3-0 away to a Syrian team with maximum points was a more than acceptable result for Japan in Oman, and while the first half was a forgettable one for the Samurai Blue, a steady second 45 minutes and goals for Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki, and Takashi Usami kept three of the team’s most important forward players in the groove.
Defensively, too, the side looked reasonably sound in picking up its third consecutive clean sheet – although Syria, like Cambodia and Afghanistan before them, caused very little by way of a threat.
There was still a sense of Japan being a little disjointed, however, something which could be attributed to an apparent lack of cohesion in the centre of midfield. Neither long-standing captain Makoto Hasebe nor his partner Hotaru Yamaguchi had bad games per se, but the pair seemed to struggle a little with the division of labour in the middle of the park.
The best pairings in that area tend to operate with a clear distinction between defending and attacking, with one player predominantly focused on the former and another on the latter. Think Roy Keane and Paul Scholes when Manchester United won the treble in 1999, for instance, or Kazuyuki Toda and Junichi Inamoto at the 2002 World Cup; Keane and Toda were in charge of shielding their defenders and dispossessing the opposition, while Scholes and Inamoto had more license to roam forwards and score decisive goals for their teams.
Hasebe and Yamaguchi, meanwhile, seemed a little unsure who was supposed to be doing which – or more likely, they were both attempting to do both and in the process not quite managing to do either.
Hasebe suggested after Vahid Halilhodzic’s first game in charge against Tunisia in March that the coach wasn’t keen to assign specific roles to his two midfielders.
“Under [Javier] Aguirre I played as the anchor – which was a completely different position [for me] – and for [Alberto] Zaccheroni I was one of the holding players, which wasn’t a role that required me to go forward too much,” the 31-year-old said. “Now it is not really the case that the holding midfielders don’t go forward, though, and it may be the case that increasingly the players in that position get forward more and more.”
A freedom to play based on the in-game situation rather than pre-determined directions is no bad thing, but at international level it is more difficult to put into practice as it’s harder for players to develop the same level of understanding of each other’s habits as they can when playing together for a club.
There were signs of Halilhodzic being frustrated with Hasebe and Yamaguchi during the first half against Syria, with the Bosnian engaging the pair in an animated discussion during the water-break. That chat didn’t seem to help, though, and in the 30th minute Syria were able to counter after Yamaguchi was dispossessed just inside the opposition half with Hasebe 10 metres ahead of him on the right wing.
Similar situations arose in the 41st and 42nd minutes, with both central midfielders seeming a little unsure of where each was supposed to be and allowing Syria to charge forward through the centre of the pitch unchallenged.
Luckily for Japan their opponents lacked the quality to capitalize on those opportunities, but up against stronger opposition they likely won’t get off so lightly.
There were also times when the lack of cohesion caused problems for Japan when in possession, something that guest commentator Tulio picked up on.
“They’re taking a long time looking for the pass,” he said as Tomoaki Makino and Yuto Nagatomo attempted to start an attack from the back.
“That’s because there aren’t really many outlets for them. It’s not to say that the defenders are doing anything wrong; there’s nowhere for them to play it so they’re searching. If there’s not more movement, if more varied options and routes to play out through aren’t created, then it becomes difficult for the defenders.”
Again this is where the central midfielders are vital. If one of them knows he is the deep-lying player and the other knows it is his responsibility to get forward then they can automatically assume positions to benefit each aim. If they are each caught between two stools then the transition between defence and attack will consequently become less smooth.
There was a slight improvement in the second half, with Hasebe surging forward at one point and connecting well with Shinji Kagawa before an unintentional hand-ball brought the attack to an end, and then again as the Eintracht Frankfurt player found space to set Okazaki free to win the penalty from which Honda opened the scoring.
A partnership between Hasebe and Yamaguchi does appear a strong one for Japan on paper. They will need to turn it into one in reality as soon as possible, though, or Halilhodzic may decide that adjustments – either tactical or with regards to personnel – need to be made.