I was in Oita for Vahid Halilhodzic’s first game in charge of Japan on Friday, and after the game got some reaction from the players on their latest new boss…
OITA — Vahid Halilhodzic’s debut as Japan coach didn’t quite live up to the cliche of being a game of two halves, but there were two clear phases in the 2-0 win over Tunisia in Oita on Friday: Samurai Blue’s play with their regular forwards, and without them.
The Bosnian only arrived in Tokyo a fortnight before his first game, but instantly looked to exert his authority on a Japan side still smarting from its meek exit at the quarterfinal stage of January’s Asian Cup.
The starting lineup in Oita contained just two of the players who began in that loss to the UAE in Sydney — defender Maya Yoshida and captain Makoto Hasebe — and the experimental selection was understandably a little disjointed early on.
The introduction of Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa on the hour mark, soon followed in the 72nd minute by Shinji Okazaki, injected life into the side, though, and Honda was full of praise for his new boss.
“The players who came on during the match were able to produce a result,” the AC Milan playmaker said postmatch. “To me, that shows the quality of the coach.”
Honda received from Kagawa before crossing for Okazaki’s headed opener in the 78th minute, then scored himself after Kagawa’s ball across the box was parried into his path by Tunisia goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifia five minutes later.
There was definitely a sense of Halilhodzic bringing out the big guns with his double substitution, and he left his star players in no doubt as to what was required of them as they replaced the largely ineffective Hiroshi Kiyotake and Kensuke Nagai.
“He expected the two of us to change the game, and we were soon able to do that,” Honda said.
“He wanted me to receive the ball in attacking positions and try to make the rhythm,” Kagawa said about his coach’s instructions.
The Borussia Dortmund player certainly looked keen to try and create after his introduction — although his end product was occasionally a little rusty — and, like Honda, he is impressed with Halilhodzic’s methods.
“He’s a good fit with us, I think. He demands things intensely, and strength and speed are qualities that Japan has lacked. There are still issues we have to work on, but everyone has an awareness of the kind of soccer the coach wants — precise rotation of the ball, quick buildup, and to switch well between defense and attack.”
Halilhodzic will surely have been pleased with a wonderfully worked second goal, then, which started from a fizzed, low Yoshida ball out from the back in to Honda, who immediately laid off for Takashi Usami.
The Gamba Osaka striker — making his long-awaited debut for Japan — turned possession over to Okazaki, who proceeded to set Kagawa free inside the left of the box. From there he was able, with a little luck, to return the ball to Honda to convert.
Yoshida, who enjoyed a commanding performance at the heart of defense, believes that Halilhodzic’s precise manner of getting his message across will reap rewards.
“He places great importance on his work conveying things to the players,” the Southampton centerback said. “It’s only been a few days, but personally I expect that I will be able to develop a lot by working with him.”
This new start for Japan came just 203 days after the last one, with Halilhodzic’s predecessor Javier Aguirre being removed in February after just 10 games in charge on account of his alleged involvement in a Spanish match-fixing scandal.
Honda, however, brushed off suggestions that the comings and goings had been disruptive.
“Adaptability is one of my strong points,” he said. “The environment can change, the coach can change, many things can change, but one of my strengths is that I am able to cope with that.”
Halilhodzic may implement more changes against Uzbekistan in Tokyo on Tuesday, when he will surely be tempted to use more of his established frontline players from the start.