened space. This is Japan’s chance to beat the United States. The back-line in such situation is not the conventional 4-back system. Open space is there, which Japan must exploit. Americans are so used to attacking and moving everything forward. Not only Japan but a team like France, with their technique and speed, can exploit this American vulnerability.” — In other words, let USA attack, then launch a counterattack, said Brandi.

Now, looking back the entire London 2012, I think it was the Americans who heeded the Brandi’s words most wisely. They saw the Japan’s strategy in the 4 critical games – against Germany and themselves in 2011, then Brazil and France in 2012 – perfectly matches Brandi’s words, and changed their own strategy drastically. While all other opponents played aggressively, applied hard pressure, to disrupt Japan’s passing and possession, Americans at 2012 final behaved in a strangely meek way, even allowing the Japanese to control mid-field. We saw the Nadeshikos invaded the US-side box way more frequently than they did against Brazil and France. Sometimes it was Hope Solo’s heroic save, yet sometimes it was field-players’ bodily presence, that prevented a goal. Americans held their players back to “build a wall” in front of their goal, even if the Japanese controlled the rest of the pitch. Japan’s possession in this game was 58% – in sharp contrast to the 36% against Brazil and the 46% against France. In 2012 gold medal match, Japan behaved like Barca more than any other game, except for the lack of goal, because Americans LET them do so. My final set of numbers – Japan’s shots and goals in the most critical matches of 2011 and 2012.

2011, against Germany: 9 shots, 1 goal → 11% converted

2011, against USA: 14 shots, 2 goals → 14%

2012, against Brazil: 8 shots, 2 goals → 25%

2012, against France: 6 shots, 2 goals → 33%

2012, against USA: 12 shots, 1 goal → 8%

As everyone can see, the Nadeshikos had been making steady progress until it was overturned by the Americans. Americans cleverly placed Japan in the same position Japan’s other opponents were placed. They not only built a wall but launched a surprise weapon – Lloyd – instead of anticipated and feared Morgan/Wambach. The media’s campaign to hail Japan’s “Barca-style” fooled many, including Jorge Barceloss. Pia Sundhage refused to be fooled.

Again, Japan can win in a beautiful Barca style against a second-rate opposition. Against a foe their equal or even better, it’s a very precarious tactics, just, perhaps, as the Young Nadeshikos learned hard way against Young Germans.

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How about the Nadeshikos’ future? Will we see more of the “Barca-style” or the style observed repeatedly in 2011 and 2012? It depends on how far Japan can advance its technical edge. No one denies the Barca-style is more attractive, thus preferable for the sake of popularity which translates to profit. However, the 2011/12 experience teaches Japan the danger of applying it against opposition their equal or better. Also, we cannot forget that the Nadeshikos in 2011 Germany caught the world by total surprise and the rivals had short period of 1 year to devise countermeasures for Olympic. Now that the Nadeshikos are an object of worldwide research, isn’t it reasonable to assume Japan’s lead (if there is one) is more likely to dwindle than expand? Already multiple pundits and critics express their fear women’s soccer might follow the same steps of women’s volleyball.

In 1960s, Japan’s female volleyball team defeated one world powerhouse after another, all of whom way taller and stronger, by deploying techniques the world had never seen before – rolling dig, curved serve, quick hit. Amazed world dubbed those women “The Witches of Orient.” Their glory peaked at 1964 Tokyo Olympic when they beat Soviet Union at the final. But the glory was not long-lasting. All those “witchcrafts” were invented to compensate for the small, light-weighted, poorly-powered physique. There is no reason, though, they should be reserved for Japanese. The world learned them quickly. Now the technicality was equal, the physicality was still unequal. The Japanese volleyball disappeared from world stage. In 2012 London, the women’s team won bronze – the first medal in 28 years – largely thanks to being in a fortunate group. Italy and Russia who missed medal trounced Japan easily and were undoubtedly better teams. It is almost certain the same will happen to the Nadeshikos unless some special strategy is devised.

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What could be the Japan’s strategy to continue winning, if there is one?

One should be obvious. Recruit players possessing physicality on par with the world. This is easier said than done, of course. See the U20 team, or the Young Nadeshikos. They are even smaller than their elder sisters. Such players as Tanaka, Shibata, Naomoto, Fujita, Yokoyama who have just become household names are all shorter than 160 (5’3”). So is Iwabuchi, the ace-striker of this age group. And still, Japan craves size. So, when coach Norio Sasaki selected Erina Yamane (GK, Chiba) as a backup to accompany regular squad to London, even though more experienced and reliable players were available, he said he chose her “for the future.” And anyone who sees Yamane would understand what Sasaki meant. Yamane is tall – 187 (6’1”). Actually her history so far is very interesting. She played in only 1 match of domestic league in the previous 3 years. For 2012, too, she was not even her club’s substitute for the first 7 games. All of a sudden, she became the starting goalie, not even substituted. I have a strong suspicion her club cooperates with the national plan for the future even sacrificing games of present. Likewise, Ami Otaki (FW, Lyon) was made another backup mainly thanks to her height (172, 5’7”). Japan’s chance to recruit more sized players may look dismal under the current situation, but hope lies in the nation’s 125 million population. The national team may succeed to find enough of them once the female soccer population vastly increases from the current 25,000. (Remember the counterpart quantity of USA is over 2 million.)

