With less than a week to go until the 2014 World Cup gets under way in Brazil, J-League expert Dave Phillips has an in-depth at look Group C hopefuls Japan, analysing the squad in detail in all areas of the pitch as well as taking a look at likely tactics and the country’s prospects of progression in the tournament. He starts with a look at the manager.
Following a painful and lengthy search in which a number of candidates including Manuel Pellegrini rejected the opportunity to lead the Samurai Blue after the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Alberto Zaccheroni was appointed to the position in September 2010. His first official game in charge a month later resulted in Japan’s first ever victory over Argentina, one which came at the seventh time of asking against such lofty opposition. The 1-0 triumph in Saitama is in many ways the touchstone for the Samurai Blue under the aegis of the 61-year-old Italian, providing both a demonstration of Japan’s attacking flair and ability to beat sides of the highest calibre, but equally now an example of a conservatism in selection policy which threatens to undermine Japan’s chances of progression in Brazil.
Assuming that certain key players will have returned to full fitness after lay-offs through injuries, of the eleven who lined-up against and outperformed a side possessing the talents of Messi, Tevez, Higuain and Mascherano, a minimum of eight will take to the field in Recife on 14 June in Japan’s opening fixture versus Ivory Coast. Such consistency in selection need not ordinarily be an issue. Those eight players at the time had an average age of 24.8, and, particularly for a manager taking a team to the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, and for the next cycle of World Cup qualifying matches and finals tournament, it is sensible to build and develop a team around a core group of talented players, and the squad to be deepened based upon that team’s identity. However, in his general selection for friendlies and competitive fixtures, Zaccheroni has afforded established and emerging talent little opportunity to demonstrate their worth, including at least two players whose names will likely be inked on the team sheet come Japan’s opening World Cup fixture versus Ivory Coast on 14 June. Zaccheroni has pointed previously to confirming finals qualification as a more important aim than experimentation, but in having achieved qualification with 25 starters, he effectively left the trials for alternative players to the EAFF East Asian Cup. A B-level tournament of just three matches for which those on the periphery of the full senior team and young talent was named to a squad, it does not present the most ideal of proving grounds nor the most realistic competitive environment, particularly for those who were limited to one appearance Still, that six of those whose Japan debuts came in the EAFF competition have graduated to the Brazil squad – Toshihiro Aoyama, Yoichiro Kakitani, Masato Morishige, Yuya Osako, Manabu Saito and Hotaru Yamaguchi – suggests Zaccheroni is deserving of praise. However that none have not only very limited full international experience but no senior international qualification stage or finals experience means his previous conservatism poses some risks, especially when the possibility of a starting position for some is very real and yet their ability to perform at the very highest levels is entirely unknown. Most odd was Zaccheroni’s claim in December 2013 that 63 players were on a list as candidates for the squad. Having only started 53 players since October 2010, a number which reduces further still to just 25 who made a starting eleven in the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign or 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, it suggested a manager more stung by criticism of the limited evolution of his squad, rather than a serious indication of how many players were under real consideration for inclusion.
The likelihood is that the World Cup will prove his last in charge of Japan, with Espanyol’s Javier Aguirre a touted replacement, according to Spain’s AS. A head coach who began in such triumphant fashion, beating Argentina in his first official game in charge and winning the 2011 AFC Asian Cup despite having lost his starting and reserve central defenders to injury among others before the tournament began, and who then saw several more outfield players unable to participate as the competition went on, came under fire from a number of columnists and commentators in Japan as the side began to falter last year. Some called for his sacking, referencing AFC rivals South Korea and Australia, who brought in Hong Myung-bo and Ange Postecoglou respectively having qualified for the tournament. Although there are issues with the methodology, most notably in relation to how it affects nations hosting tournaments, the downward slide in the official FIFA Rankings is nevertheless a reasonable reflection of Zaccheroni’s time at the helm. What began with Japan ascending to one of its highest positions in the history of the rankings – Takeshi Okada being the only coach to help the team to higher than thirteenth place – culminated in February this year with the side slipping to its lowest ranking in over a decade, a fiftieth position last achieved by Philippe Troussier in 2000.
