Root or branch?

A new name is being touted as the next Japan coach every day, but the problems lie deeper than the man at the top… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel,  February 13th, 2015

For the bulk of Javier Aguirre’s 10-game stint as Japan coach there were as many questions about his future in the role as there were his selections and tactics.

With the Mexican finally being put out of his misery last week – as the match-fixing case hanging over the 56-year-old and 40 others, including Atletico Madrid captain Gabi and Manchester United’s Ander Herrera, was accepted by a Spanish court – the conversation has now turned to who will replace him.

The shortlist has reportedly been trimmed down to five people: Cesare Prandelli, Paulo Bento, Jose Antonio Camacho, Oswaldo Oliveira, and Luis Felipe Scolari.

Some of these options are more appealing than others. Prandelli and Scolari have an obvious pedigree and experience at the highest level, Camacho’s ill-fated time in China would suggest he may not be the answer, Bento has never worked outside of his native Portugal – although his name would be an advertiser’s dream in the land of the rising sun – while Oliveira would appear to be the safest pair of hands on account of his tremendous success at Kashima Antlers between 2007 and 2011.

Personally, however, I have my reservations about how much of an impact any new coach can have on this pool of players, and believe the problems are deeper-rooted.

The Japanese national team – and Japanese football as a whole – finds itself at a difficult crossroads, and just changing the guy at the top may not be enough to navigate the bumpy path ahead.

Gone are the days when the Samurai Blue are cast as plucky underdogs, as they were at World Cup finals between 1998 and 2010. The relative success of Takeshi Okada’s men in South Africa has been supplemented by more and more Japanese players establishing themselves in Europe’s big leagues, and there is now an expectation on the team to progress to at least the knockout rounds, while anything less than a semi-final spot at the Asian Cup is considered below par.

Bringing in talented foreign coaches to drag up the level of the team is no longer as easy as it once was, and while Philippe Troussier worked wonders with the 2002 vintage, there was plenty of room for improvement then. Nowadays Japan is chock-full of technically-gifted, athletic, and experienced professionals, and the aspects which need refining are incredibly difficult to enhance.

Vacancy at the JFA

Alberto Zaccheroni’s ultimate failure to at least match Okada’s triumph demonstrates that, as does the recent Asian Cup flop under an admittedly embattled Aguirre, with Japan exiting at the quarter-final stage for the first time in 19 years.

What needs to change now is the type of players Japan is producing, and the way in which they are being coached during the early stages of development. It’s all very well having a raft of talented chance-makers or wingers in your squad – each of whom fulfill that position at their various clubs in Germany – but how about sending some proper centre-backs, bulldog midfielders, or predatory strikers down the conveyer belt.

The thing most lacking is a spark, a player who will try something out of the blue to change the dimension of Japan’s attacks, which, while invariably easy on the eye, are all too often predictable and relatively easy for decent, organized defences to set-up against. An Omar Abulrahman-type player through whom the team can catch opponents out.

It is hard to encourage that instinctiveness out of players who have been trained in a far more rigid and organized fashion since they were children. It is for this reason that I think adaptations should be made to the youth coaching structures, with more freedom given to players to express themselves, something which may be aided by sending more young players abroad to learn the game.

Along similar lines, it may be beneficial to start casting the net wider than just players born and developed in Japan. The conversion of the likes of Rui Ramos and Alex Santos worked wonders for early-era Japan, while Tulio was a vital member of the 2010 side that made it to within a penalty shoot-out of a quarter-final against Spain.

Gotoku Sakai – born in New York to a Japanese father and German mother, and now playing regularly for VfB Stuttgart – was probably the standout performer for the Samurai Blue in Australia, and It looks increasingly likely that Kashima Antlers’ Caio may opt to represent the Japan rather than the country of his birth, Brazil. As we saw with France in 1998 and Germany in 2014, including players from more diverse backgrounds makes for a more adaptable and varied squad, and can provide the unpredictability needed to be successful.

Of course some of the coaches being sounded out may be able to coax a little more out of Japan as it is, but a few tweaks to the set-up at large could reap far greater rewards further down the line.


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