A changing of the guard looks like it’s getting closer for the Japan national team, but for the time being Vahid Halilhodzic is right to stick with his big name players… (日本語版はこちらです)
Vahid Halilhodzic deserves plenty of praise for the way he has dealt with the final round of World Cup qualifying so far.
Japan got off to a terrible start last September when they went down 2-1 at home to UAE, and with several key men not playing regularly for their clubs the Samurai Blue suddenly seemed to have an uphill battle on their hands to make it to a sixth straight World Cup finals.
Goals from Genki Haraguchi and Takuma Asano helped Japan steady their footing with a 2-0 win away to Tuesday’s opponent’s Thailand a few days later though, before the side just about came away with four points from October’s tricky pair of games against Iraq and Australia – Hotaru Yamaguchi slamming home a euphoric injury time winner to seal the 2-1 home win over Iraq, before Haraguchi found the mark for the third game in a row in the 1-1 draw in Melbourne.
The past two games have been the real test, though, and Halilhodzic has negotiated both very well to leave Japan fully in control of their own destiny after beating Saudi Arabia 2-1 in November – Hiroshi Kiyotake and, again, Haraguchi notching – and then gaining revenge over UAE thanks to Yuya Kubo’s and Yasuyuki Konno’s goals in last Thursday’s 2-0 victory.
The reason Halilhodzic should be commended is for the manner in which he has managed his players throughout this process, using them intelligently to benefit the team as a whole.
Japan’s two world-renowned stars, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, are both on their days capable of deciding games for their team, but, unfortunately, neither have been seeing anything approaching regular playing time for their clubs this season, leading to calls for them to be axed from the national team set-up.
Halilhodzic himself added fuel to these fires by publicly warning his players that if they weren’t getting regular minutes he wouldn’t be considering them for his squad.
The 64-year-old is a pragmatist though, and knows that national team and club football are very different beasts. Whereas club sides play once or twice a week over a nine-month season and require a balance between short- and long-term planning, when it comes to international football each meet-up is only focused on one or two games – even at finals most teams only play three or four matches.
With that in mind Halilhodzic knows he can’t plan too far ahead, and that his selections for each squad must be dependent upon the current situation. Ideally he always has 30 or so players starring for their clubs and jostling for positions in the party, but in reality that just doesn’t happen.
Kagawa, in particular, shouldn’t really be starting at No.10 – and several times of late he hasn’t, with Kiyotake replacing him before himself suffering a dip in form – but when there is no-one else demanding to be picked instead it makes sense to go with the most experienced – and naturally-gifted – option. He may not be dictating the play going forwards – and longer term that is certainly an issue that needs fixing – but the opposition will still be drawn to him, freeing up space for the likes of Haraguchi and Kubo to capitalise upon.
Honda, meanwhile, has played just one minute of football for AC Milan in 2017 – a lamentable fact but one we shouldn’t get too carried away with. When at 100% the 30-year-old is still Japan’s best player, and even if he’s not playing regularly for his club he is more than capable of having an impact in a high pressure game for his country. Therefore, he is certainly still worthy of a spot in the 23 ahead of another decent-but-as-yet-unproven alternative.
Halilhodzic said when naming his most recent squad that Honda’s personality is important for the team, and assuming he finally transfers somewhere in the summer and is playing every week by this time next year then there should be no doubts about him being good to go at his third World Cup.
Of course, that is assuming Japan make it, which while looking more likely now than it did six months ago is still far from decided.
Thankfully for Kagawa and Honda enough other players have been stepping up to the plate during their lulls though, with relatively new faces like Kubo, Haraguchi, and Osako making positive contributions and veterans like Eiji Kawashima, Maya Yoshida, and Konno – all of whom were excellent against UAE in Al Ain – making sure they lead by example when called upon.
If they can do the same again against Thailand today then Halilhodzic and Japan will surely have half-a-foot in Russia.