8. Genki Haraguchi (New Entry)
Hertha Berlin (GER) / Japan / Attacking Midfield
Words by Martin Lowe
While others have floundered around him, Genki Haraguchi has been Japan’s stand out player of 2016, with his goals alone contributing to 5 extra WCQ points the Samurai Blue wouldn’t have without him. His ascension from a player on the fringe of a call up, to regular squad player, to regular starter, to their most potent weapon has really took full flight this past year, so much so that his inclusion ahead of the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda (who were both benched against Saudi Arabia in November) hardly raised an eyebrow.
While he made a couple of telling impacts in Round 2 of World Cup qualification, it’s been Round 3 where Haraguchi’s come into his own. From four starts, he’s scored four goals, a goal in each match. The only match of Round 3 he didn’t notch in was the one he only appeared from the bench (against UAE). Since then, with Haraguchi featuring from the start, Japan are unbeaten, only dropping 2 points in their away draw against Australia.
It’s strange that we’re placing so much emphasis on his goalscoring figures, as apart from a one off season for Urawa Reds back in 2013, Haraguchi has failed to hit double figures in any single club term. In fact, despite featuring heavily for Hertha Berlin in the German Bundesliga, Haraguchi has only found the net 3 times in 3 seasons. His all round game instead is the contributing factor to his selection, that of intensity, direct running and quick thinking that is a different option alongside the likes of Kagawa and Honda in the national team.
One of Samurai Blue coach Vahid Halilhodzic’s main gripes with Japanese football has been that they’ve lacked fight and direction, to this day he still points to that as an area in which the country’s football must improve. “In Japan – you have a lot of time. You have so much time you could drink champagne and sake. You could even eat because you have so much time on the ball. There’s a difference between Europe and Japan with regards to fighting spirit, just a sheer lack in the number of challenges made in Japan.”
Haraguchi has embodied what is needed for Japan to push forward, the spirit to act quickly, close down the opposing defence and directly run at the back four. Considering the impact he’s had in the latter part of this year, it’s clear that him and Halilhodzic fit ideally together and without a designated and firing number 9 at present, Vahid will again be relying on Genki’s goals to fire Japan towards World Cup qualification.
Highlight of the Year: Two important goals in October’s World Cup qualifiers
It’s been a stressful end to 2016 for Japan followers, after losing their Round 3 opener against UAE at Saitama Stadium, the pressure was on for them not to drop any more points if they were to qualify for Russia in 2018. September was seen off limply with a win, albeit an unconvincing one against Thailand but October was seen as the make or break period.
Results against Iraq followed by Australia needed to be positively achieved, and while the rest of the team did little to answer this emphatically, the all round game and crucially the goals from Haraguchi helped them on their way. He opened the scoring in his hometown of Saitama against Iraq, with a cute back-heeled finish (don’t mention that the assist came from an offside position), while he did the same again against Australia in Melbourne, breaking the defensive line before slotting past Mat Ryan. Two big goals, two big results; a narrow 2-1 win over Iraq followed by a 1-1 draw in Australia. Japan have a huge debt of gratitude to pay to their all action midfielder.