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Japan’s midfield maestros: Yui Hasegawa and Fuka Nagano

Japan have been the team to watch so far at the World Cup and it’s the two midfielders at the heart of it all who make them so compelling to watch.

Japan v Panama - International Friendly Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images

If you haven’t already, find your local broadcaster showing the Women’s World Cup and look up every game that Japan has played so far. It’ll be worth the next 8 hours or so of your life.

With so many teams failing to live up to expectations (cough, Canada, Brazil, Germany, the USWNT), it’s been a breath of fresh air to see a team showcase every inch of their talent on the biggest stage around. Japan have the talent, speed, technique and tactical nous to trouble any team, and it’s no accident that they are now in the quarter-finals, after dismantling the likes of Spain and Norway on their journey.

In the engine room of Japan’s run to the quarter-finals are midfielders Fuka Nagano and Yui Hasegawa.

Japan v Norway: Round of 16 - FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Just like any great song that gets amplified with fantastic production, Hasegawa and Nagano have made “midfielding” look easy. They’ve faced opponents who’ve played three in midfield, two in midfield, one defensive midfielder and two attacking ones, you name it and they’ve seen it. Nothing has faced either of those players. Not the physicality of the role, not the understanding of their positioning in Futoshi Ikeda’s 3-4-3, nothing at all. They have matched up, and conquered, every midfield that has come their way and been able to provide an outlet for their backline to find whenever they’ve been under pressure. Whatever tactical style Ikeda has asked from them, they’ve answered and that’s why they’ve made watching them a joy to watch.

This is the performance breakdown of the two against their most recent opponents, Norway. First up, Hasegawa

For all the efficiency that Japan has shown in front of goal, none of that would’ve happened had Hasegawa not been there to provide the base of all of those attacks. Her passing was always with an aim to not only keep possession for Japan, but when needed, break the lines to find her wingbacks or forwards in the optimal spacing for them to create chances.

Fuka Nagano was just as effective and played in almost a mirrored way to Hasegawa.

Whether it was being responsible defensively, keeping the ball “ticking over” so to speak, or exploiting the gaps Norway left, Nagano continued to be the perfect foil for her midfield partner and the rest of her teammates as the game progressed.

It’s no surprise that Japan won that game. Not just because of how well they function as a unit but also because unlike Norway’s midfield, Hasegawa and Nagano understand their roles to perfection. They go out and execute the tactical plan their manager has handed to them with precision, desire and intelligence. When they’re asked to put a shift in, like Nagano did against Spain, they adapt easily and do exactly that. Their height doesn’t matter to them, they will go toe to toe with anyone in the world and so far, they’ve come out on top.

When they have to withdraw as a midfield pair, they are tactically sound. When they have to pick up their heads and find a teammate pushing forward into attack, they do so. When they have to slow the game down and dictate the tempo, they flip that switch with ease. It’s not just about being talented enough, any player at the World Cup is talented enough; it’s about then understanding your role on the pitch and using your talent to help your team win. Hasegawa and Nagano have done that since their first match at the World Cup.

Japan v Spain: Group C - FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Photo by Maja Hitij - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Their journey has been years in the making under Ikeda, and it must bring him and those in his coaching staff great satisfaction to see it all pay off over the last two weeks.

What makes Hasegawa and Nagano even more special as a tandem is they both understand when to drop and when to push forward, without ever leaving spaces behind them for their opponents to exploit. Japan’s system requires midfielders with almost unlimited energy and the football IQ to know when to slide that pass through for Jun Endo, or when to simply flip the ball back to Saki Kumagai. Yui Hasegawa and Fuka Nagano have shown what a two-player midfield can do, and if anyone out there wants to understand what a midfielder at the peak of their powers can do, look no further than these two. Hasegawa is 26 years old and Nagano is 24; Japan will have a fantastic midfield for many more years to come.

They now face another tough midfield battle against Sweden, who have veteran players that have been up against the best in the world. Japan seem to be the favourites going in but Sweden will not be pushovers. They will understand just how well Hasegawa and Nagano have played so far and will look to nullify them, knowing that taking them out of the game will give them a better chance of winning. However, if Hasegawa and Nagano continue on in this form, not even Sweden with all of their experience, will be able to stop them.