Four weeks have passed since the dismissal of Javier Aguirre, and the virtual parade of possible replacements to lead Japan’s national team has now shrunk to two or three.
Michael Laudrup and Vahid Halilhodzic seem to be the top candidates, while former Kashima Antlers manager Oswaldo Oliveira could be the “safety net” in case a deal cannot be reached with either of the two more internationally-known figures.
There is no consensus on the favourite, which allows us a chance to examine the positives and negatives of the two top candidates and what could factor the Japan Football Association’s decision.
Laudrup: Amazing footballer, compelling coach
50-year-old Laudrup had a wonderful career as a player, wearing the uniforms of four of the world’s top clubs: Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Ajax. He also played more than 100 games with the Danish national team, including two World Cups in 1990 and 1998.
Laudrup was a wonderful player; an attacking midfielder with sublime technique and a natural understanding for the game. Fans in Japan might remember him for the impossible goal he scored at the National Stadium in Tokyo against Argentinos Juniors when he won the Intercontinental Cup with Juventus in 1985.
At Barcelona, where he won four straight championships with the “dream team,” Laudrup’s manager was childhood hero Johan Cryuiff. Though the two allegedly ended their relationship on a bitter note, it is likely that the legendary Dutchman had a strong influence on how Laudrup interprets football.
Both in Spain (at Getafe and Mallorca) and in Wales (at Swansea), Laudrup set up his teams to play aggressive football based on a 4-2-3-1 formation emphasising passing and pressing. The same strategy would be very easy to implement with a Japanese national team that as recently as last year used the same formation under Alberto Zaccheroni.
Success and failure
Laudrup succeeded in producing good results (including a historical League Cup victory with Swansea in 2013) and playing entertaining football despite managing small clubs. The Samurai Blue, not yet a top team on a global scale, would probably do well with a manager who is used to getting the most out of limited resources.
However, it must be pointed out that Laudrup has experienced a few failures as well. He was released from Spartak Moscow in the middle of the 2009 season due to a lack of results, quit Mallorca early in the 2011-12 season, and ended his tenure at Swansea with a mid-season sacking on poor terms with the club’s board.
His experience with a national team was limited but intense: Laudrup was in fact the assistant coach of Morten Olsen’s Denmark, participating in a rather successful 2002 World Cup for his country. Olsen, who fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation, strongly influenced Laudrup, who, just like his mentor, opts for football composed of quick, short passing and possession.
There is another positive on Laudrup’s resume: his experience as a player in Japan. He joined Vissel Kobe back in 1996 and helped them achieve promotion from the JFL to the J-League. Upon his return to Europe in 1997, Laudrup remarked that he appreciated life in Japan but still wanted to compete at a higher level, hence the move to Ajax.
Were Laudrup to become Japan’s coach he would surely be welcomed by the public with his good looks and glittering CV. He would also find a footballing landscape significantly different from that which greeted his arrival 19 years ago: one in which Japan has embraced the game and ascended to a globally-respected level.
At the moment the Dane is on contract with Qatari club Lekhwiya, who are only one point below domestic Stars League leaders Al Sadd. From June he would be free to take over Japan, which could be a huge opportunity for his career if he were to successfully steer the Asian stronghold to a sixth straight World Cup appearance.
Halilhodzic: the Bosnian Globetrotter
Vahid Halilhodzic, who quit Trabzonspor last November and is available to take over Japan immediately, doesn’t boast a playing career as glamorous Laudrup’s, though he was twice the top scorer of the French league when playing for Nantes in 1983 and 1985.
That said, the 62-year-old is the more accomplished managerial candidate with some 25 years of experience and several titles in different countries, including an African Champions League with Raja Casablanca and a French Championship with Lille.
A globetrotter, the Bosnian started his coaching career in his home country before moving on to France, Morocco, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Ivory Coast, and Croatia. He’s still most well-known for his success at last year’s World Cup with Algeria.
Leading the Fennecs in Brazil, Halilhodzic humiliated South Korea, drew with Russia, qualified for the knockout stage, and took champions-to-be Germany all the way to extra time in the Round of 16.
While Laudrup, a prototypical Scandinavian, gives the impression of being cool and in control, Hahlilhodzic is known to be “hard-nosed and tempestuous, with frequent touch-line outbursts,” according to South African journalist Mark Gleeson, who wrote extensively about the Bosnian ahead of the World Cup.
His relationship with the media is not exactly rosy, with “press conferences frequently ignored” and stern replies to questions he does not like. “Why do you ask; is he your cousin?” Halilhodzic once said in response an Algerian journalist’s question about a certain player’s exclusion.
But when he’s in a good mood, the Bosnian dedicates plenty of times to the media. In 2011, he famously brought several journalists to a room with a projector and delivered a full lecture on the Algerian national team’s football, pointing out that “In the last game we barely made 200 passes, Barcelona usually make 700.”
Halilhodzic’s football produced impressive results at the World Cup. “As a former striker, I’m attracted to an offensive philosophy,” he once said. His Algeria’s 4-3-3 required very high pressing in order to recover the ball in the opponents’ half and set up quick attacks, but paid off when executed well as was the case in the side’s 4-2 dismantling of South Korea.
A 4-3-3 would be a new formation for the Samurai Blue requiring a different approach for most Japanese players, but that could be a positive for a team in desperate need of something new.
More than any tactical improvement, Halilhodzic’s personality could bring the sense of gravity that is badly needed in order for Japan to improve their approach to international football. In the words of Algerian journalist Maher Mezahi, Algeria under Halilhodzic “played with a ravenous hunger,” which is exactly what has been lacking in a Japanese team which has in recent years performed with style but achieved very little.
The decision between these two highly qualified managers may boil down to economic factors, availability, and incidentals such as staffing demands. What is certain is that either, with their interesting personalities and experience, could bring new ideas to the national team.
Recent poor results aside, the Samurai Blue need to put Javier Aguirre’s confusing tenure in the rear-view mirror and not only regain the respect of their supporters, but re-discover their self-confidence and capability to succeed.