On Friday I headed up to Niigata to see Japan pick up a 1-0 win over Jamaica. While the Samurai Blue should have beaten a lacklustre opponent by more than a single own goal, an all-too-rare clean sheet was a welcome positive. After the game I spoke to the back five about the team’s defensive structure…
NIIGATA — It is an oft-used maxim that attack is the best form of defense, but the first order of business for Japan coach Javier Aguirre would appear to be shoring up a leaky back line.
The Samurai Blue conceded 39 goals in the last 20 games of the Alberto Zaccheroni era, and continued that trend by shipping four in Aguirre’s first two matches against Uruguay and Venezuela in September — all from avoidable errors by Japan defenders.
They needed an own goal to claim the first victory of Aguirre’s reign against Jamaica in Niigata on Friday night, but the fact that they shut the opponent out in that 1-0 win was greeted with much relief.
“Since Aguirre took over, we hadn’t won, so as a team we spoke about the goal being to beat Jamaica,” goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa said post-game.
“Of course for us at the back, there is always an awareness of doing that while not conceding. The fact that we won and managed to keep a clean sheet will give the team confidence, I think.”
The scoreline was far from convincing against a poor and unprepared Reggae Boyz, but Gotoku Sakai insisted that the result takes precedence over the margin of victory.
“More important than how many goals we win by is the fact that we win,” the VfB Stuttgart fullback said.
Masato Morishige, who is steadily establishing himself as a favorite of Aguirre’s, having started all three of the Mexican’s games so far, made it clear that the team does not want to set up negatively.
“Today, we didn’t come with the intention of playing defensively at all,” the FC Tokyo centerback told The Japan News after the game.
“We wanted to come out and attack when we had the chance, but also to limit the risk at the back as well. I don’t think we were too aggressive or too defensive in this game. I believe we had a good balance between the two.”
Inter Milan star Yuto Nagatomo admitted that he was disappointed that the team missed a handful of chances to score more goals.
“I think it would have been better if we could have won by a few more goals; 3-0 or so would have been good, I think,” the 28-year-old said.
Even so, he was pleased with the smoothness of the defensive line, and in particular the performance of debutant Tsukasa Shiotani. “The communication between us was good, and although it was Shiotani’s first game, I thought he was very impressive. I think he played very well.”
Shiotani certainly settled into the national team with apparent ease, and although he admitted to feeling tense before kickoff, he grew into the game and completed 90 minutes at the heart of defense.
“Before the game I was nervous, but once it started, I soon lost that feeling,” the Sanfrecce Hiroshima centerback said.
“I didn’t have the experience of playing the game at this speed before, but we didn’t have to deal with any really dangerous attacks. The players up front put in a lot of running for us and that made it easy for the back line to defend.”
The next game will be a true challenge of Japan’s newfound resiliency, as it takes on five-time world champion Brazil in Singapore on Tuesday.
“Jamaica is Jamaica, Brazil is Brazil — they are completely different teams,” Sakai reasoned. “We have to decide on the way we play depending on the situation in a given game. Defensively, you always have to put your body on the line and of course we will continue to do that against Brazil.”
For Morishige, meanwhile, the outcome of the clash with the Selecao will provide a clearer marker of what Aguirre Japan can achieve.
“We have to think about how we will play depending on the opponent,” he said. “We need to respect Brazil and see what level we are currently at; how strong we are at the moment.”