OPINION: New Japan offers old problems

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Japan v UAE: Quarter Final - 2015 Asian Cup

After a stunning defeat to UAE in penalty kicks, former Asian Cup champions will return to their home clubs a week earlier than many expected. The quarter final defeat could perhaps be considered the nadir of ’s high-flying modern era which began in 2010, and there’s plenty to take away from their four matches in Australia.

1. Aguirre Japan is very similar tactically to the last Okada Japan

It’s normal to expect some novelty along with trepidation and some curiosity when a new manager arrives. But those who did so with Javier Aguirre have probably been disappointed, since he’s brought little that we haven’t already seen.

Aguirre more or less uses the formation favoured by Takeshi Okada at the 2010 World Cup: essentially a 4-1-2-3-0 in which an additional defensive midfielder protects the two centrebacks, and above two volante and three offensive midfielders take turns creating spaces or darting into them to surprise the opposing defence.

This is of course different from Zaccheroni’s much more offensive 4-2-3-1, which was surely more entertaining but resulted in three straight losses at the 2013 Confederation Cup and last year’s World Cup for a total of five defeats and one draw from six games.

When considering Okada’s achievements in South Africa, it makes sense for Aguirre to play it safe by using the blueprint of the 2010 Japan, who everybody agrees were the most successful team in the history of the Samurai Blue.

Some might argue that such prudence was not needed in Australia, where Japan was facing average-level Asian opponents; however, one must also consider that 2010’s Okada Japan boasted Asia’s best-ever centreback pair, Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Yuji Nakazawa, at their peak.

Japan’s defensive performance in this tournament validates Aguirre’s formation: they conceded just one goal in about 400 minutes of play, and were almost never under pressure.

2. Meet Aguirre Japan, almost the same as Zac Japan

In an astonishing figure, seven of the players who started the ill-fated game against UAE were on the pitch four years earlier against Australia in the final of Qatar 2011: Eiji Kawashima, Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo, Yasuhito Endo, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki and captain Makoto Hasebe.

It should also be noted that Atsuto Uchida, who was prevented from playing in Australia due to an injury, and , who missed the latter stages of the 2011 edition from his own war wound, have been regulars under both coaches. Aside from Masato Morishige and Takashi Inui (both of whom also played under Zaccheroni, by the way) nine of Aguirre’s preferred squad have remained unchanged from four years ago.

This fact might not be of concern for Aguirre, who fulfilled his duties by picking those who he considered the best men, but it’s worth considering that Japanese football has produced few new faces capable of playing at an international level in the last four years.

3. Aguirre Japan’s two biggest problems aren’t new

It should be added to the above that since the Samurai Blue have entered their “modern age” in 2010 (the year they impressed at the World Cup and several players left the J.League to join European clubs), the problems that the team has faced have been the same year after year and are still there today.

The first is clearly the fragility of the defence. After the aforementioned world-class performances by Tulio and Nakazawa in South-Africa and their demise, Japan were extremely vulnerable in the back under Zaccheroni. Besides the poor results in the FIFA tournaments in 2013 and 2014, the team was regularly exposed to the opposition’s attacks – the two goals surrendered against New Zealand in March 2014, with Japan up by four goals, stand out as a prime example

This situation has improved now with the return of the “anchor” in front of the centrebacks, but against the UAE we saw yet again how poor placement mistakes in the opening minutes resulted in two huge chances conceded, with the second becoming the goal that ultimately condemned Japan to penalty kicks and an early return home.

Teams usually pay dearly for errors at an international such as the ones we saw against the UAE. Japan did not meet any world-class strikers in Australia, but there was plenty of that in October as Neymar scored four against the Samurai Blue in Singapore.

The second problem is the absence of a world-class striker, somebody capable of ripping the opposing defence to pieces and scoring two or three goals to win you the game, just as Son Hueng-Min just did in South Korea’s victorious quarterfinal against Uzbekistan.

Okada’s Japan played at the World Cup without a striker, and Honda as “falso nueve.” Zaccheroni  auditioned at least seven players as his top striker: Maeda, Lee, Havenaar, Kakitani, Osako, Toyoda and Okubo. Aguirre added Minagawa, Kobayashi and Muto to the list. In the end, the Mexican also resolved to play without a pure striker, a choice that clearly indicates what he thinks of the level of Japanese forwards.