Zaccheroni’s tenure has now covered forty-two months. For the first 21 he averaged and merited 21.38. The latter period however averages a decidedly more gloomy 35.86, a decline which corresponds to a noticeable drop-off in performances. Still, Zaccheroni’s success or failure in his reign will partly be determined by whether he is able to emulate certain of his predecessors in reaching the World Cup knockout stages, and would surpass them should Japan reach the quarter-finals for the first time in Japan’s history. The fourth victory in six Asian Cups since 1992 was highly creditable, particularly given the squad constraints imposed upon him, but Zaccheroni is now afforded the luxury of several squad members genuinely starring in major European league competition, unlike all those who went before him. Moreover, compared to 2011, Zaccheroni heads to Brazil with his first choice squad and accordingly very few excuses.
Yuto Nagatomo has benefitted from a largely injury-free season in Italy, and failed to make an appearance in just four of his side’s Serie A games. Six assists and five goals made this the most productive of his seasons in terms of headline figures, and a key factor for Japan will be his ability to create chances when overlapping as an attacking left full-back. The 27 year-old former FC Tokyo player created chances at a rate of 1.33 per 90 minutes for Internazionale, and while there will be more focus on defensive duties compared to his less restricted role for his club, particularly in a backline which continues to be as brittle as Japan’s, his dynamism and ability to run beyond the attacking midfield and provide the kind of left-footed cross which set up Tadanari Lee’s sublime volleyed winner in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup final, and more recently that delivered with his right boot to Mauro Icardi in April’s 2-2 draw with Bologna, will almost certainly prove of consequence to Japan’s creative and goalscoring output. A slight knee complaint sustained in the 1-0 defeat of Cyprus appears not to be of great cause for concern, as Nagatomo made a substitute appearance in the 3-1 victory over Puerto Rico.
Shinji Kagawa’s struggles to adapt to life at Manchester United are well-documented, but these are partly frustrations borne more widely by a squad and club suffering from the retirement of one of world football’s greatest and most successful managers, and the subsequent installation of a grossly inadequate replacement. The former Borussia Dortmund star in particular was stifled this season by the tactical limitations of David Moyes, deployed frequently as an orthodox left-wing and often found passing backwards and sideways within a team both predictable in its methods and set-up not to lose, a departure from Alex Ferguson’s commitment to attacking, attractive football. Just 34% of Kagawa’s completed passes in the Premier League were sent forwards to a teammate, compared to the 45% of FC Nürnberg’s Hiroshi Kiyotake, who operated with some distinction this season in both a role on the right flank and in the central playmaking role that Kagawa so desires at Old Trafford. Nonetheless, the incisive, deft and elusive figure who performed so admirably in the Bundesliga under Jurgen Klopp, a manager capable of adapting his own system to suit the skill and improvisation of intelligent players, remains a guaranteed selection for the starting eleven, and it is in expectation rather than mere hope that he will produce moments of excellence such as the poised, composed, swivelled volley versus Italy in the 2013 Confederations Cup.
Keisuke Honda, the fulcrum of the Japan side, is another to have had difficulty translating his game to a different league and country. A pivotal part of CSKA Moscow’s league and cup successes, a childhood dream was to play in Serie A and after protracted negotiations he signed for AC Milan in October 2013, joining at the end of the Russian season. It has been a largely forgettable season for the 27 year old, Honda recognising his displays didn’t meet his own standards and those of the i Rossoneri support in admitting that the “Honda they have seen is not the real Honda”. There are, however, some mitigating circumstances. As with Kagawa, he has seen managerial change and been moved to unfamiliar positions, particularly under Clarence Seedorf, who attempted to slot him into both defensive midfield and right-midfield roles, away from the central attacking midfield and playmaking role he describes as being in his DNA. As a club there have been few creditable performers at the San Siro in the club’s worst league finish since the 1997-98 season. The conflicting Russian and Italian football calendars may have also proven detrimental, Honda not being the beneficiary of a summer without football compared to his peers, and his recuperation period being limited almost entirely to Serie A’s winter break. Where the national side is concerned, Honda’s least impressive performances are often in turn the side’s most lacklustre, half-hearted displays, where there has been little riding on the outcome. Too frequently a self-indulgent, complacent passenger in friendlies where the opposition and result has little to no meaning, Honda typically for and measures and assesses himself against the world’s best, and it is competitive, tournament football that reveals the “real Honda” to the world.
