Japan’s marathon man Shinji Okazaki has put in the miles to establish himself as a key starter for the Samurai Blue…
Shinji Okazaki is really growing on me.
His scoring record for Japan has always been impressive (33 goals in 63 games after his decisive strike against Iraq) and his work-rate has never been in doubt but I have always seen him as something of a trier, lacking the control and intelligence of the more refined players left out of the Samurai Blue squad. He reminded me – particularly in his longer-haired days – of a big dog chasing a ball around a park: full of boundless enthusiasm and clearly loving every minute of his playtime, but completely clueless as to what he was supposed to do once he was in possession.
I’d frequently bemoan his presence in the team while others were overlooked, and would groan in frustration as he inevitably found himself in the right place at the right home to tap home the goal that would keep him involved for the next match.
Now, however, I am starting to think that he wasn’t just Johnny-on-the-spot in meaningless Kirin Cup games against Finland, but that he is a far smarter player than I initially assumed.
Once is chance, twice is coincidence, after that there must be more to it, and it seems there is more to Okazaki than meets the eye.
Before South Africa 2010 I attended a press conference with the then-Shimizu S-Pulse striker, when he was struggling to live up to his expectations as the central striker for Takeshi Okada’s side as the World Cup edged ever-closer. At the time he had scored just twice in his last seven appearances for the Samurai Blue, something of a dip after he’d raised expectations by plundering seven in his previous three games.
While he of course denied feeling any pressure as the focal point of the attack, he did admit that he had perhaps started to overthink things out on the pitch.
“I wanted to score so badly that I think I killed my instinct to do so. I was thinking too much about it so I killed my strong point,” he said.
There were suggestions even then that he maybe struggled to focus, and that he expunged too much energy chasing after lost causes.
“That’s my character,” he responded. “If I don’t do that then it’s not me. I have done it from when I was very young.”
It is precisely that characteristic which persuaded Alberto Zaccheroni to shift Okazaki back a little though, into one of the three supporting roles behind the main centre-forward. While Keisuke Honda struts around expending energy only when he absolutely must and Shinji Kagawa possesses such wonderful technique and ability that he rarely looks flustered, the third point of that trident presents opponents with a far different proposition to defend – as well as putting in a shift heading back in the opposite direction.
Despite my initial impressions Okazaki’s movement is not performed without thought, and he has improved dramatically since Zaccheroni – who prides himself on his intricate coaching methods – has been in charge. Okazaki doesn’t just luck out when the ball falls to him in the box, he has made sure he is exactly where he should be to cause the most danger, and now that he is not relied upon to lead from the front he is able to act more instinctively coming onto the ball rather than needing to work with his back to goal.
It takes more than just hard work to change your game once you are established in the national team, and Okazaki deserves credit for having persevered to improve his weaker points. It shouldn’t really have surprised me as he paid reference to the strength of character needed to make it in football back at that press conference in 2010.
“My [high school] teacher said that personality was vital and combined with your football performance,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for that teacher.
“I was better at marathons and longer races [at school] – stamina is one of my strong points,” he added.
His persistence has certainly won me round, and if I was in charge the Stuttgart man would be one of the first names on the teamsheet for the final straight in Brazil next year.