A year into his reign as national team coach, Hajime Moriyasu switches focus ahead of a new cycle of World Cup qualification, to consider the small matter of national pride in their warm up to hosting the Olympics in 12 months’ time. While the Copa America represents a worthy continental prize to the South Americans taking part, as one of the two invited teams in this year’s tournament, Japan will distinctly be travelling with different measures of success being attached to their plans.
The last month has borne witness to a myriad of squad announcements, most of which have conflicting restrictions and briefs; Japan’s U20 side travelled to the World Cup in Poland, an U22 selection travelled to France to play in the annual Toulon youth tournament, a more recognisable senior outfit was selected for two international friendlies at the long laboured Kirin Cup, while a mixture of all three was selected in a predominantly Olympic games focussed squad travelling to Brazil for the Copa America.
There’ll undoubtedly be a few Japanese players out there feeling hard done to, as every man and his dog seemed to be called up to one squad or another. An interesting personal example to highlight the stretched resources over the last month sees Hamburg midfielder Tatsuya Ito having to feature in the Toulon final on Saturday night (ironically against Brazil), before travelling half way across the world to South America, ahead of Japan’s Copa America opener against Chile on Monday evening. This month like no other has pulled the national team picture quite literally across the world.
This squad, aside from its internally forced age parameters feels typically Olympic in its experimental nature; the overage players include two outgoing sages in Eiji Kawashima and Shinji Okazaki, while still missing some of the more credible U22 players of this cohort; the likes of Ritsu Doan were called up for senior duty, while Ao Tanaka travelled to France for Toulon. The squad of 23 boasts only seven players with previous national team experience (there will be no official warmup matches either), two of whom have over 88 caps. The disparity is stark, as is the case with most Olympic selections, marking expectations as a clearer unknown than usual.
Tactically, Japan continue to shift between the 4231/4221 system that saw them progress to the Asian Cup final back in February, and the 3421-system used predominantly over Moriyasu’s managerial career to date, most recently reintroduced in Japan’s Kirin Cup friendlies and in both other youth team tournament appearances this summer. Despite this, the Copa America squad doesn’t exactly provide the essential wingbacks or central defenders to fully excel in this system, instead a plethora of support attackers, many a Samurai Blue fan will no doubt be salivating at the thought of.
Top of that pile is the hottest property in Asian football, if not the World. Takefusa Kubo’s rise to prominence seems to have peaked perfectly for his 18th birthday at the start of the month, which effectively pitted him as the most exciting free agent around, going into the Copa America. On the eve of the tournament it was announced he would be signing for Real Madrid, further intensifying the scrutiny he’s likely to face in Brazil after a stellar start to the season back in Japan with J1 table toppers FC Tokyo.
While Kubo offers the raw unpredictability, the building blocks of a new Japanese senior team will truly be under the spotlight, not least in defence. Eiji Kawashima, ridiculed for a failed World Cup last year in Russia, will either look to bow out on a high or play mentor to up and coming Sanfrecce Hiroshima keeper Keisuke Osako, with Moriyasu keen to plug one of his most problematic positions to date. In front of them, Naomichi Ueda’s progress since moving to Belgium will be assessed, next to the growing stature of Takehiro Tomiyasu who particularly stood out at January’s Asian Cup.
Japan’s development under Moriyasu has been understatedly fruitful so far. With a daunting task of leading a transitioning Japan to an Asian Cup upon arrival, through World Cup qualifying simultaneously juggling reputational pressure with a home Olympics looming. The tough schedule and increasingly polarised demands have understandably left the Copa America way down the list in terms of priorities, which should regrettably affect the product on the pitch in Brazil.
That product has widely divided Daihyo fans, but whether you agree with the style implemented by Moriyasu or not, the change in tact is quite recognisably evolved over time. From the creative and possession focussed approached of Alberto Zaccheroni and Javier Aguirre, Moriyasu (and Akira Nishino before him) like it or not have clearly been affected by Vahid Halilhodzic’s more functional and reactive philosophy during his tenure over the last World Cup qualifying cycle.
While Halilhodzic quite openly focussed on developing a quicker, more direct approach with a focus on hardening the mentality of Japanese footballers in general, Nishino, and in particular Moriyasu have attempted to bring back the guile, in particular of those in behind the attacker. Too often at the Asian Cup however, we saw Japan relinquish possession easily and take a back seat in proceedings. Last week’s Kirin Cup struggles only added to this; a draw against Trinidad & Tabago and an unimpressive win against El Salvador do little to suggest Moriyasu has upped the charm offensive.
A crumb of comfort for Japan is usually they up their game on the road. Away from Asia, away from the expectation in a sense, Japan have confounded expectation and played some of their most expressive football when little has been promised. Last summer’s World Cup took plenty by surprise, especially the near masterful art of coping with Belgium in the knockout phase, whilst going back further their friendly tour of Europe ahead of the 2014 World Cup, or the Confederations Cup the year previous, showed the very best of what Japanese football is all about; expression without restriction.
Commanding a squad made up of retiring pros alongside fresh debutants may prove a clever mix to generate these perfect circumstances. Little to no expectation will be put on any player (Kubo, potentially aside), while Moriyasu will be given his fair due to experiment and rotate where applicable. With that in mind, whilst results aren’t a necessity, the flow of performance and the stylistic tendencies it’ll create should prove interesting viewing, come kick off on Monday night against Chile.
Head Coach – Hajime Moriyasu
Former Japanese international turned coach, who worked under Akira Nishino on the run up to and at the World Cup over the summer. Famed for leading Sanfrecce Hiroshima to three titles in four seasons playing an attacking brand of possession football. Started afresh with many new faces after last summer’s World Cup success, but still tinkers between playing styles and formations.
Star Player – Gaku Shibasaki
Becoming the staple of this current Japanese national side, the thread that has run through from the World Cup, to the Asian Cup and now into the Copa America, Shibsaki is the one of only two Samurai Blue regulars to make the trip to Brazil. Confident central midfield pivot who brings together the best defensive and attacking qualities of the team’s play.
Shop Window – Shinji Okazaki
Third in Japan’s all-time goalscoring lists, the diminutive and well-liked striker goes into this tournament a free agent after being released by Leicester City at the end of the season. Even at 33, he has the poacher’s instinct to create goals out of mere half chances, but missed the Asian Cup cut after struggling to pick up minutes domestically.
Young Prospect – Takafusa Kubo
There’ll be no young player receiving as much scrutiny at the Copa America than Takafusa Kubo, after the 18-year-old joined Real Madrid ahead of the tournament. While he’s likely to be phased in by Moriyasu, his ability to explode in small cameo appearances makes him a useful reserve option to have. Small, quick and flexible in his combination play, Kubo will be in a confident mood after his Samurai Blue debut last week against El Salvador.