It is hard to read too much into Japan’s recent World Cup qualifier wins over Cambodia and Afghanistan.
Yes, after the shock 0-0 against Singapore back in June it was a relief to see the Samurai Blue remembering where the goal is and picking up a comfortable six points in the process, but overcoming two of Asia’s weakest sides (ranked, for what the FIFA ranking system is worth, 180th and 130th, respectively) is merely a resumption of regular service.
Each qualification process contains its drubbings (last time out, for instance, Tajikistan and Jordan were swatted aside 8-0 and 6-0), but once the finals roll around Japan stutter and stall, unable to adjust to the superior opposition in front of them and the expectations heaped upon them.
Before Tuesday’s jaunt against Afghanistan, the hammering of Tajikistan in Osaka in October 2011 was the last time that Shinji Kagawa scored two goals in a game for his country. Shinji Okazaki, as he just did in Tehran, also found the net twice at Nagai Stadium four years ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same…
Bearing that in mind, proclamations of Kagawa’s return to supremacy may be slightly premature. There are signs that he is beginning to shake off the fog that has enveloped him for the past couple of years, and it is promising that he appears to be re-asserting himself as a key player for Borussia Dortmund, too: when he is happy he is confident; when he is confident he can be a joy to watch.
However, a couple of goals against canon-fodder is not the yard-stick against which Kagawa should be measured, and for him to truly achieve his potential he has to become a game-changer once the chips are down and the world is watching.
Indeed, game-changers have been sorely lacking for Japan for longer than most care to remember: you know, those players capable of sparking excitement with a quick turn of pace or change in direction; of creating a chance when none seemed on; of scoring when a goal wasn’t an option. There are few things more exhilarating than seeing such players in action, and of late Japan fans haven’t exactly been spoiled on that front.
Mu Kanazaki (in his previous incarnation as a head-down-and-run-at-the-fullback winger at Oita Trinita), Takashi Inui, Yoichiro Kakitani, Manabu Saito – there have been a few dribblers given chances with the Samurai Blue, but none of them have been able to establish themselves as must-picks.
The reason for that often seems to be because they don’t fit into the team ethos – that they lack the tactical discipline to play ‘Japan’s style’, to operate as part of the team. And perhaps that is what has been holding the side back. Perhaps giving somebody free-reign is what the team needs.
Instead of having to merge, chameleon-style, into the team’s rigid, possession-based approach, including a maverick to roam as he pleases – with a license to try the unexpected to put the opponent on the back foot and bring a new dimension to Japan’s attacks – could be just what the doctor ordered.
Genki Haraguchi’s performance against Afghanistan certainly demonstrated the merits of such an approach.
The 24-year-old is another who has been given opportunities in the past but flattered to deceive. That couldn’t be said of his performance against Afghanistan, though, when he looked sharp, decisive, and determined to make the most of his rare start.
He made his mark after just 10 minutes, jinking inside from the left wing when nothing seemed on, catching the Afghanistan defensive line out and creating the space and shooting opportunity from which Kagawa opened the scoring with a fine drive. That early contribution provided a boost of confidence which didn’t leave him over the next 80 minutes, and each time Haraguchi was in possession he was direct, aggressive, and not afraid to take risks.
Of course, he wasn’t entirely devoid of responsibility to the structure of the team, and whether he is capable of reprising or expanding upon the role against tougher opponents remains to be seen. His coach was certainly pleased with what he saw of the former Urawa Reds forward, though, and despite Yoshinori Muto and Takashi Usami both coming on in the second half, Haraguchi wasn’t asked to make way and completed the game.
Halilhodzic appears to be a coach who encourages trying something different – he spent much of the build-up to these qualifiers urging his players to shoot on sight – and may just be tempted to introduce a wild-card to the set-up more regularly.
Whether that is Haraguchi will ultimately depend on the form and fitness of the Hertha Berlin player. His livewire performance will certainly have given Halilhodzic some food for thought, however, and the Bosnian could do far worse than trust in a spot of tactical indiscipline.