The Samurai Blue have gone through what could generously be described as an interesting period lately. The team that has often been considered a relatively stable ship has seen two managers leave in the last six months and far more player rotation than observers are accustomed to.
But there are more problems than those on the surface.
Javier Aguirre was forced to step down after match fixing allegations from his time in Spain became too much for Japanese football’s governing body to handle. Alberto Zaccheroni, who led the team from Asian Cup glory to World Cup disappointment, focussed on his favourites and did very little to future-proof the squad or select lesser-known players who truly deserved a call-up.
The JFA knows the problems facing them, and they need learn from their mistakes.
An extremely disappointing Asian Cup saw Japan knocked out in the quarter finals by a plucky UAE side, despite being considered favourites to reach the final and even capture the silverware by most in Australia. The failed penalty shootout showed how little some of the players were willing to play for the shirt rather than themselves.
There appears to be a certain mindset with some Japanese players that results will come regardless of effort. That was evident in the early stages of the tournament, particularly in the dominant result over Palestine. Had the debutants been able to provide more of a test to the Samurai Blue, perhaps we’d have seen the defending champions step up and go further in the tournament.
The questionable Man of the Match prizes awarded by the AFC may also have reinforced certain players’ average performances, rather than inspiring them to improve ahead of what would be a difficult knockout stage.
As the level of competition in Asia continues to improve with each passing year, expecting to have one foot already on the podium is practically a death wish. The JFA has to consider this when selecting their new national team coach.
Above all, what’s needed in their next hire is a coach who can adjust the focus of the players and reshape the way each member of the team approaches a tournament. Egos and divas should not be expected, and all players must understand the need to shape up or ship out.
After an uneven debut in which he blooded eight new internationals in the span of four games, Aguirre was admittedly stuck between a rock and a hard place. With match-fixing allegations mounting and sponsors getting increasingly nervous, the Mexican was all but expected to field a star-studded Asian Cup squad in an attempt to hold onto his post.
One of the most glaring examples of player decisions made under duress may have been Gaku Shibasaki, a player Aguirre had described as “world class” following a friendly match. The Kashima Antlers midfielder remained on the bench for most of the tournament, but showed his ability in his equaliser which brought the match against UAE into extra time.
Regardless of whether the next coach comes from Japan or overseas, he must be confident and brave enough to withstand both the external pressure of sponsors and fans and the internal pressure of a notoriously risk-averse Japanese football community.
After a “Best Eight” finish in Australia, no player’s spot in the starting lineup should be taken for granted, even if they belong to some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
With less than two months remaining until Japan’s scheduled friendlies against Tunisia and Uzbekistan, and just over four months until the journey to Russia 2018 begins, the JFA must decide between two paths: allowing for new mistakes to be made in the name of long-term success, a strategy that paid dividends for recently-crowned Asian champions Australia and Ange Postecoglou, or simply repeating the old mistakes for another World Cup cycle.