Stick or twist?

I wrote this around a month ago, after Japan’s last pair of friendlies in Europe, but for some reason forgot to post it here. My penultimate Weekly Soccer Magazine column on Alberto Zaccheroni’s rigid selection policy…


Good teams have bad games. That can’t be helped and kneejerk reactions are rarely helpful. Six defeats in eight games to non-Asian opposition is not just an off day though, and Alberto Zaccheroni has some big decisions to make as the World Cup finals draw ever closer.

Consistency brings with it many positives but too much repetition can breed complacency and result in things becoming stale and predictable. That is the problem Zac has to overcome now.

The two recent games against Serbia and Belarus were, on paper, the ideal opportunity to try out a few fringe or untested players against decent but far from top level European opposition in an environment far removed from the “Kirin makes smile field” cosiness of domestic friendlies. For reasons best known to himself the Italian neglected to do so though, instead going with his tried and trusted XI and substitutions you can almost set your watch too.

Again, I have no problem with a coach persevering with his preferred selection and feel that the impact of constantly bringing in new faces can be overstated and complicate things if overdone. However, when results are not being achieved – and in fact, defeats are mounting up – it is vital that something is done to lift the ennui over the camp.

Fans welcome Japan to Saitama Stadium, June 2013

As well as giving players the impression that their shirt is secure for Brazil –which can either lead to a sense of contented satisfaction or a fear of making a mistake and messing up your chances (and thus safe and unadventurous play) – opponents also know exactly what to expect when they come up against Japan, and are quite happy to sit back and let them pass the ball around in front of them before seizing possession and breaking quickly by way of attack.

There is nothing wrong with possession-based, passing football – indeed it is positively in vogue right now, especially in Japan where you are not a coach worth your salt unless you profess to be aiming for a Barcelona style of play – but it needs to be carried out in the right way. There is a time to slow down the pace and keep the ball but there is also a point at which the speed must be upped and a certain dynamism and directness needs to be introduced. At the moment the Samurai Blue are not injecting that boost, and the constant circulation of the ball reminds me of so many meetings I’ve had in Japan where it seems the target is not to achieve a goal but purely to have a meeting. Possession is all well and good but it needs to be taken advantage of.

"Are you ready to fight?"

In order to win big games – or at the moment just games – your big players need to perform and of late they haven’t done so. Keisuke Honda and, in particular, Shinji Kagawa have looked devoid of ideas recently, and when they don’t click Japan invariably do.

So, who can add that missing spark? The list of players who could be drafted in is exhaustive and almost every team in J1 has a candidate: Manabu Saito, Yoshiaki Ota, Yasushi Endo, Masato Kudo, Kengo Kawamata, Yoshito Okubo, Hisato Sato…; a host of aggressive, direct, and unpredictable players who could serve to mix up Japan’s approach play far more than Mike Havenaar or Takashi Inui have done in their recent attempts. Quite how they would fare at international level remains to be seen, but how will we know unless they are given opportunities?

Yoichiro Kakitani looked like he may be the trigger but has simmered down after entering the fray at boiling point, demonstrating how key the timing of such call-ups can be. Roy Hodgson, for instance, is another coach perceived to be too cautious but performed a recent masterstroke by adding Andros Townsend to the mix for England, and the Tottenham winger’s introduction spurred the Three Lions on to Brazil.

Is Zac waiting until the last moment before including a surprise player or two in the hope of providing a similar jolt at the finals themselves rather than one which wears off months in advance? It’s unlikely, but I certainly hope he has something up his sleeve.

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November 2013

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