Japan 3-1 Denmark: two free-kicks settle the game
A straight play-off for the knockout rounds, with the draw favouring Japan. They didn’t need that safety net, and won the game convincingly.
Denmark made two changes. The ineffectual Jesper Gronkjaer was replaced with Thomas Kahlenburg, whilst Simon Kjaer’s suspension meant a rare start for Per Kroldrup. Japan were unchanged.
Denmark made a brilliant start to the game, and were dominating both in terms of possession and territory. Their basic formation was the same as against Cameroon, but the precise layout of the team was very different. The wide midfield players, Kahlenburg and Dennis Rommedahl, played much narrower, looking to link up with the central midfielders and retain possession in the centre. This, in turn, allowed the full-backs to maraud forward, with both Simon Poulsen and Lars Jacobsen getting into the final third within the first five minutes.
Therefore, Denmark effectively had a numerical advantage in the centre of midfield when the wide players came inside, and were able to retain possession easily. Their passing was excellent – slick, one-touch, flowing moves that was bypassing Japan’s midfield at will. Unfortunately, they struggled to find an angle for balls into the box, and their dominance was not transformed into genuine goalscoring opportunities.
Japan conservative early on
Japan started the game by sitting deep and soaking up pressure from Denmark. They defended reasonably narrow (partly as a result of the Danes being narrower than usual) and were fairly happy to deal with the hopeful balls Denmark lofted into the box – their two centre-backs had excellent games.
Of course, a draw was fine for Japan, which explains the difference in mentalities. A Japanese player was booked for timewasting after just 11 minutes, and another was booked on 25 minutes for the same reason. Both were slightly harsh, but it tells you a lot about the tempo Japan were looking to play the game at.
The biggest threat from Denmark came from the movement of Jon Dahl Tomasson, playing as a withdrawn striker. He nearly connected with a Poulsen cross in the first ten minutes, and soon after curled a low shot inches wide of the far post, from an inside-left possession after Yuichi Komano had been attracted to Kahlenburg high up the pitch.
The Danes won the Cameroon game because of the threat Rommedahl provided by running at Benoit Assou-Ekotto, but today Yuto Nagatomo did an excellent defensive job on him. He always gave himself a couple of yards’ head start to compensate for Rommedahl’s pace, and the fact Japan’s defence sat very deep meant playing balls into space was difficult anyway.
Japan were good defensively, and wonderfully fluid in the final third. The four most attacking players seemed to rotate at will – each ending up in dangerous positions, before returning to defend the zone nearest to where they ended up, rather than recovering to a specific position. In truth, they rarely threatened until they went ahead from a Keisuke Honda free-kick smashed in from a crazy angle. They doubled their advantage soon after through Yasuhito Endo’s free-kick from a closer position.
Not much about tactics in terms of those two goals – both from free-kicks – but Denmark brought it on themselves. Why? The post-game statistics reveal that Denmark conceded 23 free-kicks in the game, Japan conceded just 10. That’s a quite substantial difference, and highlights the risk with conceding free-kicks in dangerous positions.
In truth, it seemed like game over at 2-0. Denmark needed three and yet rarely looked like getting one. Morten Olsen took immediate action after the second goal, removing Martin Jorgensen (who was overrun in a central midfield role) and putting on Jakob Poulsen. In the second half, he went to three at the back with the addition of another forward, Soren Larsen. His last throw of the dice was Christian Eriksen, who showed good touches and went close to scoring, but Japan were fairly comfortable – even when Tomasson scored the rebound from his own saved penalty.
And Japan also started to get forward more, exploiting the space in Denmark’s defence and playing some tremendous football in the second half – almost as if they suddenly realised the pressure was off, and they could enjoy themselves. The technical quality of the forward players is very impressive, as is the ball retention in the centre of the pitch. The extremely deep role played by Yuki Abe gives the rest of the side freedom to get forward, and the likes of Endo and Honda were superb. When Japan scored their second, 2-0 was harsh on Denmark – but by the end, 3-1 was a fair reflection of the balance of play.
An enjoyable, open game played by two good technical sides. Japan deservedly win the game, and progress to an interesting-looking second round tie against Paraguay.
Olsen’s tactics throughout the tournament were largely very good. They contained Holland until a crazy mistake from Simon Poulsen, they defeated Cameroon by exploiting their opponents’ lopsided shape, and they had the better of the game here until the free-kicks went in. It is the last we’ll see on the world stage of the likes of Jorgensen, Rommedahl, Gronkjaer and Tomasson, who sum up Danish football well – technically-sound and tactically-intelligent players.
Japan, meanwhile, have really arrived. It’s the first time they’ve qualified from the group stage of the World Cup on foreign soil in their history, and they will be confident going into their game with Paraguay. They have the ability to dominate possession when they get the ball and defend resiliently when they don’t. They’ll be tricky to beat, and Takeshi Okada must be given a lot of credit for instilling discipline and belief into his players. He wasn’t particularly popular in Japan before this tournament, but he surely will be now.