Words by Tom Danicek
For a continental powerhouse, Japan’s overall Olympic record is astonishingly poor. Despite preparing for their sixth straight games, the last time Samurai Blue turned out to be the cream of the Asian crop was back in 2000, with Hidetoshi Nakata, Junichi Inamoto and Shunsuke Nakamura all on board. London 2012 was a relative success, though stained by a derby defeat to South Korea in the bronze medal game. Can Japan do even better this time around?
Tournament preparation tells us they probably can’t. Teguramori’s boys have lost three of their four official matches in May, where they couldn’t find the net against England and Portugal in Toulon, and looked totally out of their depth in the first half of the Brazil friendly just a couple of days ago. Granted, the coach has rotated formations throughout, and the flair is still there, but this side really doesn’t look to be drilled nearly well enough to make a real mark in Rio de Janeiro…
How they qualified
For the amount of stick Makoto Teguramori, a generally defensive-minded coach based on his club career, had accumulated during the U-23 Asian Cup, Japan actually looked strong in Qatar and quietly dominated all the way through.
Yes, they did rely on a crazy number of long balls and their offence did indeed look awfully sterile and predictable in patches, but hey, they also happened to win every single encounter! It wasn’t as much fun as in 1999, when the Samurai Blue topped their qualifying group with eight wins and 52 goals scored, but the job was simply done and rather efficiently so.
The current U-23 generation also proved that they are born, determined winners. None of their elimination rounds was a lopsided affair, and each of them was decided in a different, yet similar way. In the quarter-finals, they crushed Iran with three goals in the extra time. In the semis, Iraq were sunk by a late stunner. And in the final, South Korea were forced to throw away a two-goal lead.
In all cases, Japan held on pretty admirably, and never did they call upon the same difference-maker. First, it was the Nakajima show, then it was Harakawa with his prompt shot, and finally it was Asano’s brace off the bench. Japan can hit you from anywhere, and that’s good news for their fans.
Three key players
For me at least, it’s not very hard to recall the last time Japan had a centre back at a tournament of any kind which could be described as a proper lynchpin to the side: it’d be Tulio Tanaka at the 2010 World Cup. A fearless presence generating fear in opponents, no-nonsense centre back with respectable dribbling ability – a combination rarely seen across the continent, let alone in Japan itself.
Since then, guys like Konno, Yoshida, Morishige or Makino have been at times prone to brain farts, poor efficiency on the ball and other shortcomings. Naomichi Ueda, though, looks a rather different case and there are even shades of Tanaka within him.
A precise tackler who doesn’t lose an aerial battle is exactly what the senior national team needs and this is a big chance for the Kashima Antlers mainstay to make a serious claim for the relatively open spot. Stuart from JLeague Regista is an optimistic fan of Ueda, and I feel no need whatsoever to argue with him.
Once more, Japan’s ball distribution from deep is very much going to depend on one Endo. Just not the iconic Yasuhito, of course, but his namesake Wataru, who may not spray the ball on such a long distance, but still remains an effective and particularly alert user of the ball.
Wataru Endo is not an unknown entity on the international scene by any means. He’s already debuted in the World Cup qualifiers, having impressed Halilhodžić at last year’s East Asian Cup. Much has changed since then, though. Firstly, Endo has come to senses and ditched his awful shiny green boots, but more importantly, his club and role on the pitch have been altered.
Last summer, the Shonan Bellmare mainstay operated mainly down the right and even crossed beautifully for Yuki Muto’s first goal of the tournament; whereas this summer, he’ll somewhat replicate his part at Urawa Reds. As Ryan Steele testifies, Endo has been playing in the centre of the back three, being mainly responsible for sensible distribution and intelligent covering up for others. In Rio, a similar task beckons for the captain, albeit in a different formation…
At 30 years of age, the dynamic attacker is to some extent being rewarded for five consecutive J1 seasons with 10+ goals. But it’s not only that. The nature of Teguramori’s formation requires both strikers to cover huge area, pop into the channels every now and then, exchange positions with Minamino, find open spaces, avoid needless offsides (hello, Musashi Suzuki), and generally work their socks off. Shinzo Koroki – being a very unselfish player himself – fits the job description perfectly.