The only world-class forward Japan has featured in recent years is Okazaki, but he is not exactly a goal-hungry striker. The 28-year-old is a very generous forward who is more than capable of scoring, but contributes best by working for the team tirelessly throughout the 90 minutes which often results in a lack of precision in front of the goal.

Japan v UAE: Quarter Final - 2015 Asian Cup

4. Keisuke Honda has bloomed, but Shinji Kagawa is in a rut

In the end, the most effective attacker for Japan was once again Keisuke Honda, albeit on the right instead of on the middle. Here too, nothing new: we are anyway pointing back to 2010.

While Honda has demonstrated himself to be one of Asia’s top players and worthy of a starting role in the Serie A, the Asian Cup painted a very worrisome picture for Japan’s other superstar, Shinji Kagawa.

The Borussia Dortmund midfielder was crucial in the 2011 Asia Cup quarterfinal, when he scored two goals and set up a third to help a shorthanded Japan top Qatar. But the Kagawa we saw in both Australia and Brazil was just a shadow of the brilliant youngster who just four years ago was tearing apart defences in Asia and in the Bundesliga.

Kagawa’s downward slide began with a very poor performance against Mexico in June 2013, which was followed by the unlucky season in Manchester under Moyes, when his confidence was eroded through many games seen from the bench.

This month Aguirre opted to pair Kagawa with the experienced Endo in midfield, where the 25-year-old failed to impress, scored one single goal and finished with a negative performance against UAE in which he was also unlucky in missing the decisive penalty kick.

Two or three years ago I would have bet on Kagawa being destined to become the greatest player in Asian football history, in the league of Cha Bum-kum, Yasuhito Okudera, Ali Daiei, Park Ji-Sung, Hidetoshi Nakata, and Shunsuke Nakamura. I still want to believe that this will happen, but Shinji (and here I use his first name to show an affection towards him that I hope is still shared by all Japan football fans) needs to come out of the hole he fell into during that summer of 2013.

He needs to drop whatever weight is dragging him down, start playing his football and shining again. Japan needs him, Borussia Dortmund needs him, and, of course, he needs it too.

5. Which players could have helped Aguirre Japan?

Japan were by large the best team seen in Australia, and were eliminated for both the reasons explained above and also a bit of tough luck, including in the penalty contest. After all, Kagawa’s penalty was a single centimetre from going in and perhaps changing their fate.

There is not much criticism that can be addressed to the Mexican coach: he used a wise strategy and picked those he considered the most reliable to bring to Japan a much-needed title after the disappointment of Brazil 2014.

However, the UAE game featured several players who were clearly dead tired, and indeed Aguirre sent an identical starting lineup out for all four games. We can’t forget that all of them were playing in Europe or Japan through December, and those who participated in the World Cup traveled to as many as four continents over the last year.

Okazaki was not fully fit, Endo was clearly (and understandably, at 34 years old with more than 50 games in 2014) struggling, and Nagatomo ended up picking an injury that in effect left Japan with 10 men in the crucial final minutes.

A less conservative approach and more variation throughout the easy group phase would have very likely resulted in a fitter team for this quarter final, and also would have allowed more players to get used to the team.

In the past I have criticised Zac’s Japan for lacking a “pit bull,” a player who when necessary can raise the tension and give the team an extra load of energy. I speak of players like Kazuyuki Toda or Marcus Tulio Tanaka. For this Asian Cup I would have been satisfied with at least one of the two  “nasty” (meant as a compliment) strikers who did so well in the 2014 J-League: Yoshiko Okubo or Takashi Usami.

I’m also left wondering why Shusaku Nishikawa wasn’t given at least a chance. In all honesty, Kawashima hasn’t impressed in recent years, but he was the logical choice under Zaccheroni due to his incredible skill in one-on-one situations, a scenario likely to occur considering how high that team played with a high defensive line.

Japan may have defeated Australia in the 2011 final thanks to a fantastic volley by Tadanari Lee, but before that it was Kawashima who at least twice delivered incredible saves against attackers with a clear line of sight to Japan’s goal.

But with Aguirre’s preferred defensive balance, wouldn’t make sense for Japan to use Nishikawa, who for the last five years has been the best goalkeeper in the J-League if not Asia? He’s not only very reactive but also calm and completely in control of defensive management, and – perhaps the most painful of what-ifs – a superb penalty stopper.

Japan v UAE: Quarter Final - 2015 Asian Cup