I have just started a column for Weekly Soccer Magazine 「週刊サッカーマガジン」and will be posting English versions of the articles here at Sakka Nihon. If you would like to read them in Japanese please check out 「蹴球ベイベー」 in the magazine which is available from most convenience stores and news-stands.
The first subject up for discussion was Alberto Zaccheroni’s start as Japan coach – and his knitwear…
When Alberto Zaccheroni was first announced as the new coach of Japan it was a bit of an anti-climax.
With the Samurai Blue having performed so well in South Africa it was felt that a big-name appointment could provide the spark to take the team to an even higher level and, consequently, the reaction to Zaccheroni’s appointment was rather muted.
A big name is not always what is required though, and you need only consider two of the most well-respected coaches in the world for evidence.
Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger arrived at Manchester United and Arsenal as relative unknowns, and supporters of neither club were particularly impressed by their appointments. While they may not have been dancing in the streets when they initially took over, the pair have gone on to win fourteen Premier League titles between them and very few fans of either club could bear to think of anyone else leading their team now.
Despite the distinct lack of excitement at his unveiling in September Zaccheroni made it clear that he intended to get straight down to business and, having declared that he would be spending the majority of his time in Japan, his face (and impressive collection of sweaters) soon became a common sight at J.League stadiums around the country.
As the coach set about acquainting himself with the players he would soon be working with his eagerness appeared contagious, and when I asked Shinji Okazaki for his thoughts on the new boss after Japan defeated Paraguay he replied, “Kakkoi!” It obviously wasn’t just me who was a fan of the jumpers.
Zac, as he insisted we call him, had started to win people round but the real challenge lay in the two extremely tricky opening fixtures against Argentina and South Korea. Declaring he was not scared, the new coach stayed true to his word and set up in an attacking formation when Messi and co. visited Saitama. Again, his positivity infected the players.
With four attack-minded players on the pitch in Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki, Keisuke Honda and Takayuki Morimoto, Japan refused to sit back and more than matched the tenacity, pace and aggression of their opponents.
Eiji Kawashima, Yuto Nagatomo and Kagawa all looked full of confidence – each clearly boosted by their recent moves to Europe – and the tried and trusted pairing of Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe anchored the midfield superbly.
It was also encouraging to see the players taking a few risks, and had it not been for Hasebe trying his luck from 30 yards Okazaki may never have been given the opportunity to tuck home the momentous first goal of Zaccheroni’s reign.
Ryoichi Maeda, back in the squad having been largely unfavoured by Takeshi Okada, provided a further example of this more aggressive style of play when shrugging off the desperate lunges of Javier Mascherano and getting a shot away. All too often a Japanese striker would have opted for a pass to a teammate, and it is likely that such a strong-minded approach was in his coach’s mind when selecting the team for the Korea match, with the Jubilo man starting in place of Morimoto.
While they were unable to make it two wins from two in Seoul, it was pleasing to see them again launching their attacks quickly, and Honda in particular was peppering the goal with strikes from all angles.
Avoiding defeat to their fierce rivals – and keeping another clean-sheet – was a definite improvement on the last two meetings between the sides, and I am starting to sense a little bit of edge creeping into Japan’s play.
Not only are more players readily throwing themselves into 50/50 challenges, but the passionate pleas by captain Hasebe for a penalty (which remarkably wasn’t given) was something I cannot recall having seen too often from a Japanese player.
While the embarrassing levels of whinging and moaning at match officials in Europe is certainly not something I want to see imported by Zaccheroni, a little emotion and desire will certainly be a welcome addition to a team all too often referred to as ‘good losers’.
It is still very early, and new coaches nearly always enjoy a ‘honeymoon period’. If Zaccheroni can continue to infuse his players with such self-belief and fighting spirit though, it may not be long before the countless Fair Play awards on display in the JFA museum will be getting overshadowed – hopefully starting with the Asian Cup in January.