Japan 2-2 United States (AET): Japan win their first ever Women’s World Cup
Japan came back from 1-0 and 2-1 down to triumph on penalties.
Norio Sasaki kept an unchanged team from the side which overcame Sweden in the semi-final.
Pia Sundhage made a couple of changes. Rachel Buehler replaced Becky Sauerbrunn at centre-back, and Megan Rapinoe came in for Amy Rodriguez, with Lauren Cheney moving upfront.
This was an entertaining game that took a strange pattern – Japan dominated possession (53%) but had significantly fewer attempts on goal (14 to 27), and the US are the side who will feel they should have won the game in normal time.
The tactical battle here was, on paper, very simple. Two 4-4-2s – with some modifications – lined up against each other, and that was broadly how the formations remained for the entire game. This not inherently a very tactical battle.
However, this produced a very open game, even if the scoreline at the end of normal time doesn’t reflect the number of chances. The key factor was the positioning of the wide players – although they sometimes picked each other up when the ball was dead, as attacks formed the battles were more frequently wingers v full-backs than wingers v wingers, and with neither side having a spare man at the back, any quick passing combinations that bypassed an opponent, or any runs on the ball that beat a single player, often resulted in chances.
Japan’s wide players came inside and tried to move into the ‘red zone’ in the centre between the US lines of midfield and defence, and in that respect they played a little like Villarreal. They also benefited from the movement into deep areas of Kozue Ando, who was involved in more good link-up play than either of the US forwards.
That showed the contrast in styles in this match. Japan were much more patient, favouring slow build-up play and clever through-balls towards the forwards. The US were more direct, and had a more obvious and successful gameplan, to hit Japan with pace and power. They had a decent chance in the opening minute through Cheyney, who exploited the lack of pace in the Japanese backline (in particular, Izusa Iwashimizu), which was a dangerous tactic when playing so high up the pitch.
Cheney’s intelligent runs into the channels were very dangerous, and it was a slight surprise when she was replaced by perennial supersub Alex Morgan at half time, especially when Sundhage had the option of pushing Cheney to the left of midfield to accommodate Morgan upfront.*
It turned out to be an inspired move, however, because Morgan was the game’s best player for the final 75 minutes of the match. Just as Cheney had threatened from balls over the top early on, Morgan’s goal was another simple situation with sheer pace getting past a high line, only this time with an emphatic finish.
The presence of only four central midfielders meant that this area of the pitch was open for forward runs. Carli Lloyd broke forward to have numerous (generally inaccurate) shots from the edge of the box early on, whilst Japanese captain Homare Sawa grew in stature as the game went on – she drove the side forward, with Mizuho Sakaguchi playing a more disciplined holding role alongside her.
For a side so intent to play pretty football, it was something of a surprise that Japan got their equaliser purely through sheer panic in the US defence, and a scrappy finish from Aya Miyama, who had come inside into a goalscoring position. Sasaki deserves credit for encouraging his wide players into the middle of the pitch – the knock-on effect was that the full-backs had space to motor into, and were more of a force in the game than the US full-backs, who remained more conservative. In fact, the way Japan shuffled across the pitch to create space for their overlapping full-backs was very similar to the way their men’s side shifted to create space for Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo at this year’s Asian Cup, which they also won.
Extra time was more balanced than normal time, with the US’ dominance less obvious. Fitness levels started to come into the equation, and with Japan much better at retaining the ball and tiring the US players, they looked more confident.
The key player was still Morgan, however. She produced two good crosses from the left flank in succession, the second of which was headed in by Wambach. This was another dimension Morgan provided – she is left-footed and could move across to that flank and deliver good balls into the box, something that had happened relatively rarely considering the wingers were coming inside.
Japan’s second equaliser came from a corner, converted by Sawa – but that corner was won by another great forward run from right-back Yukari Kinga, demonstrating the importance of bringing full-backs into play.
Morgan still could have been the hero – an excellent run from the right channel put her through on goal, and but for Iwashimizu denying her a clear goalscoring opportunity with a foul, it could have been 3-2. That was in the 120th minute, fully 120 minutes after Iwashimizu had first looked troubled by pace. It went to penalties, where Japan were much more composed.
Overall this game was relatively uninteresting tactically – two 4-4-2s. The more specific aspects of the game provided more excitement – particularly the introduction of Morgan (the only brave decision either manager took in the 120 minutes), which changed the game and should have been enough for the US to take victory.
*edit: Cheney was actually injured, thanks BillJapan 2-2 United States (AET): Japan win their first ever Women’s World Cup