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Japan: Team Preview - 2014 FIFA World Cup

Japan: Team Preview - 2014 FIFA World Cup

Japan national football team

The World Cup is just around the corner, and before we welcome the month-long extravaganza, let’s take a detailed look at one of the tournament’s regulars – Japan. 

Japanese football has come a very long way from the days of corporate amateur football which was prevalent until the end of the 1980s. A long-term development plan, which included a new professional league, bore fruit very quickly. Football became hugely popular and the national team started to benefit too. A first triumph at the Asian Cup came in 1992, followed by an agonising miss at qualification for the 1994 World Cup. Four years later, the Blue Samurai made it to their first World Cup in France, and since then they haven’t looked back. Japan has seen its representatives improve by leaps and bounds. Today, the bulk of Japan’s favoured first XI ply their trades in top European leagues and the national team is a force to be reckoned with. 

Brazil 2014 will be the fifth straight World Cup for Japan, and coach Alberto Zaccheroni’s men will be looking to improve on their performance from four years ago.

Road to World Cup

Japan had a fairly easy ride to the final stages, like they did for the last edition of the World Cup. As per AFC’s seeding procedure, Japan received a bye to the third round of qualification where they were placed in Group  C along with Uzbekistan, North Korea and Tajikistan. They had to dig deep to win their first match, with a 94th minute Maya Yoshida goal giving them victory against North Korea. This was followed by a 1-1 draw away to Uzbekistan. But thrashing Tajikstan home and away 8-0 and 4-0 respectively meant that they qualified for the next round with two games to spare.

In the fourth round, Japan were drawn into a relatively easy group, alongside Australia, Jordan, Iraq and Oman with two automatic qualifying spots up for grabs. Jordan was the only team that defeated them in this phase but it didn’t put any dents in Japan’s World Cup hopes. They qualified for the World Cup finals after drawing 1-1 at home against Australia, with one match left to play; they finished on top of the final standings, four points clear of the Aussies. 

The team scored 30 goals and conceded 8 over the total 14 qualifying matches split between two rounds. Shinji Okazaki was Japan’s top scorer during qualifying with 8 goals. Keisuke Honda chipped in with five goals while Shinji Kagawa and Ryoichi Maeda scored four each.

Squad

Keeper Eiji Kawashima has been brilliant as ever and looks set to be first-choice. At left-back is Yuto Nagatomo, who was named in Arsene Wenger’s best XI for the 2010 World Cup. Maya Yoshida has only played 8 league matches this season for Southampton with injury taking its toll, but he still made it the team for Brazil as Zaccheroni kept faith in his experience. His partner in defence is Yasuyuki Konno, one of only three players in the first XI who play in the J-League. Right-back Atsuto Uchida is still on his way to full fitness after missing the second half of Schalke’s season through injury. 

The two defensive midfielders are Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo. Captain Hasebe is the tireless engine man, but the former Bundesliga winner injured his knee last December while playing for Nurnberg and was laid-off for four months. He has since returned to action but his form is still a matter of doubt. Japan’s most-capped player Endo is widely regarded as one of Asia’s best midfielders, despite never playing abroad. Ahead of these two, there is the trio of Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki – arguably the main stars of the team. AC Milan’s Honda and Manchester United‘s Kagawa have had unimpressive seasons with their clubs but both of them will hope to leave club form aside when they put on their national jerseys. Okazaki, on the other hand, will be hoping otherwise after an excellent season with Mainz in the Bundesliga, scoring 15 goals. The main battle for places in the team will likely be up front, where Kakitani is tipped to start, after an impressive East Asian Cup. 

One of the most notable absentess is striker Mike Havenaar who scored in the qualifiers but unfortunately missed out on the flight to Brazil, along with Ryiochi Maeda, Hajime Hosogai and Takashi Inui.

Full-back Gotoku Sakai is the youngest member of the squad aged 23. Speaking of age, the average age of the squad is 26.7, which indicates a not-so-young team but Zaccheroni will be hoping that it won’t haunt him. 

Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege), Shusaku Nishikawa (Urawa Red Diamonds), Shuichi Gonda (FC Tokyo)

Defenders: Masahiko Inoha (Jubilo Iwata), Yasuyuki Konno (Gamba Osaka), Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Masato Morishige (FC Tokyo), Atsuto Uchida (Schalke), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Hannover), Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart)

Midfielders: Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka), Makoto Hasebe (Nuremberg), Toshihiro Aoyama (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Nuremberg), Keisuke Honda (AC Milan), Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United)

Forwards: Yoshito Okubo (Kawasaki Frontale), Shinji Okazaki (Mainz), Yoichiro Kakitani (Cerezo Osaka), Manabu Saito (Yokohama F Marinos), Yuya Osako (1860 Munich)

Coach

Alberto Zaccheroni, coach of Japan

Alberto Zaccheroni is a well-known figure in Italian football having coached some of the top clubs in the country, such as Milan, Juventus, Inter, Lazio and Udinese. He won a Scudetto with Milan in 1999, which remains his only club title so far. He is known for his very own unconventional 3-4-3 formation, that he used in most of his teams. He took charge of Japan after the 2010 World Cup, and within six months he led the Japanese team to their fourth Asian Cup title. The East Asian Cup followed in 2013. 

He has had a great record in friendlies, with Japan defeating Argentina, France and Belgium while they also drew with the Netherlands. He has managed Japan in 54 games, winning 32, drawing 11 and losing 11. That translates to a win percentage of 59.26%. Zaccheroni is hugely popular in Japan and has been credited for making good tactical use of the players he has at his disposal. If he continues in the same vein, he may be on his way to gaining a place in Japanese football folklore.

Formation and Tactics

Since Zaccheroni’s arrival, Japan have mostly played with a basic 4-2-3-1 system. But this isn’t very rigid, especially in attack and on many occasions it appears like a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree, the coach’s old favourite 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 formation. 

Japan's 4-2-3-1 formation

This is a setup that Japan thrives in. The key man is Keisuke Honda; he may not be on top of his game with Milan, but he is at his imperious best for Japan. Honda orchestrates play from the playmaker position and is assisted by the two Shinjis – Kagawa and Okazaki from either side. Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp may feel that Kagawa is suited best for a central position, but the little maestro has also impressed for Japan when playing from the left.

His ability to create chances out of nowhere is phenomenal and he will be crucial in dominating possession along with Honda.  But he isn’t a winger, like his namesake on the other side. Kagawa and Okazaki both interchange with Honda during different attacks, often to great effect. Okazaki, who is a natural striker, drifts inside to attempt shots and also gets in the box well to connect with crosses. As seen from his 15-goal season with Mainz, his sense of positioning is lethal and opposition defenders will have a hard task trying to stop him getting in.

Up front is the new boy Kakitani, who was the top scorer at the East Asian Cup last year. He is an attacking midfielder, but has played as striker this season for his club Cerezo Osaka and under Zaccheroni. He is great with the ball at his feet and makes good runs off the ball too. He will have to coordinate his movement well with the trio behind to finish off attacks.

Deeper into midfield, the Endo – Hasebe duo will key to both attack and defence. With a lot of experience playing alongside each other, the two combine well to break up opposition attacks and then feed the ball up front. It is their presence that lets the Kagawa-Honda-Okazaki trio roam freely in attack. Their defensive performance will be important too, as they have to cover a suspect centre-back pairing which is leaky at times. Endo is the more creative of the two, with his ball playing abilities adding to the chance-creating potential of the midfield. Hasebe’s tireless running will be used by Zaccheroni to cover the holes in the centre of the park. Sometimes Japan also has Honda dropping back deep to create a 2-1 in midfield.

The centre-back pairing of Yoshida and Konno is, as mentioned above, not the best feature of the team but the two full-backs have been great, especially when going up. Inter Milan left back Nagatomo’s darting runs and crossing ability is yet another aspect of Japan’s attack that will trouble the opposition. Uchida on the right has also done well when attacking for his club team, but Zaccheroni’s instructions mean that only one of them attacks at a time. However, in the Asian Cup final in 2011, Zaccheroni brought in an additional centre back in place of a midfielder, which gave both Nagatomo and Uchida the license to bolt forward. This gave the team a 3-4-3 look. There are also occasions when Okazaki drifts in and forms what seems like a strike combination with Kakitani, and either Nagatomo or Uchida goes up. The team thus moves into a 3-5-2 system. 

Overall, Japan’s greatest strength is its ability to keep posession and dictate play. Their brand of one-touch attacking football has impressed many including the late Bruno Metsu, who called them the Barcelona of Asia. The play is often at a high tempo when Japan attack with the opposition defenders left confused by the fluid movement and quick one-twos. The crossing from the two overlapping full-back provide a secondary outlet for the attack. Japan are also dangerous from set-pieces with both Honda and Endo equally adept at drilling free kicks in and sending pin point crosses. Defensively, they press well, but at times, a high defensive line has caused Japan problems. 