In stark contrast to Kagawa and Honda, Shinji Okazaki is less recognised but in 2013-14 at least is worthy of more acclaim. An equally valuable member of Japan’s first choice attacking midfield triumvirate, the 28 year-old former Shimizu S-Pulse star has had an enormously successful league campaign, scoring 15 goals for Mainz 05, a prime factor behind the Bundesliga club’s second-best league finish in history and snaring a Europa League play-off berth, while breaking Kagawa’s record for the most number of league goals by a Japanese player. Underscoring his contribution in 2013-14 is that, of Bundesliga players to find the net on a minimum of 15 occasions, his shots to goal conversion ratio was higher than some of his more illustrious peers including Borussia Dortmund’s Marco Reus and Robert Lewandowski, while only Mario Mandzukic at Bayern Munich proved more accurate in placing a greater percentage of his shots on target.
Beyond his very creditable goalscoring record domestically and a return of 38 goals in 73 international appearances, Okazaki’s work-rate and commitment to defensive duties is telling. In the 4-3 loss to Italy at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, a match in which Japan’s verve delighted many, Okazaki dispossessed Andrea Pirlo on a number of occasions deep inside in his own half. It is not only his goals but his all-round contribution which guarantees his selection in the team.
A superb shot-stopper with excellent reactions at his best, Eiji Kawashima at his worst is prone to rashly leaving his line and struggling under high balls. Gaffes including gifting Bulgaria their opening goal in a 2013’s 2-0 friendly loss, and the mistake which led to Kevin Mirallas scoring in Japan’s 3-2 defeat of Belgium in November, have however failed to dislodge him as Japan’s number one, in part because he is capable of producing inspired performances. One such display against France in a 2012 victory prompted a French TV presenter to make the insensitive joke, albeit one intended as a compliment, that the “Fukushima effect” must have given the Standard Liège stopper four arms, such was his ability to keep Les Bleus at bay that day. Kawashima also comes into the tournament on the back of a very promising domestic season, keeping seventeen clean sheets in twenty-seven matches, and formed part of a rear-guard which conceded eleven goals fewer than the next best defence during the Belgian Pro League regular season.
With Kawashima assured of a starting place, the reliable, solid but unspectacular Shusaku Nishikawa will continue to play the role of understudy he began to Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi in 2006. Only injury or suspension will provide a chance to add to the ten starts he has made, just one of which has come in the finals of a major competition. Kawashima was sent off in bizarre circumstances versus Syria in the Asian Cup, and Nishikawa was practically a bystander as Japan strolled to a 5-0 victory. Shuichi Gonda, number one for FC Tokyo and in London, and the subject of much chatter among the British press after collating four clean sheets, rounds off Japan’s goalkeepers.
Japan’s susceptibility under an aerial ball is frequently noted, and not without good reason – of the forty-five goals conceded by Japan in all international fixtures excluding the EAC since Zaccheroni took over, nineteen have come as a direct result of an aerial ball, whether through an inability to defend corners properly, marked by Atsuto Uchida’s culpability for Brazil’s second goal in a 2012 4-0 thrashing or in the same player conceding the penalty which led to Australia’s equaliser in the away World Cup qualifier the same year. Pressure brings pronounced panic to Japan’s rear-guard, exemplified by Yasuyuki Konno gifting South Korea a penalty in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup semi-final or Masahiko Inoha acting similarly in a 2012 friendly versus Iceland.
Indeed, it is this tendency to make mistakes, rather than the aerial ball, which is really the greatest cause for concern. Although nine – 21% – of the goals conceded were through opposition headers, itself likely to be high in comparison to their competitors at this tournament, arguably twenty three – 53% – of those goals can be deemed directly attributable by Japan’s defensive failings as a team. If Japan do progress to the knockout stages, one of the causes is likely to be a reduction in team defensive errors.
Excluding the six penalties, there doesn’t appear to be any particular signifier in which areas Japan may be stronger or weaker, although there is perhaps a small amount of bias to goals conceded from the Samurai Blue’s right. This is arguably due to Japan’s right side of defence being weaker than the left, both in terms of the first-choice right centre-back, Maya Yoshida, and Uchida, Zaccheroni’s preferred right-back, but also in part due to the possibility that Eiji Kawashima is slower in dealing with shots to his right-hand side, particularly those which are directed low to the left-hand corner.
