Archive for March 24th, 2021

24
Mar
21

The Future is Now

This week sees the full and Olympic Japan national teams back in action, with the Samurai Blue at risk of being overshadowed by their younger counterparts… (日本語版)

The full national team and its Olympic counterpart (currently re-badged as the U-24s after Tokyo 2020 was delayed by 12 months) are usually considered as two separate entities, but the quirk of the scheduling for both teams’ upcoming matches has seen them sharing the limelight somewhat in recent days.

Indeed, JFA Technical Director Yasuharu Sorimachi was even having to field questions about the U-24 team on the day the full national squad was confirmed, and while he reasoned that the two announcements had been arranged for separate days in order to ensure the Olympic selection didn’t miss out on media coverage, he really needn’t have worried.

If anything, it could be argued that the JFA staggered the squad announcements because they didn’t want the full national team missing out on column inches at the expense of the up-and-comers, with the appetite for news on the younger squad equal to, if not greater than, that for updates on the Samurai Blue at the moment.

While that state of affairs is of course largely down to the fact that Japan are set to participate as hosts of one of the most discussed Olympics of recent times in the summer, there is undoubtedly more to it than that. As well as there being plenty of crossover in the coverage of and conversation about the full and U-24 teams, for example, there is also a lot of convergence when you look at the respective players in each side.

A full 14 players in the original U-24 squad already have experience for the Samurai Blue, for instance, (a lot of which, admittedly, did come at the East Asian Cup or Copa America, when Japan took their Olympic squad), while seven of the players initially called up to take on Argentina in back-to-back contests are already playing overseas. On the other hand, the full national team called up eight debutants for the upcoming friendly against South Korea and World Cup qualifier against Mongolia, meaning in some ways they look the comparatively less experienced group of players.

Add to this the fact that the name on everyone’s lips at the moment, Kaoru Mitoma, was included in the U-24 squad and not given an eagerly-anticipated first call-up to the Samurai Blue, and that Takefusa Kubo and Ritsu Doan likewise found themselves in the younger selection and it is clear to see why there is so much intrigue swirling around the U-24s right now.

And on the whole, that is a hugely positive thing for Japanese football. While the players themselves will all understandably be desperate to make it into the squad for the once in a lifetime experience of playing at a home Olympics, their focus should really be longer term than that, and they should instead be targeting a place in the full national team for the next World Cup and beyond.

A look at the potential starting 11s for each team in this week’s friendlies highlights a few areas where there may be opportunities to challenge on that front, starting, clearly, with the three supporting forward roles.

Ordinarily you’d have to assume that Kubo, Doan (who ultimately had to withdraw from the squad), and, if he maintains his current trajectory, Mitoma, are prime candidates to feature for Hajime Moriyasu as he looks to make sure of a place in Qatar next November, and there wouldn’t be many defences in the world looking forward to having to deal with that trio scheming and creating in the final third.

At the other end of the pitch, too, Keisuke Osako is developing into an authentic option between the posts for his country. The 21-year-old is not only a terrific shot-stopper but he carries real presence and commands his area as well, and most of Japan’s current goalkeepers the wrong side of 30 there is an opportunity for him to get involved with the full set-up sooner rather than later.

Then there are the likes of Yukinari Sugawara, Ko Itakura, and Yuta Nakayama, who are all settled abroad and should be pushing the established players in the first team, as well as youngsters like Ayumu Seko, Reo Hatate, and Ao Tanaka, who are currently excelling in the J.League and looking more than ready to up their game on bigger and better stages.  

“They have great technique and a lot of creative players, but they’re also not afraid to put in the dirty work and battle aggressively to make sure they win the 50/50 battles,” coach Akinobu Yokouchi said of Argentina when announcing his squad. “This game will be a great opportunity to see just how well we can cope when challenging for possession against such an opponent.”

Previous generations of young Japanese players may have been a little unaccustomed to such darker arts of the game, but with so many of this crop already used to competing against and alongside such players every week for their clubs they are made of sterner stuff and such matters shouldn’t be such an issue for them.

The fact that the U-24 squad boasts so much talent and commands such high expectations is a testament to how effectively and prolifically Japan is continuing to produce players capable of playing at the highest level, and if they can continue to develop at the same rate then, Olympics success or not, that bodes incredibly well for the next stage in the evolution of the full national team.




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