It is still early days for Javier Aguirre as Japan boss, but there were signs in the recent win over Jamaica that his team is starting to take shape… (日本語版はこちらです:
Speaking after Javier Aguirre’s first game in charge of Japan last month, Yuto Nagatomo explained that the new boss was initially focusing more on the individual abilities of the players available to him than how they should function as a team. While it is still early days, the match against Jamaica suggested that the Mexican is beginning to convey to his players the shape he wants them to take though.
The Reggae Boyz were terrible opponents – making as many unforced errors as a struggling J2 side – meaning the Samurai Blue were widely panned for only being able to provide Aguirre with his first win courtesy of Nyron Nosworthy’s 16th minute own goal.
It wasn’t especially inspiring viewing from up in the Gods at the beautiful but flat Big Swan Stadium, but whereas September’s friendlies against Uruguay and Venezuela had the air of a group of diverse players being auditioned – rather like a university open trial – there were the early signs of a team being constructed in Niigata.
To begin with, a glance at the starting line-up demonstrated that, despite his early assertion that he would be trying to use all of the players in his squad, some favourites have already emerged for Aguirre.
Yuto Nagatomo, Masato Morishige, Hajime Hosogai, and Keisuke Honda have started all three of the 55-year-old’s games in charge, while Gotoku Sakai, Yoshinori Muto, and Yoichiro Kakitani have also featured each time.
While the players refuted such claims afterwards, it is clear that Aguirre is initially focusing on tightening up the team defensively. The threat from Jamaica was all-but non-existent but that didn’t stop Hosogai from dropping in almost as a third centre back alongside the impressive Morishige and Tsukasa Shiotani whenever Japan had the ball, while Sakai and Nagatomo were hesitant to tear forward and join the attacks in the first half.
That meant it was left to the front five to try and break through the ragged Jamaican backline, something they struggled to do with any regularity, with Shinji Kagawa still searching for his best form and fitness, Yoshinori Muto and Gaku Shibasaki adapting to international football, and Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki both missing presentable chances.
Things looked up a little in the second half though, and although Japan were unable to find the net again they created a hatful of chances to do so – Muto missing the best of them with a delayed shot which was closed down and a header from close-range.
The reason for that increase in productivity was largely because Sakai and Nagatomo had been let off the leash a little for the second 45 minutes, and were taking it in turns to supplement the attacks from wide.
“Against big teams attacking with just the front three isn’t enough and we have to get the central midfielders and full-backs involved more,” Nagatomo had said after training in Sapporo last month. “From now on we have to work together more when attacking.”
That was certainly the case as the game against Jamaica progressed, and I’m beginning to wonder if Aguirre may be trying to mould the team into more of a counter-attacking side than one which dominates possession.
Japan national teams tend to be full of players who can keep the ball, but often struggle to vary the speed of attacks once they have been in possession for a while. On the counter-attack, however, the side has frequently demonstrated an ability to catch opponents not yet set in position out on the break. Aggressive and quick full-backs such as Sakai and Nagatomo, direct forwards with sensational ball control like Muto and Kakitani, and players with Kagawa and Shibasaki’s ability to play the killer final passes would surely suit such an approach.
Of course, in order to operate that way, you need to be able to trust the guys at the back to keep the opposition at bay, which is why Aguirre is focusing so much on defensive organization at the moment.
Maya Yoshida is still probably the number one choice at centre-back, but if Shusaku Nishikawa does eventually usurp Kawashima as No.1 then his understanding with both Morishige and Shiotani could hugely benefit the national team.
The Urawa stopper has been in wonderful form yet again this season, and looks to be headed for a third straight J1 title. Amazingly he has been a regular in the J.League for 10 years now – a decade which has included spells working with Morishige (at Oita Trinita between 2006-2009) and Shiotani (at Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2012 and 2013).
“It certainly gave me peace of mind knowing that Shu-kun was there,” Shiotani said after his debut. “We’d already spoken before the game about being there to receive passes from each each other and I think we were able to do that well in the game.”
“His strength is that he is good at dealing with opponents in one on one situations but he can also join in with the attacks as well,” Nishikawa said of his former clubmate. “I really felt that it was easy to play with him because we had played together while at Hiroshima – especially in the second half when we started to work the ball around a bit more.”
Morishige also enjoyed working alongside players who he shares such a good understanding with. “Of course we need games in order to improve upon our co-ordination but I think that in order to be able to play so well together in such a short space of time is great,” he told me in the mixed zone. “It will take time but I think we will continue to get better and better from here on in.”
Several pieces still need to be slotted into place for Aguirre, but it does look as though the puzzle is beginning to take shape.