Ignoring two matches in 2010 versus Argentina (win) and South Korea (draw) and a loss to Bulgaria in 2013, Zaccheroni’s preference is for a back four, his most trusted defensive line comprising Nagatomo, Schalke 04’s Uchida, and Southampton’s Maya Yoshida and Gamba Osaka’s Konno as the two central defenders, the latter a pairing practically forced on Zaccheroni at the 2011 Asian Cup and the most frequently recurring pairing to date. The starting line-ups for the 47 non-EAC international games to date have featured three of those players twenty-five times, the preferred four beginning a match 40% of the time, with each individual named to the team sheet on at least half of those 46 occasions, figures which would be higher still disregarding suspensions and absences through injury. Any alternative compositions to that back four either forced on or attempted by Zaccheroni do not produce similarly high appearance figures, and as such it would ordinarily come as a great surprise were he to opt for another name in Brazil. However, the data suggests that Zaccheroni may wish to consider alternatives.
Once again excluding matches within the EAFF competition, and only analysing matches in which he played four defenders, using two or less of his preferred defenders produced both the highest win percentage and lowest goals conceded per game of his tenure to date, while worryingly his full preferred defensive line displays the lowest win percentage and highest goals conceded per game. Some, although not all, will be explained by the small number of sample sizes for each alternative defensive composition, and it is also in part explained by the variability in the quality of the opposition, the full back four taking in two encounters against Brazil, and matches against Italy and the Netherlands. However, that back four also encompasses the pitiable displays versus Serbia and Belarus. With a defence containing only two or less of Zaccheroni’s preferred back four, meanwhile, Japan achieved some excellent results in FIFA World Cup qualifying, and achieved a clean sheet in 50% of their matches, compared to his first choice back four holding off the opposition just 38.9% of the time. At the very least there are signs that what Zaccheroni prefers and which players will combine to produce the best performances will differ, and that there are perhaps potential weak links in his back four who he might consider replacing in the starting eleven.
It may come as a surprise even to those who regularly follow the fortunes of Japan’s players in the Bundesliga and for the national team that Atsuto Uchida is statistically less defensively strong than his primary competition for the right-back slot, Hiroki Sakai. The Hannover full-back renowned among supporters of Kashiwa Reysol for his marauding, powerful runs on the right flank actually contributes significantly less at club level in terms of his attacking contribution compared to the former Kashima Antlers player, and this stunning long-distance drive in November was the only goal or assist he completed in the 2013-14 season.
Opta data was used in the creation of the Radar-Pie Charts. All matches rounded to the nearest minute.
Discounting the shot accuracy of both players – the total aggregate shots for the pair in the 13-14 Bundesliga a mighty three in total – what quickly becomes clearly is that, not only will Uchida more frequently dribble past an opponent, but he creates nearly twice the number of chances. Sakai’s contribution, meanwhile, indicates that he successfully makes slightly more tackles and interceptions during a match, while offering a significant improvement on Uchida should an opposition pose an aerial threat.
Although Nagatomo is such an integral part of the Japan side, a comparison with VfB Stuttgart’s Gotoku Sakai is still worthwhile. What makes such comparisons more difficult is that while Sakai typically operates in a flat back four, Nagatomo is more of a classical wing-back for Internazionale in Walter Mazzarri’s 3-5-2, a formation in which there is naturally less emphasis on his defensive capabilities. Nonetheless, one particular area is worthy of discussion.
What is most visible here is that Nagatomo is not the type of left-back who will provide any formidable opposition in the air, winning just 16% of his attempted headed challenges, and yet Gotoku Sakai beats his opponent more than half of the time. Nagatomo’s superiority to Gotoku Sakai in nearly every other category means the challenge for Zaccheroni is to ensure the one major deficiency in Nagatomo’s game does not become one heavily exploited by the opposition.
