A case for the defence

Japan suffered a miserable group stage exit at the Olympics, ultimately paying the price for a lack of defensive solidity… 日本語版はこちらです

Football Channel, 16th August, 2016

After all the talk of aiming for a medal and placing a focus on defensive solidity Japan’s early exit at the Olympics – and in particular the manner of it – was hugely disappointing.

Makoto Teguramori’s side were handed a tricky but negotiable group and given what should have been a helping hand when Nigeria only arrived in Brazil hours before their opening game. Inexplicably they allowed the Nigerians to set the tempo of the match from the outset though, and defensive errors galore produced a ludicrous 5-4 defeat.

That was followed by another cautious display against a fairly mediocre Colombia side, with Japan only really gaining any foothold once they were 2-0 down and heading for elimination. Then, with Colombia on the ropes at 2-2 Japan seemed content to settle for a point, even though that then left qualification firmly in Colombia’s grasp.

As well as question marks over the team’s hesitant tactics one of the key issues was the choice of overage players. The initial impression when the squad was announced was mixed; with Shinzo Koroki looking like a smart selection, Tsukasa Shiotani understandable if a little underwhelming, but Hiroki Fujiharu seeming an odd choice.

In 2012 Takashi Sekizuka only opted to take two overage players to London, and both brought some experience and leadership to the side, which complimented the host of youthful talent coming through. Yuhei Tokunaga was 28 at the time and an experienced J.Leaguer with full national team experience, while Maya Yoshida was vital at the heart of defence.

The then-VVV Venlo player was only a year above the cut-off and so not much older than his teammates, but having already been playing in Europe for two and a half years and established himself as a first choice in the full national team under Alberto Zaccheroni – playing a key role as the side won the 2011 Asian Cup and also featuring heavily in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers – he was a calming presence at the back, guiding the physical but raw Daisuke Suzuki and demonstrating his class and composure as the team very nearly won a medal for the first time in 44 years.

Shiotani, while a very good player, doesn’t come across as a leader in the same way and is more used to playing as part of Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s three-man defence rather than the more orthodox four at the back preferred by Teguramori. Fujiharu, meanwhile, is a decent J.League player and has been in and around the national team but it was a little unclear what the coach felt he would bring to the side at left back that the likes of Ryosuke Yamanaka and Masashi Kamekawa couldn’t.

Koroki did look like a good choice up front though, and did reasonably well considering the relative lack of service he got in the first two games. The Urawa Reds striker is one of the most natural finishers in the J.League and has possibly only struggled to become a more regular feature in the full national team because of his frequent injuries.

Football Channel, Monday 15th August, 2016 (Getty)

If you want to take the full quota of three overage players to the Olympics then those who bring cool heads or a touch of extra quality like Koroki are surely preferable to steady-but-unspectacular J.Leaguers. The likes of Masato Morishige, Yuki Abe, Kengo Nakamura – who works well in tandem with Ryota Oshima at Kawasaki Frontale and could have done so in Brazil too – or even Shunsuke Nakamura could surely have been convinced to head to Rio and would have brought some much-needed composure to the side as the youngsters lost their heads against Nigeria and Colombia.

Indeed, as is so often the case, the kind of players Japan lacked in Rio were those in the middle of the park to add some resilience to the spine of the side at centre back and defensive midfield.

The best Japan have done at an international tournament in recent history – perhaps ever – was at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when Tulio and Yuji Nakazawa formed a solid partnership at the heart of defence while Abe sat in behind Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo as an extra shield to win back the ball and then distribute it to the more attack-minded players.

At the 2012 Olympics Sekizuka had Cerezo Osaka teammates Hotaru Yamaguchi and Takahiro Ogihara in front of Yoshida and Suzuki, and the pair’s familiarity and understanding added good balance to the team and enabled the likes of Hiroshi Kiyotake, Yuki Otsu, and Kensuke Nagai to focus on attacking.

This time around Teguramori never seemed sure about his first choice pairing in the middle of the park, ditching the 4-4-2 with which they had qualified and then chopping and changing who featured alongside captain Wataru Endo – who himself is perhaps better suited to a place in the backline, where he has impressed for Reds this season.

Ryota Oshima, Shinya Yajima and Riki Harakawa are all good players but none of them could be described as natural ball-winners, which meant the side had a soft core throughout which opponents regularly took advantage of.

When Japan did go forwards – which wasn’t often enough until the Sweden game, when the return to 4-4-2 and 1-0 win was too little too late – they looked good, and had plenty of attacking options, ranging from Koroki’s fox-in-the-box play, Takuma Asano’s pace and sharp shooting, and Shoya Nakajima’s ability to find the target from distance.

Musashi Suzuki and Takumi Minamino also offered glimpses in the final third, but over the three games as a whole Japan didn’t spend enough time playing with intent in that area of the pitch. They should have taken the initiative more often but were ultimately unable to do so because of a lack of security at the back.

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