Japan put in an assertive second half display in a match that was already won on Thursday night, and the 5-0 victory over Afghanistan contained some positive signs looking ahead to the final round of qualifiers… (日本語版はこちらです)
It would be easy to dismiss the result on account of the opposition – and after a resolute start Afghanistan did fall apart in the second 45 minutes at Saitama Stadium on Thursday night – but Japan’s 5-0 win over Petar Segrt’s side offered plenty of encouragement as the final round of qualifiers edge closer.
Home games at this stage of qualifying tend to follow a similar pattern – defensive opponents retreating in a mass of red shirts and Japan desperately trying to pass their way through – but in the second half of this game in particular there was something a little different, more proactive, about the Samurai Blue’s approach.
“It was a beautiful victory with panache and aggression,” Vahid Halilhodzic said post-match. “Our team spirit was phenomenal and we played very aggressively.”
The manner in which his players kept up the unrelenting pressure on Afghanistan as the clock ticked down was certainly a refreshing sight, with an extra sense of zip and directness about the side as they poured forward in search of more goals.
“We were creating chances from crosses and also trying to get the ball in behind and pick up the second ball without overdoing the passes, which were things we’d spoken about before the match,” captain Makoto Hasebe said.
“Instead of playing too prettily we took a few more risks and sent some long balls attempting to break their line.”
That diversion from playing ‘pretty’ football was certainly pleasing, and the assertive formation the team set up in – essentially 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield, although almost a 4-1-3-2 in reality – is perhaps something that should be attempted more often to ensure that Japan are a less predictable side to play against.
“We approached it with a fresh mentality,” man-of-the-moment Shinji Okazaki said after notching his 48th national team goal. “We had two up front, but it could also become three – it looked like it had the potential to be a dynamic combination.
“To an extent the idea was to try things without looking and see how they went. I didn’t have time to think about things too much. Maybe there were times when we were in too much of a hurry, but I felt like if we kept on like that the opponent wouldn’t like it.
“Against a stronger opponent maybe we wouldn’t be able to play in that way because of concerns about them countering, but today the opposition really dropped back and defended so we were able to play dynamically. We weren’t impatient and we made chances. I think things worked well when I dropped back and played as a two-shadow with [Hiroshi] Kiyotake, and that’s how my goal came about.”
Indeed, Kiyotake looked sharp in behind the strikers, while the pairing of Okazaki and Mu Kanazaki certainly has potential. The Kashima Antlers man also found the net – well, he just about managed to get the ball over the line at least – and was a constant threat going forward, with Halilhodzic praising his combativeness, presence, and the fact that he was always showing for the ball.
Then there was the returning Mike Havenaar as well, who wasn’t able to get his name on the scoresheet but did make the goal for Kanazaki after heading a cross down into his teammate’s path.
“I had 20 minutes and wanted to score – that was the intention with which I entered the game and I really thought it was going to happen,” he said after his first Japan game since October 2013. “Still, I managed to get the assist.”
The 28-year-old feels he has become physically stronger and also adapted in the way he thinks about the game since he moved to Europe, and he is confident that Halilhodzic has a clear idea of how to get the best out of his play.
“The coach wants to make a difference with me in the team. He wants more crosses coming into the box, and I think he’ll make a difference [to my role] in the team.”
More direct approach play, injecting pace and spontaneity into attacks, scoring ugly goals; these are not traits usually associated with Japan, but they are some of the things that the team need if they are serious about doing something meaningful at Russia 2018.
Of course, they need to get there first, but if they are able to build upon their ruthless second half display in this game they will certainly put themselves in a good position for a sixth straight finals.