At the World Cup the long-standing defensive central midfield partnership of Yasuhito Endo and captain Makoto Hasebe is likely to be broken up. Endo, the most-capped outfield player at this tournament, no longer has the ability to sustain and influence a full 90 minutes at international level due to age, while Zaccheroni’s proclivity for playing a high defensive line makes Endo, a midfielder but one never known for pace, and Japan, a side reliant on Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida creating space on the overlap in supporting a dynamic and rotating front four, very vulnerable to the rapid counter-attack. Hasebe, meanwhile, snapped up on 3 June by Eintracht Frankfurt, has only recently returned to full fitness having been absent for almost all of the second half of FC Nürnberg’s season, featuring in the starting line-up in their final game of the season but unable to prevent his side’s relegation to the second division. The player most likely to displace either is the young and dynamic Hotaru Yamaguchi, who operated so effectively with his Cerezo Osaka counterpart Takahiro Ogihara in producing the stunning 1-0 win against Spain for the Under-23 Samurai Blue at the 2012 Olympics.
Yamaguchi’s selection is particularly likely in the opening game not only owing to fitness concerns surrounding Hasebe, but also due to the need to combat the current world’s best midfielder in Yaya Touré. Although the phenomenal Manchester City midfielder represents a step up in the quality of midfielder he has met in senior competitive football, his displays in last year’s friendly draw and victory versus Belgium and the Netherlands respectively, and besting Javi Martinez among a number of Spanish stars at London 2012, suggest a player who will relish rather than shrink from the responsibility. The issue is that Yamaguchi has accumulated just 613 minutes playing time for the senior side, effectually less than seven matches, starting alongside Hasebe on only the two occasions, albeit in obtaining those excellent results in Belgium, and just the single time with Endo. Furthermore, any recurrence of the injury to Hasebe in Brazil would also leave Japan with just one remaining recognised defensive midfielder in reserve, Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s Toshihiro Aoyama, another player almost entirely untested at senior international level, his 101 minutes to date supplemented by a further 155 at the EAC. The linchpin of Sanfrecce’s midfield and a highly influential presence who helped propel Sanfre to back-to-back J.League titles, he became more widely known in 2012 for his astonishing 70 yard goal versus Yokohama F.Marinos in 2012.
Similarly to the left side of defence, it’s difficult to produce a like-for-like comparison of Japan’s attacking midfield options. Shinji Okazaki, most often on the right of the midfield three for Japan, was used principally as a striker at Mainz, slotting into a midfield four or five on just the four occasions in his 33 Bundesliga appearances, a role likely to skew his statistical output compared to that of a true attacking midfielder. As such, his prominent shooting numbers aside, it should not be concluded that the weakest performer of Japan’s current first choice attacking midfield three is Okazaki. However, there is some use in assessing the capabilities of Hiroshi Kiyotake, one of several young talents yet to replicate their eye-catching performances at London 2012, but who may be regarded in a number of respects superior to Okazaki in a right flank position.
Kiyotake’s superior output comes in his delivery of a dead ball, the success of more than one in three of crosses attempted, an outstanding number of dribbles completed per game, and creating more than two chances per ninety minutes. Indeed, in all these respects he also had the better of Honda and Kagawa in 13-14, and although any attempt to overrule the Milan midfielder as to who should be responsible for set pieces is likely to end in failure, the numbers at least suggest that a player likely to follow Hasebe out of FC Nürnberg should be given the responsibility if and when on the pitch, especially considering that Honda vastly outperforms Kiyotake in the air. However, the minutes Kiyotake has clocked up for Japan’s full senior side are the numbers of a player who spends on average just 45 minutes on the pitch, unmistakeable proof that he is yet to earn Zaccheroni’s trust or reproduce that domestic form.
Kagawa and Honda have had poor seasons offensively, but as described above there are a number of mitigating circumstances. For all their woes at their current clubs, there are positives to be taken from some of the numbers. Honda and Kagawa are both very capable in retrieving possession in the opposition half, retain possession like very few others in the squad, and have an excellent defensive ethic and work rate.
