Hajime Moriyasu’s side upset the odds in beating the two football giants – with five World Cups between them – to finish top of Group E and set up a seemingly winnable last-16 tie with Croatia.
Key to their success was their ability to sit deep, made viable by their impressive backline, and hit the over-exposed sides on the break.
Indeed, such was the players’ ability to carry out their coach’s instructions, Japan broke the record for the lowest amount of possession held by a winning team in any World Cup fixture since 1966.
Their 18 percent possession of Spain outstripped South Korea’s 26 percent against Germany in 2018 and their own 27 percent against the same opposition in their Group E opener.
Forced to sit back and contain Spain for much of the first half, Japan trailed at the break thanks to a header from Alvaro Morata, notching his third goal in three games – seemingly ensuring his side finished top of the group.
However, coming out for the second half, Moriyasu made him – now – customary changes and Japan emerged out of their shell to leave Spain’s players dumbfounded and fearful of their place in the next round.
Ritsu Doan, introduced at half-time alongside Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma, got Japan level just after the break with a lashed left-footed effort that was too powerful for Unai Simon in the Spain goal.
With their tails up and knowing Germany was likely to defeat Costa Rica, Japan pressed for another, and three minutes after their equalizer they had it through Ao Tanaka. The controversy surrounding their second – was the ball over the line or wasn’t it – took away from the astonishing nature of their achievement.
Needing to protect their lead, Japan retreated back into their customary low block with Shogo Taniguchi, Maya Yoshida, and Kou Itakura being joined by Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu to form a solid base that Spain, for all their possession, could not penetrate.
Japan’s 27 percent of the ball against Germany had seemed impressive, but sinking to 18 percent has left many wondering how low can Japan go with their low block in attempting to keep their opponents at bay.
Spain, meanwhile, was on the receiving end of another shock result that stemmed from a team in essence refusing to hold onto the ball when Switzerland beat them 1-0 at the start of the 2010 World Cup. Ottmar Hitzfeld’s side enjoyed just 27.12 percent of the ball that day.
Saudi Arabia’s famous victory over Argentina in Qatar last month completes the five lowest totals, with Herve Renard’s side recording just 31 percent possession.
According to dailymail