How Japan inspired the World at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.


In an age where upsets have become so rare due to the dominance of the rich elite, Japan provided a refreshing outlook in Qatar with two giant killings against the European superhouses Germany and Spain.

Usually getting knocked out in the round of 16 is not celebrated as an especially impressive achievement but for Japan and coach Hajime Moriyasu it is an achievement that will live long in their memories.

Firstly, coach Moriyasu clearly came into the tournament with a settled formation in a 5-2-3 with the wingers either side of the striker coming inside, leaving the width to the wingbacks. As seen throughout the tournament Japan played with quick, crisp, short passes to break through the lines with central midfielders Ao Tanaka, Hidemasa Morita and Wataru Endo being key to this.

This allowed the team to play with freedom and fluidity throughout games, even against the big boys where Ritsu Doan, Juya Ito and Takuma Asano could cause havoc. 

One trait that is usually difficult to implement on the international stage is that of tactical stability. This is due to the little training period and the fact that national teams usually draw their player roster from a range of leagues and tactical systems.

However, Moriyasu did not encounter this problem and instilled a clear identity on the pitch. This was soaking up pressure and using fast players such as Ito and Asano to break after the robust Morita and Endo won the ball in the middle third.

Japan’s system is very high energy and this could be seen in the games against the big hitters where Japan would overwhelm their opponents in 10-15 minute spells and would then sit off and trust the experienced Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo and Takehiro Tomiyasu to snuff out opposition attacks.

For example, Japan scored both their goals against Spain in a ten-minute period after half time with Spain being completely outplayed after a dominant first half from La Roja.

In games against the big hitters of Germany and Spain, substitutions also made the difference. In the first group game vs Germany both Asano and Doan came on and scored both goals to give their side a 2-1 victory. And then in the last group game vs Spain, Doan came off the bench and struck again while Brighton winger Kaoru Mitoma made an impact by assisting Tanaka for the winner. Moriyasu clearly made these changes count and these winning decisions provided all six points in the ‘group of death’. Moriyasu used the new five substitutions rule expertly. 

Nowadays on the touchline, we see managers such as Jurgen Klopp and Mikel Arteta very animated but Moriyasu was Mr Composed throughout the World Cup, even in his sides defeats to Costa Rica and Croatia. This could be down to the fact that he holds his players in such trust.

Whether selecting the unfancied Shogo Taniguchi or Junya Ito instead of joint top qualification scorer Takuim Minamino, Moriyasu is clearly a manager who knows what he wants from his players. When announcing his 26-man squad Celtic fans were dismayed to hear both Kyogo Furuhashi and Reo Hatate were not on the plane but Moriyasu clearly made the right decisions as the players he trusted proved excellent throughout.

Japan are usually tagged as ‘technically excellent’ and this was no different in Qatar where they were capable of outplaying any team with the ball. However, Japan has been criticised in the past for not being physical enough in the big moments.

This changed in 2022 where midfield duo Endo and Morita dominated the midfield and the defensive line of Yoshida,Ko Itakura and Tomiyasu were excellent at matching their opponents both technically and physically such as the last 30 minutes vs Spain where they held on for a victory superbly. Work is still needed in this department further up the pitch though where Japan struggle to assert themselves.

It wasn’t just on the pitch that Japan inspired but also off it where the passionate Samurai Blue fans gained the following of the neutrals. Whether it was because of their amazing face paint and traditional outfits or helping the staff at the stadiums by cleaning up, the fans seem to always create a good relationship with the host country.

Although a simple gesture, when Japan were knocked out the players and coach bowed in the fans direction showing the tight bond between fans and the squad which nowadays is rare to find.

Looking ahead to the 2026 World Cup Japan will be confident of another impressive performance with young players such as Hiroko Ito and Takefuso Kubo coming through with a host of other young players in top European Leagues. With more coaching from Moriyasu and a little more luck, Japan could well be dark horses in four years time in North America.

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