The lack of game time and issues over squad preparedness described above extends to Japan’s centre forwards. Previously so reliant on Ryoichi Maeda, Zaccheroni only truly expanded his horizons beyond the Jubilo Iwata forward after the 2013 Confederations Cup, despite the more orthodox of Japan’s front players netting in just one of his thirteen most recent appearances, and a slump domestically for player and Jubilo Iwata which would lead to their eventual relegation. The one bona-fide surprise of the Samurai Blue squad came with Yoshito Okubo’s inclusion in the twenty-three player list. Having named Okubo to a squad on just the one occasion to date, in which he was limited to 45 minutes before being making way at half-time, Zaccheroni preferred the Kawasaki Frontale striker over a number of other candidates, including his direct positional rival Yohei Toyoda. Okubo’s inclusion is arguably merited, with his time in Brazil likely primarily to be spent on the bench, and his aggressive, physical and committed style provides something of a unique alternative to that provided by Japan’s otherwise more technically proficient, polished forwards and their more intricate combination play. Even so, that Yoichiro Kakitani and Yuya Osako constitute the remaining strikers shouldn’t instil confidence. Appointed to the managerial position at Cerezo Osaka despite his limitations being exposed at FC Tokyo, Ranko Popovic has repeatedly misused both Kakitani and Diego Forlán. The Uruguayan has been uncomfortable playing in a position at odds with the deep lying role he performs for La Celeste, and Kakitani has struggled to adapt his game to the methods demanded by Popovic. After fourteen games last season the 24 year-old had netted nine times, converting 25% of his shots to goals, but 2014’s slump has seen a return of just one goal from twenty attempts.
Osako, the former Kashima Antlers striker who in the past week signed terms with the Bundesliga’s FC Köln, had a reasonable time at German second tier club TSV 1860 München, having become a more rounded player in developing a stronger capacity for hold-up play, but his exhilarating pace, balance and agility are still undermined by his frustrating propensity for errant shot-making. Just 14.3% of his attempts resulted in goals for TSV, a significant reduction to what was already one of the least efficient shot conversion percentages for the top ten Japanese goal scorers in the 2013 J.League season, and it will need to improve if he is to establish himself in Germany’s top flight. Moreover, while his six goals for TSV in just fifteen appearances made him top scorer at the club, in a World Cup group game it’s unlikely he’ll find the time and space to produce the seven shots that he normally requires to find the net in Germany. Doubtless Kakitani is struggling, but equally there should be a little doubt as to whether Osako warrants a starting berth as the tournament begins. Osako is a less bad option, but he may not represent a good one.
As before, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue the merits of Kakitani and Osako’s inclusion in the squad on a number of grounds, including that they are better suited to the preferred flexibility within the front four over the likes of Albirex Niigata’s Kengo Kawamata and Hisato Sato of Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Kawamata, despite a 2013 season in which he produced a shots to goal conversion ratio only bettered in J.League history by Hiroaki Morishima in 1998, had not provided any real demonstration of his ability at the highest level in Japan until last year, and the extraordinary nature of that goals to conversion ratio is one unlikely to be repeated for some time. Not only would he have constituted too great a risk for a manager as conservative as Zaccheroni, he is another whose form this season has been wanting. Indeed, of the eight from the chart above still competing in J.League Division 1, only three are close to matching or have bettered their shots to goals conversion 2014 rates.
While some regression may be typical, the enormous dip in performance for Kakitani and Sato is unexpected given their season-by-season consistency. Analysing the 2011-13 seasons, a 20% shot to conversion ratio is an approximate minimum for inclusion as a top ten performer per season. As such, although for Kawamata a substantial decrease in shot conversion percentage was predictable, the degree seen here in essence confirms that he is not yet ready for a role in the national team. Although Sato was unlikely to be selected, as he is a player who requires a different overall team shape to suit his one-touch ball striking, the drop in his percentages is still galling for arguably the most natural finisher of any Japanese in the J.League’s history. The data suggests that beyond Okubo and Toyoda, only one player, the 26 year-old Kashiwa Reysol forward Junya Tanaka, possessed the required consistency to be considered for selection. Technically excellent, with the ability to operate in wide channels and link play in the manner necessary in Zaccheroni’s structure, it is a quirk of history that Tanaka’s only appearance for the Samurai Blue came in 2012 versus Iceland, as a replacement for Okubo. Zaccheroni, however will likely have considered the player too similar in style and substance to both Kakitani and Osako, players of whom he has a greater but still relatively superficial knowledge in terms of national team play.
The overarching issue is that Zaccheroni’s conservatism in selection throughout his tenure means there has been little time for either Kakitani or Osako to make the fullest of cases for a position versus Ivory Coast, an issue of considerably more gravity given both players’ current form, and that Okubo is a player of very different qualities. Osako has been on the pitch for 317 minutes for the A side, Kakitani faring slightly better with 455 minutes. That one starting position in the opening group game is open to three players who have the equivalent of ten senior matches between them during Zaccheroni’s reign, none of which were attained in competitive internationals, means there is an broad opportunity for Japan’s forwards to surprise, but in terms of building a coherent team it suggests a lack of planning.
