Samurai Blue in need of cutting edge

A slow start to the final round of World Cup qualifiers leaves Japan with a lot of ground to make up, and Hajime Moriyasu needs to make proactive changes to reignite his team… (日本語版)

As we approach the midway point in the third round of qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup finals things are far from straightforward for Hajime Moriyasu.

The 2-1 win over Australia at Saitama Stadium in October was ultimately secured at the death by a slightly fortuitous own goal, but on the balance of play Japan were well worth the three points and it has to be hoped that victory provides a much-needed boost to morale ahead of two more must-win contests against Vietnam and Oman this month.

Even so, the Samurai Blue are still languishing in fourth place in Group B after already losing to Oman and Saudi Arabia, and the starting 11 looks far from settled with big decisions needing to be made in key positions all over the pitch.

The fact that Eiji Kawashima remains in the squad despite not having featured at all for Strasbourg this season hints at an ongoing stagnation in goal, for instance, and while Shuichi Gonda remains a dependable enough first choice for the next couple of years, at 32 it would be nice to see him given more of a challenge for the No.1 jersey. Kosei Tani is of course a promising prospect, but the fact that Keisuke Osako, Yuya Oki, and Kosuke Nakamura’s progress has stalled enough to prevent them being included is something of a concern.

The end of the line also looks as though it is finally approaching for Yuto Nagatomo, and the lack of a clear successor at left back is an issue Moriyasu will have to contend with sooner rather than later. Yuta Nakayama and Reo Hatate are his two understudies in the current squad, and while the former impressed in patches at the Olympics he doesn’t yet have the same quality in attack as Nagatomo at his peak. Hatate more than matches up in that regard, but as an attacking midfielder by trade he still has a lot of work to do defensively if he is to make the full time conversion to full-back.

In the middle of the park, meanwhile, there is the question of who starts alongside Wataru Endo. The VfB Stuttgart man is now nailed on as one of the first names on the team-sheet for his country, and the combination of him, Ao Tanaka, and Hidemasa Morita was pivotal to ensuring control of proceedings against the Socceroos last month. Of course, persevering with that trio in a 4-3-3 as opposed to the long-preferred 4-2-3-1 would mean again leaving Gaku Shibasaki out in the cold, and despite his costly error against Saudi Arabia the Leganes man remains more than capable of making a difference at this level.

Perhaps the biggest questions linger over Moriyasu’s choices in the final third of the pitch for these two games though, with Japan in desperate need of some cutting edge in front of goal if they are to reignite their hopes of automatic qualification for Qatar.

Kaoru Mitoma, along with his former Kawasaki Frontale teammate Hatate, has finally been given his first call-up to the full national team, and the Brighton and Hove Albion man, currently on loan at Belgian Pro League high flyers Royale Union Saint-Gilloise, should be thrown straight into the starting line-up against Vietnam on Thursday.

The 24-year-old is exactly the kind of player Japan need to add some urgency, unpredictability, and, most importantly, goals to their play, and with Takefusa Kubo again missing on account of injury the team is crying out for Mitoma’s craft at the business end of the pitch.

The same can be said of Kyogo Furuhashi, who is showing no signs of slowing down for Celtic in either the Scottish League or European competition and has found the net 13 times already this season (plus the 15 he notched for Vissel Kobe before leaving in the summer).

Although I remain in the minority in that I prefer him starting out wide in a position from which he can play with the game in front of him, the former Kobe and FC Gifu man has been in scintillating form as the central striker for Ange Postecoglou’s side, and while Yuya Osako has long been established as first choice for the Samurai Blue he only has one goal in his last four games for Japan as well as just two in his eight appearances since joining Vissel as a replacement for Furuhashi at the end of August.

Those figures and their undoubted impact on each player’s confidence means it should be a straightforward choice for Moriyasu as to which one takes to the field at My Dinh National Stadium, but regardless of whether he sticks or twists what everyone can agree on is that six points from six are a must – by any means necessary.

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November 2021

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