Misplaced passes, poor decision-making and an overwhelmed midfield, the Spanish Olympic side looked a far cry from the senior team who romped to a 4-0 victory against Italy in the Euro 2012 final less than a month ago. Possessing neither the control of that side nor the organised skill of the successful U-19 team that had lifted yet another trophy this summer, the Under-23s became the first Spain side to ever lose to Japan.
Despite starting the game well, looking to keep possession and play the ball out from the back, they soon began to look frazzled when it appeared Japan had quickly identified their weaknesses. Playing a ferocious pressing game that overwhelmed the midfield and applied pressure on a nervy back-line, there is nothing that unsettles the Spaniards more than a side who play a tight asphyxiating game in defence that looks to test La Rojita’s reaction to any counter-attacking attempts.
Defensively weak, Luis Milla’s back-line looked nervous and were easily ripped apart, undone by their own inability to keep the ball and deliver passes accurately. It was essentially poor defending on behalf of right-back Martin Montoya that led to the opening goal. The defender’s failure to get goal-side of Yuki Otsu allowed the attacking midfielder to push in front and score the deciding goal.
Meanwhile, the Spanish centre-back-pairing struggled to keep up with the pace of the Japanese forwards and was easily forced into individual errors. This was perfectly characterised by Alvaro Dominguez who in his desperate attempt to not concede a corner, attempted a woeful back pass to David de Gea that was easily intercepted by the Japanese, who were forceful in their pressing. Spain were ultimately fortunate to see their opponents wasteful in front of goal.
However, whilst the defence was easily dispossessed by an eager Japanese side that opted to press high up the pitch to take control of the ball in dangerous areas, Spain’s attacking play never quite lived up to its potential either. The side struggled to control their passing and perfect their movements in the final third of the pitch.
Juan Mata, who was by far the best player on the pitch for Spain, received little help from his teammates in terms of creativity and was often found retreating in hopes of linking up play as his teammates struggled to establish a rhythm and connect all three departments of the team. Not only did Mata’s forced retreats rob him of his skills when positioned further up the pitch but Japan’s constrictive pressing game allowed him little space and time to construct continuous and effective attacking moves.
Tactically organised, defensively solid and extremely direct, Japan’s strategy was perfectly studied, planned and executed and warranted the praise of the Spanish Press. Despite the opening failure, the loss has been viewed as nothing more than a blip on the road to success and one that can easily be overcome. The quest for gold is still very much on, believe the Spanish, even if the Japanese showed that they may still have much to learn.