The final forward represents Zaccheroni’s wild card. The hangover from Yokohama F.Marinos’ faltering 2013 J.League title tilt shows no sign of abating, with the club languishing in twelfth position and two points above the relegation places, and F.Marinos’ parent company Nissan moving away from a previous position of largesse, selling a 20% stake to Manchester City’s parent. Combined with the decision to allow Marquinhos to move to Vissel Kobe, currently fourth highest goal scorer in the competition, has given further cause for despair. Manabu Saito represents one of the few at the club capable of alleviating darkened spirits, a more mature character who has developed a defensive capability to his game compared to the player of 2012, but one who still possesses a joyous ability to dance past players, and particularly drive across the penalty area, sometimes finishing spectacularly. Also suffering from a loss of form this season, he may prove a very useful option from the bench where the opposition possesses a tightly constructed defence.
Particularly given Ryoichi Maeda’s non-selection, these charts make clear the task facing Japan and the reliance on their principle attacking midfield players to find the net should Kakitani, Osako or Okubo misfire, as few other squad members will contribute in this regard. An alternative be to play Okazaki as Japan’s central striker – fourteen of his fifteen strikes for Mainz were as either a single striker or part of a forward pair, with only one coming as an attacking midfielder – but Kiyotake’s inadequacies in defence would either require a more defensively-minded and capable full-back to be deployed, or restraining the attacking sensibilities of whomever is chosen for the right-back role, a tactic which was visible in the 3-1 victory versus Costa Rica.
Tactically, Japan may be predictable, but that is not to say that they are formulaic or easy to defend against. Japan’s fluidity and fluency – Honda frequently dropping deeper to become the creative pivot in midfield, Kagawa and Okazaki moving into the hole created by his movement and a centre forward then operating effectively as an attacking midfielder – combined with intricate triangular passing allows Japan to pull opposition defenders and midfielders out of position. However, at times they can be guilty of over-elaboration and a lack of penetration, especially when playing sides regarded as weaker and who are set up to defend.
This movement has resulted in goals as simple as that scored by Kagawa versus Paraguay in 2010, Okazaki firstly inhabiting the centre forward position before slotting into the central attacking midfield role, allowing Kagawa to run into the space vacated by Okazaki and finishing a low long ball. A more complex demonstration was furnished in Honda’s equaliser versus the Netherlands, the Dutch simply unable to cope with the interplay between Uchida, Okazaki, Osako and Honda.
Zaccheroni, in Italy known for his use of a 3-4-3, has used the system very little in his time with Japan, the last occasion being the 2-0 defeat versus Bulgaria, where perhaps inevitably he overlooked players most suited to the formation and suffered the consequences. Japan’s standard formation is thus typically expressed as a 4-2-3-1 with a classic double pivot, defensively becoming a 4-5-1 as the attacking midfielders support the full-back and defensive midfield pairings, with the flexibility to move into 4-3-3 should Honda need to assume a deeper role, and owing to the type of strikers Zaccheroni typically selects, a fluid front four.
With Zaccheroni’s arguably biggest failing in the national team’s development not having better develop better methods or personnel to protect his goal, there is little likelihood of Japan not conceding in the group stage. Colombia, even without Falcao’s prodigious talent, retain a fearsome attack. Ivory Coast in Drogba, Kalou, Gervinho and Bony possesses a number of forwards with an array of talent, and an extraordinary midfielder often so languid in technique but so destructive in performance. Although Greece pose less of a threat in their forward line, a defence which conceded fewer than any UEFA member in qualification except Spain will be a test of Japan’s attacking craft. Despite their defensive shortcomings, however, if the Samurai Blue exhibit the same pace, skill and artistry which enchanted much of the world in the undeserved loss to Italy, and are more effective in countering the inevitable periods of pressure, they will proceed to the knockout stages. For Japan to go any further will require some fortune, including the ability of barely examined individuals making starting appearances to coalesce.
Dave Phillips is an MBA in Football Industries Candidate at University of Liverpool. Twitter: @lovefutebol