Japan have the look of a well-oiled machine at the moment, while England continue to crunch functionally through the gears. This week I pondered who would come out on top if the two were to come head-to-head anytime soon…
After Japan got the final round of World Cup qualifiers off to a winning start with a 3-0 win over Oman I was asked an interesting question.
Somebody on twitter wondered who I thought would win between the Samurai Blue and England if they were to play a two-legged home and away contest.
My response was that surely Japan would be the favourites.
The manner in which they so easily overcame Oman and then destroyed Jordan should be taken with a pinch of salt, but, at the same time, it is an indicator of just how good this side is when compared to previous squads.
The team which did so well at the 2010 World Cup finals was impressive but far from convincing in the last stage of qualifying, drawing three times and winning just once at home.
While beating the team teams ranked 97th and 80th in the world looks fairly standard, then, for Japan such comfortable victories are not traditionally the norm.
Not only did they manage to gather the six points with a 9-0 aggregate scoreline but the swagger and poise with which they cast their opponents aside demonstrated that Alberto Zaccheroni’s team has tremendous belief in their own ability.
Contrast that with perhaps the least interesting England side in living memory and you can see why I would give Japan the edge.
24 hours before Keisuke Honda and co. picked up a strong point away to Australia to confirm their place at the top of Group B, the Three Lions bored the world to tears in an excruciating performance against France at the European Championships.
In Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck there was undoubted potential to attack a dodgy-looking French defence, but instead of trying their luck the English players opted for a ‘solid’ approach.
Part of this problem is undoubtedly mental – goalscorer (header from a free-kick, of course) Joleon Lescott commented after the match that, “You know what you will get with an English team – plenty of pride and passion” – but there was also a depressing lack of basic ability on display amongst those in the white shirt.
This was most obvious when James Milner failed to convert after rounding the keeper early on, and although the angle was tight, his rigidity and complete absence of technique wonderfully summed up the English style.
There is always plenty of talk in England about the impact that foreign imports to the Premier League have had on the domestic game, but the national team stubbornly refuses to move on from the idea that success comes from playing the game with “pride” and “passion.”
The steadily increasing contact between Japanese players and the European game is having a positive influence on the Samurai Blue, though.
Keisuke Honda, who was the pivot from which all of Japan’s positive play stemmed against Oman, Jordan, and Australia, was in no doubt as to why the current crop of players are the best he has been involved with.
“The reason is very simple,” he said after the demolition of Jordan. “Now we have many players who play overseas. Japanese players always like ball possession and passing but foreign football always attacks more directly.
“Yatto-san [Yasuhito Endo] and [Makoto] Hasebe-san have great passing skills and our attackers are very direct so that combination is very good for us.”
The Australia game provided a far sterner test – not least because the pitch in Brisbane had been used for a rugby match just three days earlier and the referee was seemingly taking charge of a football match for the first time – but Japan did well to deal with the Socceroos more “English” style of attack (long, high balls up front and crosses into the box at any opportunity).
I asked Yasuhito Endo after the Jordan game if this was the best Japan team he had played in, and while he didn’t go quite that far he did suggest it was unique.
“I feel that the national team is always very good but in this team we have many special players,” he said. “Opponents now are afraid of Japan.”
England would be no different, and Zac Japan could certainly teach Roy Hodgson’s team a thing or two about the beautiful game.