Another strategy, more preferable only if realized, is to go for the Barca style farther, to its limit. Actually, there is one club pursuing this course unyieldingly – INAC Leonessa based in Kobe. This club provided 7 players to the national team – Sawa, Kawasumi, Ohno, Kinga, Tanaka, Kaihori, Takase. It also sent 3 to U20 – Tanaka (Yoko), Nakada, Takenaka – even temporarily losing Kyokawa to injury. Not alone such quantities but their names assert the Kobe’s dominance among the Nadeshikos. And, quoting Kawasumi, “if Japan’s national team is Barca-like INAC Kobe is even more so.” Perhaps you saw the Japan vs. Canada at Olympic when, at 33rd minute, Japan scored the tournament’s first goal. Ohno short-passed to Sawa then dashed forward, Sawa passed it back to Ohno now deep in Canada’s box, Ohno kept the ball for a moment then rolled it behind, where Kawasumi appeared out of nowhere and shot from an acute angle – Goal! A very typical attacking form of Kobe all three of them belong to. Kobe’s play in the Japanese league is full of such performances. Kei Hoshikawa, Kobe’s coach, once commented he wants his team to play like ninjas, and Kawasumi’s act stated above was really ninja-like. Kobe is the laboratory where research and development of new technique is done and the national team is a beneficiary, even if such club-state relationship is usually reversed through most of the world. Most importantly, Kobe never “builds wall” even against the most formidable opposition.

Will Kobe continue to grow and become really like Barcelona, and lift the national team to the level to beat global rivals in a manner Mr. Barcellos never feels betrayed? Too soon to bet for anyone yet. It’s almost certain, though, that if Kobe can’t do it no one can, and most likely the Nadeshikos will walk the same downhill path once walked by their volleyball-playing sisters. Kobe knows it and sees its mission there. Even though they are nearly unbeatable domestically and can sit on their throne comfortably for any seeable future they now eagerly seek opportunity to fight formidable foes from abroad. They played Arsenal Ladies in November 2011 (1-1 draw), Barcelona Ladies in February 2012 (again, 1-1 draw), and Sky Blue twice in March (won by 2-1 and 3-0). Rumor says JFA is trying to persuade Lyon and Frankfurt to visit Japan to play Kobe in November. This may be difficult as European teams will be in the middle of their season then. But it lets us see what Kobe is after.

Keep your eyes on INAC Kobe, if you are interested in the Nadeshikos’ future.

3 Comments
  1. Jerel Wakayama 9 years ago

    Excellent theory.  I guess the exception to the rule is the  New Zealand

    game at the 2011 WWC. Shots were 15 – 5 in Japan’s favor and possession was 61%.  Of course, Japan nearly tied this game.  It took a late Miyama free kick to win the game.

  2. Mia Mon 9 years ago

    wow! some really good eyes and memory you have there, Ken!

    i also noticed the fatigue factor play its hand during the final at the 2011 World Cup. everyone  noticed it as the commies practically spelled it out, the Japanese led by Coach Sasaki were smiling after the full 120 mins, the Americans were in despair. well of course there was no running involved afterward but mental exhaustion took its toll on the Americans. so who knows it may not be just a physical thing as well but a psychological one too? haha, long shot but your theory definitely isn’t!

    btw i love Sommer, i wondered too why she wasn’t put in earlier or even a starter but as you have pointed out she gets tired fast and she may be the designated spark off the bench. it worked but French tactics were too late. the French were a little strange that day, luckily for the Nadeshiko, like Necib should have taken the penalty etc etc.

  3. Author
    Ken Suzuki 9 years ago

    @Dernhelm

     

    Right, the best thing that can happen is to have both size and technique. Say, Lotta Schelin of Sweden and Celia Mbabi of Germany are the players possessing both in one body whom I see with envious eyes.

     

    But I’m rather pessimistic about Japan’s chance to recruit large number of physical players. After all, this is what Japan Volleyball Association tried and tried and tried, and still find it a too daunting project – even though the volleyball-playing girls, inspired by “The Witches of Orient,” have been much more numerous than soccer players all these decades. Japan must live with tiny size. Eternal David facing Goliath. The question is: what is his (in this case, of course, “her”) sling?

     

    And a club like INAC Kobe plans to find it in what you call “tiki taka” actions. This could be a considerably better chance than size, and I hope with all my heart they will succeed. But, again, Japan’s volleyball did everything to maintain the technical lead created by the witches, and failed.

     

    Actually, there is one thing I didn’t mention in my previous post. I think there could be at least one ADVANTAGE of being small in a sport like soccer in which players run for 90 minutes or even 120 minutes. If I’m correct, a small body does not get tired as quickly as a large one. I’m not 100% certain because this is a matter of both physics and physiology. But we all know a small car has a better gas mileage. Maybe the same principle is applicable to a human body?

     

    I noticed this possibility first when I saw the 2011 quarter-final. The taller, faster, stronger German players looked much more fatigued than the Nadeshikos in extra time. Some were even walking when they are supposed to run. The most conspicuous example was perhaps #8, Inka Grings, who intercepted a pass and was quite pressure-free in front of Japan’s goal at 101st minute. But her shot was not only wide but very weak, almost looked like a pass to GK. Grings was substituted immediately after. I again saw a similar thing in 2012 quarter-final. Brazil was overwhelming immediately after the game-start and the ball practically never left Japan’s side of field. However, the game turned in Japan’s favor as time went on. Brazil kicked 7 CKs in the first 20 minutes, but 3 during the rest of the match. Also, our memory is still fresh that Young Nadeshikos were helpless against the Germans in the first half, then improved immeasurably in the second.

     

    Something different was observed in 2012 semi-final where France owned conspicuous upper hand against Japan in the last, not first, 20 minutes. But this turn of tide was brought by substitutes, most notably #9, Eugenie le Sommer, who entered at 58’, rather than fatigue on the Japanese side. I believe I’m not alone to wonder why this player who can make such a huge positive impact does not play full 90 minutes. She never did during Olympic. Her longest play was 62 minutes in the game against North Korea. And I can conceive one explanation only. She is very athletic, but has a low “gas mileage.”

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