Archive for October 12th, 2021


Do or die

A dire start to the final round of World Cup qualifiers already has Japan’s automatic qualification hopes in doubt, and if they don’t spark into life against Australia then things will go from bad to worse for the Samurai Blue… (日本語版)

Japan didn’t play well against Saudi Arabia on Thursday night, but on another day they could have shared the points with an opponent that also failed to really shine.

The issue with the Samurai Blue at the moment, however, is that results aren’t falling their way and, let’s be honest, it is difficult to remember the last time they did play well.

If we include the knockout games at Tokyo 2020 – which seems fair, as the majority of those who featured for Hajime Moriyasu at the Olympics are also involved with the full national team – the last six showings blur into one long, uneventful contest in which Japan, at best, are just about in contention without ever really looking like they are going to emerge with the victory.

The results bear this out, with four of those six games ending in defeat (Spain, Mexico, Oman, and Saudi Arabia), one culminating in a penalty shoot-out win (New Zealand), and one a needlessly nervy win over an abysmal China.

Aside from the bronze medal match against Mexico, when Japan were out for the count before half time, the team have put in reasonably steady, professional displays in all of those games, and with the bulk of the squad either plying their trade overseas or, like Hiroki Sakai and Yuto Nagatomo, recently returning to Japan after several years having done so, you can see the players are used to playing in difficult atmospheres against talented opponents.

The problem at the moment is they seem so preoccupied with maintaining balance and keeping their shape in order to avoid conceding that they almost entirely lack the ability to take the game to the opposition and do something unexpected when attacking.

Build up is slow and predictable, and on the rare occasions they do get into scoring positions the team lack the composure to put the ball in the back of the net – although this lack of killer instinct is hardly a new issue for Japan, and will seemingly haunt them in perpetuity. At this level you can’t afford to play in such a passive manner, and the wealth of attacking talent Moriyasu has at his disposal should be given the freedom to play and produce moments out of the ordinary to turn games in their favour.

The manager could quite rightly point to the absence of Takefusa Kubo, Ritsu Doan, and Junya Ito in Jeddah, with that trio all capable of prying open obstinate defences. While the latter did provide the assist for Yuya Osako’s goal against China – the only time Japan have found the net so far in the final round of World Cup qualifiers – the former pair both started every game at the Olympics, however, and can hardly be said to have been given free reign to play to their strengths there or in either of the recent qualifiers against Oman or China.

Meanwhile, Kyogo Furuhashi, who remains the J.League’s third top scorer despite leaving in July and who has added eight goals for Celtic to take him to 24 for the year, was only thrown on with 30 minutes to play against Saudi Arabia, Ao Tanaka was left on the bench even though Gaku Shibasaki was clearly out of sorts and gave the ball away in dangerous positions a couple of times even before the costly error that gifted the hosts their goal, and Kaoru Mitoma – the kind of player this Japan team is absolutely crying out for – didn’t even make the squad.

It is all a far cry from the exciting early days of Moriyasu Japan, when Shoya Nakajima, Doan, and Takumi Minamino formed a pacey, incisive, and clinical triumvirate behind the team’s central striker.

In the interim the team has lost its sparkle and grown stale though, and it looks increasingly as though the manager is approaching games with the initial aim of not losing them rather than trying to win them.

That approach can work on occasion, but without a guaranteed source of goals – or creative players being given the freedom to play in a way that enables them to fashion plentiful chances – you will always be vulnerable to sucker punches like those delivered by more wily, ruthless opponents like Oman and Saudi Arabia.

All this has produced the situation whereby Japan now need to come out swinging against an in-form Australia on Tuesday. If they look to try and contain the game and eke out a narrow victory again then the Socceroos are more than capable of serving up another defeat for the Samurai Blue. That would almost certainly spell the end for Japan’s chances of securing automatic qualification for Qatar, and quite possibly Moriyasu as well.

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October 2021