The magic number?

Japan have often struggled to break down stubborn opposition, and the upcoming friendlies against Panama and Mexico could provide manager Hajime Moriyasu with a chance to tweak his formation in order to add some extra threat to his side… (日本語版)

Aside from a couple of changes, the Japan squad for the upcoming friendlies against Panama and Mexico is the same as that which participated in the rusty contests with Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire in October, with J.League players still not an option on account of the various coronavirus-induced travel complications.

Yuto Nagatomo has returned to the fold after injury, meaning there is no place for Koki Anzai, while Kento Hashimoto and Takuma Asano will also be joining up after visa issues ruled them out last month.

With Werder Bremen seemingly not keen to release Yuya Osako, Asano’s only competition for a place up front comes from Musashi Suzuki, who looks to be high in confidence and has been amongst the goals for Beerschot since October’s games in Utrecht. It is the situation at the other end of the pitch, however, that looks most intriguing heading into these games.

Eiji Kawashima is still involved, but a decade on from establishing himself as No.1 for his country the 37-year-old is surely now included more for his presence in the squad and on the training pitch than as a realistic option between the posts heading into the next World Cup.

Shuichi Gonda was first choice as the team progressed to the final of the Asian Cup last year and looks favourite to remain as Moriyasu’s preference for the time being, but the 31-year-old is yet to feature for Portimonense this season and will surely see his place come under threat if that situation doesn’t improve soon.

Daniel Schmidt, meanwhile, has only managed one competitive appearance for Japan – and that was the dead rubber final group match against Uzbekistan at the Asian Cup, when both teams had already qualified for the next round – and has similarly struggled for regular opportunities at Sint Truidense this season. Despite being a relative newcomer to the international fold he too is already 28, and if he isn’t able to make a realistic challenge for a starting place soon then it looks like he never will.

As well as the situation in goal remaining up for debate, the same could also be said for who will line up in front of the No.1 – or, more precisely, in what formation they should set up.

Against Cameroon Moriyasu shifted to three at the back in the second half, and while it was a rather lopsided version with Hiroki Sakai wedged in as one of the centre-backs, it offered a glimpse at how Japan could be lining up as and when competitive fixtures get back underway.

Maya Yoshida and Takehiro Tomiyasu are nailed on as first choice centre-backs, and Sakai and Nagatomo (fitness permitting) remain the frontrunners out wide. This latter pair often provide so much of Japan’s attacking threat in tight games, and when used correctly full-/wing-backs can play an increasingly key role when it comes to unlocking stubborn opposition In the modern game – an area Japan have of course traditionally struggled in.

Further utilising a pair of attack-minded wing-backs with good engines on them would add an extra dimension to the team’s attacks, providing the ball players in the middle of the park with more options from which to create and enabling them to stretch opponents more often by offering the likes of Sakai and Nagatomo space to bomb into from deep starting positions. In Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson Liverpool have recently shown that throwing caution to the wind from this area of the pitch can reap huge rewards, and with the likes of Genki Haraguchi and Junya Ito also willing runners Moriyasu does have options to choose from.

Of course, offering more license to roam out wide would mean extra cover is needed at centre back – a state of affairs that could provide Naomichi Ueda with a chance to stake a proper claim for a place in the first team. The Cercle Brugge man has been in and around the Samurai Blue squad since the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia, although he didn’t make his debut until the East Asian Cup at the end of 2017. Since then he has only managed 12 appearances, but his physicality and aerial strength could neatly supplement the more technical play of Yoshida and Tomiyasu at the back – especially against a couple of solid outfits like Panama and Mexico.

Moriyasu of course achieved much success employing three centre-backs at Sanfreccce Hiroshima, and it is a little surprising that he hasn’t looked to implement it so far as his formation of choice for the national team. This pair of friendlies could be the perfect opportunity for the former Purple Archers boss to test it out and see if the players are capable of adding an extra string to their bow.

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November 2020

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