As part of our Know Your Enemy series, Martin Lowe takes a look at the problem centre forward position that, with just less than two months to go until the World Cup, has Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni chin-stroking over a solution.
Despite a disappointing exit in the group stage, many commended the vibrancy and style of Japan’s displays at last year’s Confederations Cup. A similar approach that has seen them pick up eye catching results against the Netherlands and Belgium since last summer. However, for all their creative flair and impressive possession based tactics, they tend to fall short in front of goal. The Samurai Blue have had 12 months preparation from their anticlimactic showing in Brazil ahead of their return to the South American country for this summer’s World Cup, but the question remains on who Alberto Zaccheroni’s lone forward will be when it comes to their opening match against Ivory Coast.
For much of the World Cup qualification Zaccheroni opted to start a traditional “number 9”, a big man in most cases that could hold the ball up well before bringing the midfield into play. Ryiochi Maeda and Mike Havenaar rotated in the group stage but didn’t contribute heavily to the goal haul, as Japan relied on the creative talents of Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Keisuke Honda for their goal scoring bulk.
Maeda, whose form has dipped dramatically in the last two seasons, from a decent tally domestically in 2012 to relegation into the Japanese second tier in 2013, was given a last shot in the Confederations Cup, where he failed to grasp his opportunity. An outstanding performance against Italy in the group stage which finished 4-3 to the Azzurri, was a real indication of what Japan can do against one of the world’s top sides. Sublime passing triangles, with quick transitions gained rave reviews, but the lone figure of Maeda just couldn’t get hold of the ball enough and was mainly bypassed by his more incisive attacking colleagues around him. Since then, Maeda hasn’t made it into any national squad and is highly unlikely to make an impression ahead of the World Cup playing in J League 2. Havenaar, on the other hand, is proving a worthy member of a strong Vitesse side in Holland and could offer Zaccheroni a different option from the bench if they plan to use the long ball.
With qualification and the Confederations Cup out of the way, Zaccheroni shifted focus to domestic youngsters who were set to star in 2013’s East Asian Cup. From that tournament Yoichiro Kakitani and Yuya Osako impressed the most, both getting on the score sheet in their respective outings. There forward, both have been squad regulars and favourites to lead the line in Brazil, but neither has cemented their own chances of starting in the opening match.
Kakitani, up until a recent injury, looked the safer option, after replicating his domestic form (21 goals in 2013) early on with a decent finish against Belgium in a 3-2 friendly win for the Japanese. He has also been tipped highly to move to Europe after the World Cup, with Arsenal reportedly being in close pursuit. Osako, on the other hand, has already made the transition over to Europe, all be it to a less extravagant destination of 1860 Munich in Bundesliga 2. His goal scoring is as effective however, scoring 4 since January in Germany, and adding to his international tally against the Netherlands in November. Both provide an exciting blend of pace, movement and most importantly form, and are in line for a World Cup squad selection. Inexperience at the highest level could be labelled against them, and with a second show piece event in the Asian Cup in the coming year, Zaccheroni may leave it until then to thrust them into the competitive spotlight.
A third option is to offer a more experimental approach to the front line, a tactic that Zaccheroni has sought to tinker with in the last year. As is in vogue at the moment in modern football, much like East Asian rivals Korea Republic, Japan rolled out a “false 9” in the Confederations Cup opening match against the hosts Brazil. To say it didn’t go down well might be a slight understatement, however a domination from Brazil was likely to be on the cards whatever formation Japan chose to adopt.
Keisuke Honda, who at times last year was playing as a deep lying midfield playmaker for CSKA Moscow in Russia, was asked to be the link between a compact midfield and attack. His tireless energy didn’t go unnoticed, but the lack of possession and eventual efforts on goal deemed the experiment a failure, and Zaccheroni swiftly returned to his tried and trusted 4231 for the remainder of the tournament.
He could also tinker with his usual midfield template, by moving Shinji Okazaki from the right of midfield into the lone front man role. Okazaki, who starred initially at centre forward back in domestic Japanese football, had been moved out wide after a successful initial period in Germany with Stuttgart. Over the last few seasons Okazaki has continued to harbour Japan’s greatest goal threat even from a wider starting position, his brace against New Zealand recently moved him to equal third in the Japanese goal scoring charts.
It’s been his recent domestic form that has hinted at the possibility in moving him back to his initial positioning. Playing on the shoulder of the last defender for new club Mainz, he has hit a career high number of goals (currently 11 in the Bundesliga) along the way spurring his side into an unlikely European qualification chase. A move up top wouldn’t only utilise his capabilities, but also enable the use of Japan’s deep quality in attacking midfield. Hiroshi Kiyotake & Takashi Inui have individual attributes that could enable a different link up play down Japan’s right and dovetail easier with Honda et al than the more direct approach of Okazaki.
That centre forward selection in Zaccheroni’s 4231 remains his only real headache assuming the rest of his side remain fit. An injury scare to captain Makoto Hasebe might throw a spanner in the works which may affect selection higher up the pitch, as will the different considerations needed for their group stage opponents; Ivory Coast (aerially and physically strong), Greece (counter attacking) & Colombia (lacking pace at the back). Whichever way he chooses to play, it could drastically affect probably Japan’s greatest chance of success in decades and will be an interesting side note ahead of their kick off in Recife on the 14th June.