Dissecting the Japanese National Soccer Team

By: Kento Kato

The Japanese National Soccer Team has found its way in to every World Cup since 1998 but for the team to continue its streak, they will have to change some things. After losing its first game in the Asia qualifiers to UAE, Japan faced an uphill battle as no team had made the World Cup after starting off the Asian qualifiers with a loss. They have since eked out a win against a lower ranked Iraq team, and settled for a tie with the Aussies. Japan still has a decent chance at making the World Cup as they control their own destiny. But the majority of fans, and analysts believe that it will be impossible if things do not change.

In all 3 of their games, the Japanese side has scored the first goal. But have allowed equalizers in all 3 of the games and have given up penalty kicks in two of the matches (UAE, Australia). Right off the bat, you can see that the defense is very shaky. The team does not have a left side back that they can rely on as Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan) has been in and out of the lineup with injuries. The right back position is far from a strong point but it has been held down somewhat well with the two Sakais (Gotoku Sakai, Hiroki Sakai). That leaves us with Japan’s biggest weakness, the centerbacks. Maya Yoshida has experience playing in the League but has been prone to making mistakes and fellow centerback Masato Morishige is solid but lacks the size to compete with some of the other Asian countries’ attackers. Even with the unstable pieces, Japan had been better before the Asian qualifiers. So what’s the difference? It seems that the Japanese players are not on the same page when it comes to defending. Whether that broken communication is between the coach, Vahid Halilhodžić, and the players or between the players themselves, it has led to many openings, easy passes, and opportunities for the opponents.

Another major factor for the defensive mishaps may be because of the lack of game time the Japanese starting members have been able to gain. The aforementioned Yoshida, and Nagatomo, along with Japanese regulars, Keisuke Honda, Shnji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa are all bench players for their clubs. Regardless of the sport, getting out there and getting in rhythm during a game is crucial. The lack of playing time that the key players are getting has been pointed out, even by international analysts and journalists, as the main reason they seem to be on different pages. This has also led to an inconsistent offense as expected. There are times the team is able to keep position with quick, well-calculated passes and make their way in to the goal area, but there are also times the players give away possession with careless passes. On top of the rhythm factor, there is the simple matter of being in shape and being older. Kagawa and Honda especially, seem to be slowing down a bit and are seen being around ball less than prior years.

Now all of this can be fixed with using different players. The national side’s coach has been questioned for his selection and substitution decisions numerous times but he continues to believe that there are no replacements for the older star players with international experience. That lack of trust in the other, younger players along with the shuffling of players to find the right combination at other positions is another things that has led to the inconsistent and dysfunctional play of the team. Simply put, it seems as if the coach and the players themselves are not on the same page and with the inconsistencies in the lineups and the playing time of the star players, the team has no identity or direction.

This is something that other national teams have to deal with as well so as much as it bothers fans, the coaches and players will just have to find a way to deal with it. My suggestion is to start using players from the J-League and other leagues who have been playing well. As long as the star players get no playing time, then nothing will change. They will continue to be unfit and lack the rhythm needed to put together a good performance. Even if they are to qualify for the World Cup, their play of recent will see them out in the group stage. Every team needs to go through a generation change. Why not start now and hope that they can find a way to get through the qualifiers and go into the 2018 World Cup fresh? At this rate, they may not even qualify for the World Cup anyways and keeping the same lineup may mean getting a slow start the qualifiers for the next World Cup as well.

That does not mean to completely get rid Kagawa, Honda, Okazaki and Yoshida as some of them are still the best option for their positions but I would integrate other players and then stick with a lineup to finally gain some stability, consistency and chemistry going forward. For starters, I would use Takuma Asano as a forward more as opposed to Okazaki. Asano, were it not for a visa mishap, would have been with Premier League side Arsenal, which should show that his talent and skill is real. I, along with many Japanese fans and analysts, am a fan of Asano’s speed as it is a weapon Japanese forwards at this level have not had too often. Speed is a constant and will travel and is something that’ll put more pressure on the opposing defenses just by having him out there. This should open up more passing lanes and running lanes for the others as well. I would also look at Yuya Osako as another option at striker as his goal scoring ability has long been acknowledged. I would then use continue to use Genki Haraguchi, who has been very good recently scoring 4 goals in his last 5 matches.

I have been hard on Honda and while he has not been the Honda we have all expected, he has still been around much of the scoring opportunities that the Japanese side has created so I would have him continue to start. As much as Kagawa has been one of the aces along with Honda, Hiroshi Kiyotake has been playing very well for his club, Sevilla, and his national side so I would start him. Kagawa has been getting some more playing time for his club, Dortmund so I would keep an eye on this fluid situation, but I would reward Kiyotake for the next few matches.

I would continue to use Makoto Hasebe at his usual position as his leadership and consistent play will be needed going forward. In my opinion, he is the most underrated player on the side and I expect him to continue his solid play. There is a question as to who to put next to him. Halilhodžić can choose between Yamaguchi Hotaru, Yosuke Kashiwagi, and Gaku Shibasaki. Yamaguchi has been used for much of the recent games because of his tendency to play more defensively and while in an ideal world, I would use Shibasaki for his ability to play aggressively and even score on his own, the side needs more defensive stability right now so playing it safe with the continued use of Yamaguchi seems to be the way to go.

While the center back position remains a weakness, the current starters of Yoshida and Morishige are the only two capable options so the side will have to do with them, favoring a more team oriented defense to help them out. Nagatomo seems to be fully healed from his concussion so I would go back to starting him as there are no other true left backs on the team. But his appearacnes have also been inconsistent and I would keep a close eye on him and be ready to utilize Kosuke Ota. He has long been known to possess one of, if not the, best crosses on the team. With him being left foot dominant, this could help the team stay defense yet produce more scoring opportunities. The ride side has been a revolving door with many different members recently. The two Sakais have been fighting for the position but I would use Gotoku as he is regarded to be a bit better but this really is a flip in the air as both have made mistakes recently. As for the goal keeping situation, I like the selection to move on from Eiji Kawashima and to go with Shusaku Nishikawa and I would stay there.

These are just some of my suggestions but the biggest key is to pick one and stick by them to build that trust and chemistry. The side just came off of a win against Oman in an internationally friendly in which they scored 4 goals and were able to keep a shut out. Granted they were playing a pretty weak side at home, it was still nice to see the offense being aggressive and the defense shut out an opposition. With Saudi Arabia, the leader in their qualifying group, coming up on their schedule on November 15th, hopefully the Japanese side can carry this momentum and ride it to a win and some consistency moving forward.

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