Move on up

There’s been a bit of grumbling about the form of the Japan Olympic team of late. It’s important to remember that results now are not necessarily the most important thing for players in the Under-23 age-bracket though…

Winning should, of course, always be the target in any match, but when it comes to competition in the lower age ranges the performance and development of the players is the main thing – not necessarily the result.

That had been something of a problem for Takashi Sekizuka’s U23 side of late, and they hadn’t particularly impressed in their Olympic qualifiers despite grinding out enough results to put them in a great position to qualify for London.

After a couple of unspectacular 2-0 victories over Bahrain and Malaysia they struggled to an unconvincing victory over Syria at Kokuritsu back in November.

They probably didn’t deserve to win that game but were then maybe a little hard done by to lose the away tie and, as a fellow journalist astutely pointed out over a beer last week, one win and one loss is always better than two draws.

The defeat in Syria highlighted perhaps the U23’s biggest weakness – something that is a common theme in the Japanese game; a lack of flexibility and spontaneity.

It is certainly good to build your own style from as young an age as possible to make sure that all players in the system know their role – a la Barcelona – but something out of the blue is also required at the highest level.

Sekizuka’s side are fairly easy to prepare to play against, and if you get enough men behind the ball who know exactly who they are marking then you can be fairly confident that the Japanese players will not be trying anything off-the-cuff.

Too many times, even in the 4-0 rout against Malaysia, one (or two or three) passes too many were attempted when a strike at goal would have been the best option. Likewise crosses were aimlessly dinked into the box by wide players when the chance was maybe there to drive in at goal themselves.

At the other end of the pitch opponents know they can benefit from a more direct approach, and uncompromising attacking was the cause of both of Syria’s goals in Jordan, with Shuichi Gonda seemingly not expecting either attempt to be coming his way.

With Genki Haraguchi and the impressive Manabu Saito brought in against Malaysia the side did have a bit more spark about them though, and the deadlock was broken thanks to Haraguchi taking a chance and causing enough confusion to lay the opening goal on a plate for Hiroki Sakai.

The Reysol full-back is surely the most impressive member of this team at the moment, and his ability to get up and down the flank is incredible, while his crossing is absolutely superb – as we saw yet again when he returned the favour and set up Haraguchi for the third goal.

The fourth goal, too, came about from a fairly untypical piece of play, with Takahiro Ogihara lashing a strike from range and the keeper spilling for Saito to pounce. Perhaps a sign that the players had learned from the Syria defeat? Take a chance and you don’t know what may happen.

Sekizuka, in fairness, has made it consistently clear that he is working towards the Olympics, and beyond that to the ultimate target, to prepare players for the full national team and, hopefully, the Brazil 2014 World Cup.

Alberto Zaccheroni is keeping a close eye on the progression of the players with this in mind – he was pitchside when the team won gold at the Asian Games in Guangzhou back in 2010 – and the gradual crossover of the likes of Haraguchi, Sakai and Hiroshi Kiyotake between the U23s and top team demonstrates that things are going reasonably well.

Half of the squad who went to the Beijing Olympics as J.League players are now playing their football in Europe (Honda and Morimoto were already there at the time), and the same number are established as regulars under Zac.

The experience of international competition formed an integral part of the education for that group of players and it should not be forgotten that the kids out there now are still learning the game.

Winning certainly helps in that education, but it is not the be-all and end-all. The 2008 alumni failed to gain a single point in China but they haven’t done too badly for themselves.

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February 2012

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