The Urawa Reds striker is not as active a shooter as his presumed rival for this spot Yoshito Okubo, but he should contribute more in transition which is essential on a side with two deep-lying central midfielders and no classic number 10. With Yuya Kubo (and his cheeky runs from deep) indeed brought back to Bern due to his club’s injury crisis, Japan will desperately crave presence of someone like Koroki, who’s hit four goals in his last five pre-Olympics club starts.
In January, Teguramori largely counted on a peculiar formation 4-4-2 with two runners and no target man upfront, hence looking like a poor man’s Claudio Ranieri most of the time. Even when he opted for a tall man next to Yuya Kubo (as was the case in the U23AC semi-final), the leggy Suzuki wasn’t asked to do any hold-up play anyway. Common shortcomings of this system, though, were insufficient attacking intent, let alone thrust, from both fullbacks as well as a leaky and lightweight central midfield, which is also probably why (along with less available strikers) Teguramori spent the whole summer tinkering.
Let it ultimately be 4-4-2 or 4-1-4-1 (two alternatives the coach tried out in the U23AC final), you’ll always find the carriers of the greatest danger on the flanks. Both likely starting wingers, Shoya Nakajima on the left and Takumi Minamino on the right, tend to cut inside a lot and they are by far the flashiest players of the side. Their game differs somewhat, though; whereas Nakajima enjoys a quick move inside and early release, Minamino usually cuddles the ball considerably longer and quite often even too much. The Red Bull Salzburg star still doesn’t really know when to get rid of the ball, but his knack for a breakthrough pass is very much unrivalled on this team. If Minamino doesn’t start (which happened twice in January due to his health), both Yajima and Asano can attack down the right.
One potential, yet somewhat exaggerated weakness has been addressed by Teguramori. While there’s no bemusing need to call-up an overaged backup goalkeeper like four years ago, persisting lack of personnel at the back is still highlighted by the presence of centre-half Tsukasa Shiotani and left-back Hiroki Fujiharu. Both are being rewarded for some admirable consistency in the last few years and both are virtual guarantees of smart use in possession. Since Japan sometimes lack incisive passing down the middle, Shiotani shall chip in as a typical ball-playing centre back.
In the end, the backline looks just about fine on paper, with the now preferred Kosuke Nakamura being a slightly superior goalkeeper to Masatoshi Kushibiki, the U-23 Asian Cup regular. My biggest concern would therefore be the presence of four (more or less) holding midfielders, who are going to provide the attacking line with next to no service. That said, Harakawa always has the occasional surprise run forward in him, which can prove to be the difference (see his U23AC semi-final winner).
Generally, there’s little balance and aggression to Japanese middle of the park for my liking, and so it’s baffling Teguramori hasn’t yet put much trust in the youngest member of the squad, the combative ball-winner Yosuke Ideguchi. He’s only 19, but getting regular calls at Gamba Osaka already and he may be this generation’s Hasebe/Aoyama, according to journalist Dan Orlowitz.
Full squad list
1 – Masatoshi Kushibiki (Kashima Antlers)
12 – Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol)
2 – Sei Muroya (FC Tokyo)
4 – Hiroki Fujihru (Gamba Osaka)
5 – Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers)
6 – Tsukasa Shiotani (Sanfrecce Hiroshima)
15 – Masashi Kamekawa (Avispa Fukuoka)
17 – Takuya Iwanami (Vissel Kobe)
3 – Wataru Endo “C” (Urawa Red Diamonds)
7 – Riki Harakawa (Kawasaki Frontale)
8 – Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale)
9 – Shinya Yajima (Fagiano Okayama)
10 – Shoya Nakajima (FC Tokyo)
14 – Yosuke Ideguchi (Gamba Osaka)
18 – Takumi Minamino (Red Bull Salzburg; AUT)
11 – Musashi Suzuki (Albirex Niigata)
13 – Shinzo Koroki (Urawa Red Diamonds)
16 – Takuma Asano (Arsenal; ENG)