The last two weeks of simultaneous AFC and UEFA Champions League matches have given us a chance to compare the playing styles of Japanese clubs with those of some of Europe’s best teams. Similar to what we saw in Japan’s disappointing World Cup performance, it is rather clear that what the Japanese players lack, besides top foreign players as teammates, is intensity.
Take for example Tuesday’s game between Juventus and Borussia Dortmund. Both sides had limited chances, and there were a few bad mistakes (Giorgio Chiellini’s slip and Dortmund’s careless marking of Morata in the first half come to mind), but the overall pace and physicality of the match were incredible.
Can Japanese players keep up at such a level? That’s a question we were all asking ahead of this round of European matches. In particular, many looked forward to seeing Shinji Kagawa confront Andrea Pirlo and Juventus’ defenders in Turin. Those expectations had their roots in Japan’s famous 2013 Confederations Cup match against Italy, when the Samurai Blue star delivered what may possibly have been his best international performance against a team featuring Gianluigi Buffon, Chiellini and other Juventus players.
But this time, sadly, Kagawa watched events unfold in Juventus Stadium from the bench.
One way to assess his absence is to shrug our shoulders and assume that we will simply have to wait for the next chance to decide if he is up to the task. But a more severe and possibly realistic interpretation is simply that Juergen Klopp didn’t trust his No. 7 to be ready for a match of this importance, similar to how Kagawa was regularly sidelined by David Moyes at Manchester.
Kagawa’s exclusion from the match in Turin is just one of many examples: last week it was Yoichiro Kakitani who was excluded from Basel’s Round of 16 squad, while Keisuke Honda has only made one substitute appearance for 17 minutes in the two Milano derbies that have taken place since he joined the famous Italian side.
It is quite clear that there have been several cases when coaches opted not to field Japanese in top games. However, there are also instances in which the opposite has occurred, most recently when UCL-winning manager Roberto Di Matteo trusted Atsuto Uchida to take on Cristiano Ronaldo.
Inter’s Yuto Nagatomo boasts 10 Champions League and 11 Europa League appearances; 20-year-old Yuya Kubo has two goals and one assist in his first European campaign for BSC Young Boys, and in the past players such as Shinji Ono and Shunsuke Nakamura have left their mark at a very high level in European football.
The adaptation of Japanese players to European football is a long process; in order to give players the mental toughness needed to compete abroad, the solution is not simply in the J-League but instead must be found in how football is taught and embraced in Japan.
Whatever adversity Japanese players face, their cultural evolution is nonetheless a very exciting one to follow step by step, and will hopefully continue with fans being able to see Kagawa shine on the pitch in the return leg against Juventus.