“Defense wins championships,” as the old saying goes.
The Samurai Blue certainly needed plenty of it on Monday after maintaining less than 24 percent possession over 90 minutes of their Asian Cup round of 16 win against Saudi Arabia under the baking sun at Sharjah Stadium.
Japan was out-shot (15-5), out-passed (659-197), out-cornered (6-4) and out-whistled (27 fouls to Saudi Arabia’s 13), but managed to come out on top 1-0 after Takehiro Tomiyasu headed in Gaku Shibasaki’s corner kick in the 20th minute.
It was a lucky chance for Japan, which struggled to create opportunities on goal from open play. Writing for Sponichi, Shoji Jo blamed the team’s wilting attack on the disparate possession figures.
“Because Saudi Arabia held onto the ball, Japan couldn’t control the match and wasn’t able to attack in its usual style,” noted the former Samurai Blue forward. “Japan couldn’t decide where it wanted to force turnovers and wasn’t in a position to turn those into attacks.”
To its credit, Japan’s defense endured, making stops when (frequently) needed and limiting Saudi Arabia to just one shot on target. Shuichi Gonda, who drew plenty of criticism for his performance in the group stage, was there when he needed to be and became the squad’s most-capped goalkeeper in the process, with his eight senior appearances eclipsing Masaaki Higashiguchi’s seven.
Yet the effort in its defensive third cost Japan toward the front of the pitch, wrote veteran commentator Sergio Echigo for Soccer King.
“All Japan could do was defend,” Echigo lamented. “Japan scored first but its counterattack had no punch. The back line was placed very deep . . . It didn’t look like a conscious decision so much as they were pushed back by the Saudis.
“The attackers spent all their time defending. Genki Haraguchi and Ritsu Doan spent much of their time in the Japan half, and Takumi Minamino hasn’t made any impressive plays in these four (Asian Cup) games like he did (in) last year’s (friendlies).”
The defensive emphasis on Monday didn’t concern left back Yuto Nagatomo, who bore the brunt of the Saudi attack.
“We didn’t break down mentally and we weren’t scared of them,” the Galatasaray defender said. “Until now Japan has broken down when we can’t play possession soccer. Now we have a lot of players with experience playing tough games overseas and we can handle that mental aspect.”
It wasn’t the kind of victory fans may have expected when they tuned in, but Hajime Moriyasu and his crew are nevertheless through to the quarterfinals, where they will face a Vietnam which stunned Jordan in penalty kicks on Sunday.
If there is an underdog team built to upset Japan, it is Vietnam, which over the last two years has experienced a renaissance at the senior and U-23 levels under South Korean head coach Park Hang-seo.
The 60-year-old took over both programs in 2017 and his efforts bore results nearly immediately as Vietnam finished second at the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship — becoming the first Southeast Asian team to reach that tournament’s final in the process — and fourth at last year’s Asian Games.
The senior men also had a productive year, clinching their first regional championship in a decade last December after an undefeated group stage, two wins over Philippines in the semifinals, and a 3-2 aggregate victory over Malaysia in the two-legged AFF Suzuki Cup final.
Vietnam striker Nguyen Cong Phuong — who scored the equalizer against Jordan and leads the team with two goals — even has his own J. League pedigree, having spent a season on loan with second-division side Mito Hollyhock in 2016.
The team has evolved under Park into a young, defensively organized side with the ability to surprise when attacking. It’s exactly the sort of team that an out-of-form Japan should fear in a win-or-go-home situation.
The last time Japan and Vietnam met competitively was in 2007, when the likes of Shunsuke Nakamura and Yasuhito Endo put on a 4-1 clinic in front of a sold-out Hanoi crowd in the last game of that year’s Asian Cup group stage.
Thursday’s result, even if it still favors the Samurai Blue, should be much closer.