Best Starting XI

Striker Maeda will be the only change from Zaccheroni’s preferred first XI, after surprisingly missing out on the final 23-man squad. Apart from that, the first XI remains almost unchanged from the qualification clinching game against Australia. Although Zaccheroni has experimented with some youngsters, this will probably be the way the Blue Samurai line up in Brazil with Yoichiro Kakitani the one most likely to take Maeda’s place.

Japan's Best Starting XI
Japan’s Best Starting XI

History at the World Cup

Japan’s record at the World Cup has been quite good, considering the fact that the country’s professional league is only two decades old. In their debut in 1998, Japan went home after losing all three of their group games. Masashi Nakayama did, however, manage to score his country’s first World Cup goal in the final group game against Jamaica.

2002 saw the World Cup come to Asia as Japan co-hosted it with South Korea. Japan made history by topping their group and advancing to the Round of 16, where they lost out to eventual semi-finalists Turkey. Four years later, Japan qualified for the World Cup in Germany and found themselves in a group containing Brazil, Croatia and Australia. They crashed out in the first stage itself, garnering only one point.

The 2010 World Cup was arguably the scene of Japan’s best World Cup performance till date. Keisuke Honda and Co. led the Blue Samurai to the Round of 16 for the second time, where they met Paraguay. If it was not for an unfortunate penalty shooutout loss to the South Americans, Japan would have faced Spain in the quarterfinals.

Japan's record at the World Cup

YEAR RESULT
1930 Did not enter
1934 Did not enter
1938 Withdrew
1950 Banned
1954 – 1994 Did not enter/qualify
1998 Group stage
2002 Round of 16
2006 Group stage
2010 Round of 16

Best performance in a World Cup

The Japanese players look on in despair during the penalty shootout with Paraguay
in their Round of 16 match at the 2010 World Cup

Japan have only progressed from the group stages in 2002 and 2010, and to pick one out of them I’d say their show in South Africa would come out on top.

After the 2006 debacle, Japanese fans weren’t sure if they could play well outside Japan. Come 2010, Japan went to South Africa with less optimism; nobody really expected a good performance from a team that didn’t emanate any kind of confidence.  They were placed in Group E alongside the Netherlands, Denmark and Cameroon. A tough group meant that gloom was the order of the day. 

The vague words of coach Takeshi Okada did little to lift hopes of fans. Okada went into the tournament saying that his young and inexperienced Japanese team would reach the semifinals; he had become a laughingstock in footballing circles. Defeats in friendlies and fan petitions against him added to the tension. However, Okada remained defiant and confident.

Enter the World Cup, and Japan stunned even many of their fans with a 1-0 win over Cameroon – their first World Cup victory away from home. ‘Honda’ was the name on everyone’s lips as the blond-haired talent’s goal sent Japan to victory. The Netherlands brought them down with a narrow 1-0 defeat in their next group game but Japan bounced back in style with a superb 3-1 triumph over Denmark. Two brilliant freekicks, one each by Honda and Endo, and an Okazaki goal meant that Japan qualified for the Round of 16, thus matching their achievement from 2002.

Paraguay lay in wait for them in the next round. In a tense match, the teams fought it out over 120 minutes but failed to score. In the ensuing shootout of luck, Japan went down and the players went down in tears. As the Paraguayans celebrated, the young warriors of the Blue Samurai contemplated on what could have been. A win would have given them a historic place in the quarter finals and a match-up with Spain, but it was not to be.

However, they had a lot to be proud of. A young team exceeded many expectations to punch well above their weight and get within touching distance of a dream quarterfinal. Those days in South Africa will not be forgotten any time soon – even if they go one better in Brazil.

Prediction

After the 2010 World Cup, there is genuine optimism in the Japanese ranks for an even better showing this time around. Japan have been placed in Group C, along with Greece, Colombia and Ivory Coast. At first glance, the pool doesn’t seem as difficult as the one four years ago, but Japan will still have to fear their opponents. All three teams will be tough nuts to crack.

That said, Japan has enough quality in their squad to get out of this group. What happens then onward is quite difficult to predict as they will most likely face either Italy, England or Uruguay in the Round of 16. Japan surely aren’t pushovers and optimists can hope for a quarter final but a round of 16 exit once again seems to be the most probable result. Teams like Uruguay and Italy could break open Japan’s inconsistent defence quite easily. But If Zaccheroni can fix that, using some of his Italian know-how, who knows what could happen? 

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