2014 World Cup Review: Japan

Sandals For Goalposts begins its World Cup post-mortem with an analysis of the African and Asian teams’ performances at the World Cup. First up, Martin Lowe casts his eyes on Japan, rating the different component’s of the team’ s World Cup odyssey out of five stars.

Preparation – ✮✮✮✮

Japan’s preparation, on the face of it, went well. Three victories from three, scoring 8 goals along the way, was the perfect way to kick off their World Cup campaign. In reality, it wasn’t all ideal as captain Makoto Hasebe only made fleeting appearances as he returned from injury and Alberto Zaccheroni continued to struggle to pin down his preferred starting XI. Experimenting with Yasuyuki Konno at left back was an unpopular move that proved unrewarding against Costa Rica and Zambia.

Managerial Performance –

The fact that Zaccheroni resigned from his post as Japan head coach days after the tournament sums up the quick turn-around in his reputation over the last month.

His main problem has been evident over the last few years as he sat back relying on Japan’s star attacking players to make things happen without any alternative if it went all pear shaped. He lacked a plan B from the bench, opting for like for like changes ahead of flexing the system to adopt to the task in hand.

Japan’s defence lived up to its pre-tournament billing of being fragile and inconsistent, an aspect Zaccheroni hasn’t addressed in his tenor. After freezing out previous centre back pairing Tulio Tanaka and Nakazawa back in 2010, he had little option but to pick the defence he did, which ultimately cost his side’s progression in both the Confederation and World Cup competitions.

Team Performance

Group Stage Matches – ✮✮

Japan’s performances never reached the level of expectation of not just the fans back home but also many neutral observers who had tipped the Samurai Blue to succeed in Brazil. In their opener, Japan uncharacteristically started on the counter inviting pressure on from a quick and physical Ivory Coast side. A lack of plan B when they were behind ultimately cost them after sitting deep for much of the 90 minutes. Against Greece they failed to break through a stubborn rear-guard that had been further diminished after going down to 10 men early.

Plenty came out to condemn the Greeks’ defensive style of play, but in truth everyone expected it even Zaccheroni, who looked helpless from the side-lines as Japan failed to create any decent opportunities. The final match against Colombia was further evidence of Japan’s lack of creation in the final third. After being caught on the counter on a number of occasions Japan’s World Cup was over before it had truly began. That spark that had impressed many before the tournament never materialised once they arrived at the edge of the area.

Defence – ✮✮

Masato Morishige’s inclusion in the back four was a refreshing change in the central area but his one match cameo against Ivory Coast was deserving of more minutes going forward. However, Zaccheroni’s comfort blanket was set to return with Konno dropping in to his usual role of defensive weak spot. Alongside him Yoshida had an erratic tournament, at times commanding but in certain key stages left flat footed by quicker strikers. Nagatomo down the left and Uchida on the opposite flank attacked well but failed to track their men backwards. The under-usage of both Sakais (Gotku & Hiroki) may be one area Zaccheroni may have wished he’d utilised during the tournament.

Midfield – ✮✮✮

An area in which Zaccheroni continued to experiment with in each of the three group matches. In each match, at least one of the holding anchors was replaced to no avail. Previous stalwarts, Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe were in particular disappointing and lacked the drive and influence that they had a year ago at the Confederations Cup. Hotaru Yamaguchi alongside a dynamic Toshihiro Aoyama has left fans with some hope going forward as both looked comfortable in possession and unfazed by the quality opposition.

Attack – ✮✮

Going forward, Japan didn’t live up to expectations. Their world stars looked far from that, Keisuke Honda individually looked disinterested and disengaged from the rest of his team mates. His touch of quality was shown on occasions, setting up Okazaki for their final goal vs Colombia and also rifling home early on against Ivory Coast but in truth they were isolated cases.

Up top, Zaccheroni continued to experiment but couldn’t find his ideal man to take up the lone front man role. Yuya Osako coped with the pressure the best despite an isolated display against the Ivorians with a cruelly cut-short attacking display against the Greeks. Returning veteran Yoshito Okubo worked hard but found little reward while pre-World Cup hype machine Yoichiro Kakitani was limited to only a few brief appearances from the bench.

Player of the Tournament: Hotaru Yamaguchi

Arguably the strongest aspect of Japan’s play over the last few seasons has been their holding midfield. Hotaru Yamaguchi has proven that he has the capabilities of improving this area and in this World Cup he earned a starting spot for his creative passing and general cool head in the middle of the park. Recording over 90% successful possession stats, Yamaguchi was the passing hub from deep in the first two encounters before recording a late substitute appearance against Colombia. His performances have duly been noted, with many tipping the young midfielder for a move to Europe this transfer window.

Tournament Verdict –

Looking back on what was a truly dreadful campaign for Asian football, Japan’s performances were clearly the lowest point of the continent’s World Cup. Many were expecting exciting attacking football, but in truth Japan failed to get out of third gear as they aimlessly passed in front of strong defences. With Zaccheroni exiting, Japan’s problems won’t have disappeared over night. The key problem – that of getting the most out of their European-based players – stills needs to be dealt with in the upcoming World Cup cycle.

This last week it was announced that former Espanyol and Mexico manager Javier Aguirre would take over the reins going into next year’s Asian Cup, a title that many back in Japan will be expecting to retain. He’ll have to master the language and build bridges within the squad in what will be a massive six months for Japanese football.

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