Japan’s meek surrender at the 2014 World Cup was not so much down to tactical or technical failings as it was, erm, testicular ones… (日本語版はこちらです： http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/06/28/post45563/)
Japan has rightfully earned a reputation as one of the best countries in the world at developing players with outstanding technical ability, but some things can’t be learned on the training pitch. The Samurai Blue have now appeared at five consecutive World Cup finals, and while there has undoubtedly been development in several areas there is still a naivety to the side on the biggest stage, with mental strength and self-belief continuing to be a key problem for Japanese players.
Alberto Zaccheroni has come in for a lot of criticism in the wake of the miserable elimination from the World Cup at the group stage, but while he must take his share of the responsibility it is far too simplistic to lay all the blame at the Italian’s doorstep. He picked the players and set the tactics but could not legislate for individual errors, and there were far too many of them in Brazil – particularly in the vital last game.
For the first quarter-of-an-hour Japan went blow-for-blow with an athletic, pacey, and passionate Colombian side which had confidence coursing through its veins having already sealed progression to the round of 16. Then Yasuyuki Konno, matching Adrian Ramos stride for stride and having no need to commit himself, lunged into a poorly timed tackle inside the box and gifted Juan Cuadrado the chance to give Jose Pekerman’s side the lead from the penalty spot, which he duly accepted.
Why Konno made that decision only he knows, but it demonstrated a lack of concentration and confidence that he was in control of the situation. As a coach you can tell players over and over again who to mark, when to drop off, and when to make a challenge but if they aren’t able to control their emotions on the night then it makes very little difference.
Similarly, having gotten themselves back into the game via Shinji Okazaki’s header right at the end of the first half, Japan’s defenders again panicked in a situation which called for cool heads. Three players were attracted to James Rodriguez on the edge of the box, leaving Jackson Martinez – whom Atsuto Uchida should have been covering – completely free to pick his spot and re-establish his side’s lead just 10 minutes after the break.
Even prior to that Japan had shown an inability to adapt to the context of the game – another common problem – and needing just one more goal to secure their passage into the next round it is unclear why they felt the need to come haring out of the traps against a side as proficient on the break as Colombia. For this oversight Zaccheroni should be held culpable – particularly as he had made incorrect tactical calls in both previous games as well.
Bringing on the slower, deeper-lying Yasuhito Endo for the more dynamic, forward-thinking Makoto Hasebe at half-time while ahead against Cote d’Ivoire was an invitation to the Ivorians to apply pressure to an incredibly brittle defence, while the decision not to introduce a player capable of breaking through the rigidly arranged 10 men of Greece in the second match, instead settling for a hit-and-hope approach, was baffling.
Nevertheless, again it was the players on the pitch who lost all form of discipline, and as well as a lack of organization and leadership at the back the increasingly frantic forays forward left gaping holes in the midfield meaning it always looked as if any more goals were going to be scored by the team striding the field in yellow, not that darting frantically about in blue.
That’s not to say that Japan didn’t have chances, and several good opportunities presented themselves as the half wore on. Again there was an inability to stay calm under pressure though, and Yoshito Okubo, Shinji Kagawa, and Yoichiro Kakitani all should have done better when they had the goal in their sights. Contrasting their wayward or tame efforts with the clinical finishes which made the score 3- then 4-1 to Colombia further highlights the lack of composure of the Japanese players. Rodriguez’s classy dink to round off the scoring was a particularly stark reminder of the difference between the two sides.
Colombia hadn’t qualified for the finals since 1998 but looked like they belonged on this stage – and, more importantly, the players looked like they believed they did – while Japan gave the impression that they were still a bit overawed by it all – something most apparent in their opener when they seemed genuinely shaken by the introduction of the 36-year-old Didier Drogba.
It’s easy to make knee-jerk reactions and we shouldn’t forget that this is the very highest level of football, at which the likes of Italy and reigning world champions Spain have also fallen at the first hurdle. However, development is constantly demanded (and proclaimed) by the JFA and looking purely at results (the symmetry between 2014 and 2006 has been given much publicity in the wake of this year’s disappointment) it is difficult to see how much is really being made.
Technical ability is vital in modern football, but it still needs to be backed up with a strong resolve. Pekerman’s Colombia side demonstrated that as they eliminated Japan with relative ease, and another Argentinian coach, Diego Simeone, repeatedly praised the cojones of his Atletico Madrid side during the 2013/14 season. The days of a Japan coach being able to do the same thing seem a long way off.