Japan’s first choice XI is changing bit by bit under Vahid Halilhodzic, although the Bosnian still seems unsure about who he wants playing in central midfield… (日本語版はこちらです)
It is only happening gradually, but the make up of Japan’s best XI appears to be evolving under Vahid Halilhodzic.
Stalwarts of the side from the past couple of World Cup cycles are increasingly finding that their places in the XI are not guaranteed – whether as a result of form, fitness, or a combination of both – and new players are steadily establishing themselves as key to the side’s chances of success.
Yuto Nagatomo, for instance, has not started any of the last five games, Shinji Kagawa has been in and out of the team – although still tends to start the more important matches – Shinji Okazaki hasn’t completed 90 minutes since 8 September last year, and even Keisuke Honda is no longer the untouchable of two years ago, being subbed off for the fourth game in a row against Oman on Friday night.
Meanwhile, Genki Haraguchi and, most impressively, Hiroshi Kiyotake have been performing so well that Halilhodzic has no choice but to keep picking them, while Hiroki Sakai and Gotoku Sakai now look settled as the first choice full-backs.
Yuya Osako’s ruthless display in front of goal back in Kashima also demonstrated that there are other players capable of filling Okazaki’s boots when he is not in form – as he undoubtedly isn’t for the Samurai Blue at the moment, having been stuck on 49 goals for his country since netting in the 7-2 rout of Bulgaria seven games ago.
The centre of midfield, however, is the one area of the pitch where it seems Halilhodzic is struggling to find a solution.
Yasuhito Endo played his last national team game under previous coach Javier Aguirre in the quarter final loss to UAE at the Asian Cup in January 2015, and a return under Halilhodzic never seemed to be on the cards for the Gamba Osaka star. With a line having been drawn under the international career of Japan’s most capped player, however, no-one has been able to stake an authoritative claim for the vacant No.7 shirt.
Plenty have been auditioned for the role – with Ryota Nagaki’s debut on Friday making him the 11th player to line up in the middle since Halihodzic took the reins in March last year – but it is still not clear what the Bosnian’s preferred combination is. The last time he stuck with a pairing for back-to-back games was when Makoto Hasebe and Yosuke Kashiwagi started both the Bulgaria and Bosnia friendlies in June.
Since then there has been a tendency to alternate between Kashiwagi and Hotaru Yamaguchi, although Halilhodzic doesn’t seem convinced enough by either to make them his first choice to partner captain Hasebe – who we must assume is guaranteed one last chance to play at the World Cup finals considering that he started eight in a row before being rested against Oman.
“I still don’t feel as if I am established in the side and have to keep playing with that outlook, knowing my place is not safe,” Yamaguchi said after another steady display in Kashima.
“There are new players coming in – today I think Ryota [Nagaki] played well – so within that there is good competition for places.”
One interesting aspect of that competition is that Halilhodzic appears to be leaning towards a more experienced head in the centre, having sampled and not been too impressed with younger candidates like Gaku Shibasaki (24), Wataru Endo (23), and Ryota Oshima (23), who all appear to have been cast aside for now.
Nagaki’s call up adds weight to that theory, with him earning his national team bow at the ripe old age of 28 – making him the least experienced yet second oldest outfielder against Oman. He didn’t look especially nervous though and put in an assured display at the base of midfield, suggesting that Halilhodzic may consider him as the alternative to Hasebe if the captain is injured now that Toshihiro Aoyama also seems to have been removed from consideration.
“The coach hasn’t spoken to me personally about why he called me up, but I think he rates my ability to battle for the ball, and so I want to do my best to demonstrate that ability when I play,” Nagaki said.
“I think defensive midfield is a position that can really become the key for the team, and so there are times when it is important to rein in the selfish instincts about what I can do and to consider the positioning of my midfield partner. While paying attention to that balance I want to be able to go forward when the opportunity is there too and hope I can be able to show my quality in that way.”
Tuesday’s Saudi Arabia game marks the half-way point of the final round of qualifiers though, and the time for testing things out is drawing to a close for Halilhodzic. The team needs consistency if it is to make it to a sixth straight World Cup, and in order to achieve that it is vital that the coach settles on his preferred combination in the middle of the park as soon as possible.