Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
On a thrilling night in Rostov, Japan’s traditional dead-ball frailty ultimately proved the Samurai Blue’s undoing. But let not Belgium’s thrilling turnaround paper over the yawning cracks in the Red Devils ranks. Doubts have long lingered about Roberto Martinez’s system; specifically its ability to withstand top-class attacks. And those doubts were confirmed here in spades, despite Belgium’s eventual progression.
Belgium’s main weakness under Martinez, the shoddy defensive transitions over which he presides, is no secret. In fact, Kevin de Bruyne put his own reservations on the pbulic record last November after a similarly madcap 3-3 draw with Mexico.
Commenting on how El Tri‘s 4-2-3-1 swamped his side in midfield, de Bruyne admitted: “Mexico were tactically just better than us.”
“They pushed our wing-backs back and we were swimming in midfield,” the midfielder continued. If it sounds familiar, it should: as we just witnessed Akira Nishino’s 4-2-3-1 perform the very same feat.
Nishino’s high-press was the main driver of success, in this regard. All four forwards barred the way to Belgium’s three centre-backs. And any resultant pass into de Bruyne’s feet triggered the tireless Gaku Shibasaki to press the Manchester City playmaker.
As such, Belgium’s build-up play was completely disrupted in the first-half. And, although the favourites enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, only Japan offered a genuine final-third threat.
Unfortunately, Nishino missed a trick by instructing his players — mainly captain Makato Hasebe — to play immediate diagonals for Japan’s wingers to run onto. And, while those diagonals did force a chance-creating error apiece from both Thomas Meunier and Yannick Carrasco, this directness wasted the space either side of Belgium’s holding midfield duo.
With the Red Devils wing-backs pinned back and set, long balls pinged over their heads were a tough ask for the likes of Takashi Inui. The thrilling Eibar attacker would have been much better served probing in the inside-left pocket, left unmanned by Dries Mertens. So, too, Japan’s right-winger Genki Haraguchi, whose usual wide positioning seemed counter-productive.
Martinez, therefore, escaped punishment for brazenly defending with two players in front of his defence. Or, rather, one-and-a-half players, given de Bruyne’s natural attack-minded tendencies.
Happily for Nishino, however, the other obvious chink in Belgium’s armour — the wing-backs’ inapt abandon — was ruthlessly exploited by Japan at the start of the second-half. Inui intercepted a pass to Meunier on Belgium’s right. Carrasco, caught way upfield, duly watched Inui play Genki Haraguchi in down Jan Vertonghen’s wide-open channel. The Tottenham man erred in committing himself, but structural flaws wrought the initial damage.
As they did for Japan’s quickfire second, when Axel Witsel’s isolation in front of his defence saw Shinji Kagawa claim a second-ball. The Dortmund number-10, linkman par excellence here, then teed up Inui to his left, with de Bruyne caught on camera walking back into position.
Two goals conceded: one in behind the wing-backs, the other between the lines. All the experts’ reservations about Martinez came to fruition in one astonishing five-minute spell. But more taking of breath was to follow, as Japan’s own Achilles heel — a marked vulnerability to crosses and height — took its toll in dramatic fashion.
Credit, here, goes to Martinez for the introduction of Marouane Fellaini. Few midfielders in world football are as adept at positioning themselves advantageously for high-balls into the box. And Meunier’s growing prominence down the right, as Japan sat deeper and allowed the wing-back forward, hinted at potential glory. Romelu Lukaku had already nipped ahead of Maya Yoshida to head a Meunier cross wide, for example.
No surprise, then, that both of Belgium’s first two goals came from corners. Nor was it a shock to see a Meunier byline cross win the first one. Nor, indeed, was anyone disturbed to see Eiji Kawashima drop his third goalkeeping clanger of the tournament prior to Vertonghen’s headed lob. Nor, finally, was anyone surprised in the slightest to see Fellaini tower above his marker to equalise from an Eden Hazard delivery.
Hazard’s corner was won after Belgium broke from one of Japan’s own — a grim harbinger of what was to come, as the Red Devils did it again with the last act of the game. Meunier had already seen Nacer Chadli foiled from yet another right-wing cross that Japan failed to deal with.
But the PSG man was finally rewarded with a highly-merited assist at the death, teeing up Chadli again after de Bruyne’s driving run. Japan, out on their feet after their early pressing exertions, were simply overrun. Belgium and Martinez, therefore, advance. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Brazil, surely, will mete out their long-awaited reckoning.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112