Japan’s defence is still not looking particularly water-tight. Does it matter when you have so much talent pouring forwards at the other end, though…?
It would be something of a turnaround from the last time that Japan appeared at a World Cup finals but I’m beginning to wonder if the team should start to adopt a more aggressive stance regardless of the opposition they are facing.
Defensively the side has not looked convincing for the last six months, and indecision with regards to how much to commit forward and how much to try and keep opponents at bay has invariably seen Alberto Zaccheroni’s men on the wrong side of results.
The Confederations Cup was the perfect case in point, and after offering Brazil a huge amount of respect in the opening game Japan were comfortably swept aside 3-0.
The next game against Italy was undoubtedly the high point of the competition for the Samurai Blue, and after 33 minutes they found themselves 2-0 up against the Azzuri. Nerves then began to set in, however, and after Maya Yoshida’s mistake allowed Italy back into the game just before half-time Japan retreated further and further back, eventually ending up on the wrong side of a 4-3.
Fear of returning from Brazil with a clean sweep of defeats then saw the side enter its final match against an out-of-form Mexico cautiously, and again come away without any points.
Looking at the personnel available it does not seem likely that a surefire defensive leader is going to emerge over the next nine months, and so Zac should perhaps focus on getting everything he can out of the not inconsiderable attacking threat his team possesses.
The emergence of Yoichiro Kakitani as not just a fine J.League player but a realistic option to lead the line for the full national team may well be the final piece in a puzzle that has long remained unfinished.
Frustration at the lack of a proven goalscorer has constantly dominated discussion about a succession of Japan teams, but the current abundance of not-quite-strikers-but-not-midfielders looks like that conversation may be irrelevant for this generation.
With Kakitani ostensibly the furthest forward but constantly moving left and right and dropping deep against Ghana an abundance of space was created for Hiroshi Kiyotake, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Kagawa to exploit, and the Ghanaians really struggled to contain the foursome.
If one constant goal threat is not available then having four accomplished – if not prolific – finishers buzzing around is not a bad alternative.
Eiji Kawashima, who in his duties at the other end of the pitch knows exactly what defences don’t want to come up against, was impressed with Kakitani’s instant acclimatization to the Samurai Blue.
“He’s got good potential as a striker,” the Standard Liege keeper told me after the Ghana game. “Also he’s getting used to playing with the national team quickly so I think he can be a good option for us. He’s still young and if he learns a lot of things I think he can contribute much more to the team.”
I asked Kawashima if he felt that the side had the ability to switch from being a pragmatic team aiming to win games without conceding goals to a more bombastic, expansive outfit in the mold of the 1999 Manchester United team which famously adopted the approach of ‘you score three and we’ll score four’.
He – understandably for a keeper – didn’t seem certain they should adopt quite such a gung-ho way of playing, but did concede that the team was better placed now than it was in South Africa to take the game to opponents, who would be starting to fear the attacking threat posed by Kakitani and co.
“I think absolutely [opponents] know about us. They are thinking that Japan is much stronger than before,” he said. “So even though in 2010 we were just defending mostly for 89 minutes and [then] try to score, this time we have more quality for the attacking. But as I said it’s not about only attacking as a team, we have to mix it.”
That’s true, and becoming too top heavy could be dangerous, but throwing off the shackles a little and keeping opponents occupied with containing the variety of quick, skillful, and intelligent attackers at Zac’s disposal could limit the amount of defending that Japan actually need to do. It is the best form of defence, after all.