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May
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Pressure points

Japan just about made it through to the last 16 at the U20 World Cup, but Atsushi Uchiyama’s players could learn a thing or two from their English counterparts when it comes to dealing with pressure… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Tribe, 29th May 2017

Dealing with, overcoming, and working out how to actually benefit from pressure should be the key lessons the Japan players are trying to learn from their exploits at the Under 20 World Cup, currently underway in South Korea.

Atsushi Uchiyama’s side started each of their three group games slowly, conceding first against South Africa, Uruguay, and Italy, before going on to have the better of things as each game wore on, ultimately claiming four points to set up a Round of 16 clash against Venezuela in Daejeon on Tuesday.

The players have so far struggled to find a rhythm when things are finely poised in the opening exchanges of games and any error could prove costly, before settling into their groove once behind and safe in the knowledge they have nothing to lose.

“Once we were 2-0 down we had no option but to go for it,” Takehiro Tomiyasu said after the side’s 2-2 draw with Italy in Cheonan on Saturday night.

“I think we would be able to do even better if we could play with the mentality to challenge from the very start at 0-0, before we have fallen into the situation of being 2-0 behind and so having nothing to lose.”

The only way to acclimatise yourself to pressure in order to be able to do that against the best players in the world is by subjecting yourself to it as often as possible, and too many of the Japan players find themselves in situations that are far too comfortable.

Compare the 21 players representing Japan at this year’s competition to their counterparts from England, for instance.

While the majority of the Japan side are settled in their roles in the orderly hierarchies of their J.League clubs – either as starters or back-ups – the English players are scrapping every day, whether that be by trying to get past a world class player in a Premier League first team or being sent out on loan to a lower league club to try and prove their worth.

That daily grind serves to produce tougher, more resolute personalities, and after the Three Lions guaranteed progression as Group A winners after beating hosts South Korea 1-0 last Friday the Chelsea centre-back Fikayo Tomori offered an insight into the psychology of the team.

South Korea v. England, Suwon, 26th May 2017

“Some of us have played in stadiums with 20,000 or 30,000 people but today was 35,000 or 40,000 or something like that and being against the home nation it was a different sort of experience for us,” the 19-year-old, who made his Chelsea debut on the last day of the 2015-16 Premier League season and then spent the second half of last season on loan at Championship side Brighton and Hove Albion, said. “Obviously no-one (in the stadium) really wanted us to win and I think we dealt with it well.”

The relish with which the England players embraced the challenge set before them by the 35,279 Red Devils fans in Suwon contrasted against Japan’s tentative approach in their games, and Tomori’s Chelsea teammate Dominic Solanke added some further insight into the determination bred by developing in such a high-pressure environment.

“A lot of other teams (at the U20 World Cup) will have confidence as well (as a result of) playing in their home countries, and some of the (national) teams train together quite a lot more than we do, but it definitely helps us getting that experience with the men back in England.”

‘The men’ was a revealing choice of words. The players currently competing in South Korea are still ‘boys’, and the challenge for all of them is to develop into men as quickly as possible in order to be able to shoulder the expectations of their nations’ fans over the coming years.

These are the players Japan will be competing against at Asian Cups and World Cups for the next decade or so, and in order to go toe-to-toe with them it is vital that more Japanese players further their development in the same environments as their rivals – and that means looking to move overseas as early as possible.

“We can’t gain anything from going into games against any sides thinking we will lose, and if you have that mentality then you won’t win games,” Tomiyasu, currently a regular under former Japan captain Masami Ihara at J2’s Avispa Fukuoka, said. “I want for us and for Japanese football to always be challenging to win.”

That mentality has to be backed up with action. Japan showed they have at least as much, if not more, natural ability than their Italian opponents at the weekend, and the country’s next generation of players now need to take themselves out of their comfort zone if they are to keep pace with, and then outdo, their counterparts around the world over the coming years.

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