The Final 23…

The final announcement is fast approaching so for my latest column for Football Channel I tried to predict Alberto Zaccheroni’s squad for the World Cup finals, and made some suggestions of my own… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/05/10/post40005/)

Football Channel,  May 10th, 2014

In a few days Alberto Zaccheroni will announce his squad for the World Cup. The Italian is obviously far better qualified than I am to name the 23 men to represent Japan at their fifth finals, but purely to add to the discussion I thought I’d outline the players I would take if I were in charge of the Samurai Blue.

The squad I expect to see and the squad I would like to see are different things, so to begin with let me list the names I think Zac will be unveiling on Monday afternoon:

Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima, Shusaku Nishikawa, Shuichi Gonda

Defenders: Atsuto Uchida, Hiroki Sakai, Yasuyuki Konno, Maya Yoshida, Masato Morishige, Masahiko Inoha, Yuto Nagatomo, Gotoku Sakai

Midfielders: Yasuhito Endo, Makoto Hasebe, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Hajime Hosogai

Forwards: Shinji Okazaki, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Manabu Saito, Yoichiro Kakitani, Yuya Osako, Yohei Toyoda

Zaccheroni has been fairly consistent in his selections since taking over from Takeshi Okada in September 2010, and even on those occasions when he has made slightly left-field call-ups those players – for instance Takashi Usami, Ryo Miyaichi, and Keigo Higashi – haven’t been provided with substantial, or even any, minutes on the pitch to show what they can do. It is therefore hard to see him adapting his approach for the biggest tournament there is – even if there may be the temptation to throw in a surprise (as Sven Goran-Eriksson did with Theo Walcott while England coach in 2006).

For the most part it is hard not to agree with that approach, with the bulk of the squad having matured together over the past four years and won the 2011 Asian Cup. In fact, there are only three changes I would make to the personnel if I were given the opportunity to do so.

Consistency and understanding are vital to success in a major tournament – the margins for error are so fine that a single mistake could ultimately see your team knocked out of the competition – and so the defence needs to have authority, experience, and trust. My back five, then – while not exactly immune to lapses in concentration – would line up largely as it has throughout the qualification process: Eiji Kawashima in goal, Atsuto Uchida at right back, Yasuyuki Konno and Maya Yoshida in the middle, and Yuto Nagatomo – whose displays I think will be key for the team in Brazil – charging up and down the left.

As back up I would stick with Shusaku Nishikawa and Shuichi Gonda in goal, as well as the two Sakai’s and Masato Morishige. My final pick in that area would be Daisuke Nasu of Urawa Reds though. I feel Nasu could comfortably step into the side were injuries to occur, and as well as having a presence and physicality that many Japanese centre-backs lack, he would also provide some much-needed aerial strength to deal with assaults by more direct opponents – as well as posing a considerable threat himself in the opposition penalty area.

Japan scarves at a qualifier for Brazil 2014

As far as the four defensive-midfielders go I wouldn’t change any of the four players listed above, starting with Hasebe and Yamaguchi and keeping Endo and Hosogai in reserve.

The second line behind the lone striker essentially picks itself, with the free-scoring Shinji Okazaki in the form of his career, Keisuke Honda the heartbeat of the team, and Shinji Kagawa, despite having had a dismal season at Old Trafford, still one of the finest players Japan has to offer. Manabu Saito would provide a wonderful option to throw on if a goal were needed with 15 minutes to go – his confidence on the ball and desire and ability to run at defenders is unrivalled in the Japanese game – as would Masato Kudo. The Kashiwa Reysol man can play in any of the three positions behind the centre-forward – as well as being able to lead the line too – and he has outstanding positional awareness and a real killer instinct in front of goal.

He would also have to make do with a place on the bench though as I would fill the sole striking berth with Yoshito Okubo. Yoichiro Kakitani is the more complete player, and when on form the combination play that he, Okazaki, Honda, and Kagawa are capable of would cause headaches for the best defenders in the world but at the moment he is not at the peak of his powers.

Finding a rhythm and generating momentum is key at a World Cup finals, and throwing in Okubo – a player whose confidence is still soaring after finishing last season as top-scorer in J1 and having continued to find the net in 2014 – as a bit of a wild card could act as the positive spark to ignite the team. In the same way that defenders cannot afford a single slip-up in tournament football strikers need to take advantage of any chances that come their way – against the best sides there may only be one – and on current form I would prefer to have Okubo latching onto the through-balls than Cerezo’s No.8. Kakitani isn’t a bad substitute to have at your disposal though.

As well as knowing where the net is Okubo is also fantastic at harrying opposing defenders and never shies away from putting his foot in – in a recent interview Shimizu S-Pulse’s Calvin Jong-a-pin told me that Okubo is the player he’s been most impressed with in his three years in the J.League – and Japan need a few more players with a bit of edge.

With that in mind the final spot in my team would go to Yohei Toyoda, a proper ‘English-style’ centre-forward, almost in the mould of Alan Shearer, who scores consistently, poses an aerial threat and, similarly to Okubo and Kudo, could also be useful defensively if Japan are hanging on to a result with the minutes counting down. In fact, it is that aspect of his game which gets him the nod ahead of Yuya Osako, Hiroshi Kiyotake, and Kengo Kawamata, who I don’t feel quite have the discipline required.

Zaccheroni’s choices will determine how Japan does in Brazil though, and as the competition edges closer I for one am starting to get very excited.


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