Archive for January, 2022


Centre(back) of attention

Japan will be without the ever-dependable Maya Yoshida for this week’s critical World Cup qualifiers against China and Saudi Arabia, and the captain leaves huge boots to fill at the heart of the Samurai Blue defence… (日本語版)

There weren’t too many surprises when Japan manager Haijme Moriyasu announced his squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers at the weekend, and with the J.League in-between seasons and injuries ruling out the likes of Kyogo Furuhashi and Kaoru Mitoma the Samurai Blue boss pretty much selected the attacking options he has available to him.

The inclusion of Ritsu Doan and Takefusa Kubo – both of whom were absent with fitness concerns for the team’s most recent games, the former restricted to the bench and the latter ruled out completely – brings some much-needed creativity and guile in the final third of the pitch, while Daizen Maeda’s selection offers a glimmer of pace and goalscoring threat as well.

The concern ahead of the two must-win games against China and Saudi Arabia, however, lies in some glaring absences at the the heart of defence, where along with no Takehiro Tomiyasu there will be a Maya Yoshida-shaped hole for the first time in almost a decade.

Japan’s captain hasn’t missed a big game for his country since injury kept him out of a 1-1 draw away to Australia in June 2012, and the loss of his presence on and off the pitch undoubtedly represents a huge blow.

Yuzo Kurihara filled in for Yoshida the last time he was unavailable for meaningful national team duty, and the Yokohama F.Marinos man had an eventful evening in Brisbane, scoring Japan’s goal, making a heroic goal-line clearance, and then receiving a late red card as Alberto Zaccheroni’s men picked up a vital point on their way to Brazil 2014.

Since then Yoshida has been ever-present at centre-back in the biggest games, playing every minute of the matches that matter in the final round of World Cup qualifiers, Asian Cup, and World Cup finals, being rested only for the dead rubbers against Iraq in the final round of 2014 World Cup qualifying and Uzbekistan in the group stage at the 2019 Asian Cup.

There are, of course, plenty of talented replacements available for Hajime Moriyasu to choose from in his and Tomiyasu’s places, but while each of those in the squad bring their own qualities to the pitch they all lack Yoshida’s experience on the international stage – in fact, they all lack much experience at all playing at centre back for the full national team.

Naomichi Ueda has been in and around the Japan set up for the longest of the alternative options, but while the Nimes man has been involved since the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia he has only played one game in the final round of World Cup qualifiers in that time, and that was the dismal 1-0 defeat at home to Oman last September.

Ko Itakura, meanwhile, is a promising option who has been in good form playing in a back three for Schalke of late, although like Ueda he has just a single competitive appearance for the full national team at centre back – and the ‘competitiveness’ of that fixture probably requires an asterisk, as it was the 10-0 romp over Myanmar last year.

Yuta Nakayama has also been playing as part of a three-man defence for his club PEC Zwolle recently, but despite emerging in that position for Kashiwa Reysol – being named as 2017 J.League Young Player of the Year in the process – centre-back isn’t a role he has occupied yet for the Samurai Blue, with his most recent appearances all coming as a second half replacement for Yuto Nagatomo at left-back.

Shinnosuke Nakatani was a late call-up after Tomiyasu was forced to pull out, and while a solid performer is another yet to be given a proper test playing for his country, with his three appearances coming in last year’s cruises against Mongolia (14-0), Tajikistan (4-1), and Kyrgyzstan (5-1).

That leaves Shogo Taniguchi as the final and, in my opinion, best option to fill Yoshida’s boots as the leader at the back for this pair of games. The 30-year-old only has a handful of appearances for Japan – none of which have come beyond the second round of World Cup qualifiers – and he is admittedly not as much of a ‘looking to the future’ option as those named above, but right now Moriyasu needs somebody to come in and help organise the back line, and even though he is still in the midst of his pre-season preparations that is something Taniguchi is definitely able to do.

The Kumamoto native has shown outstanding leadership and unshakability for Kawasaki Frontale over the past five years, missing just 16 of 174 league games as Toru Oniki’s side have established a J1 dynasty, and that experience and composure will be even more crucial in these matches with Tomiyasu also absent.

While he lacks Yoshida’s experience at the very highest level, in playing such a key role for Frontale as they have filled their trophy cabinet Taniguchi has shown that he is more than capable of dealing with the pressure of these two far-from-straightforward games.

Whichever understudy Moriyasu does ultimately go with will need to slot seamlessly into the back four over the next week, and they could do a lot worse by way of preparation than watching Kurihara’s performance from 10 years ago.

Well, red card aside, that is. With Japan’s progression to this year’s finals in Qatar still very much in the balance, they can’t afford to put a foot wrong.


Enjoy the moment

The High School Championships kicked off the 2022 Japanese football season in style, and while the stars of the tournament will be focused on further improvement in the coming years it is also important they remember to savour these moments of triumph… (日本語版)

Aomori Yamada were crowned as Japan High School champions at the start of the week, claiming their third title after finishing as runners-up for the past two years by beating Ozu 4-0 in Monday’s final in front of a packed Tokyo National Stadium.

The High School tournament is an iconic mainstay of the new year in Japan, and all 20 members of the Aomori squad will cherish the memories forged out on that famous turf for the rest of their lives, irrespective of what comes next.

And, while the potentiality of the tournament is what acts as the major hook for broadcasters and neutral observers, we shouldn’t forget that achievements at the competition remain important in and of themselves, not only on account of what doors they may eventually open.

In football these days – perhaps even in life in general – less and less attention seems to be paid to the now, with everything framed in terms of what it means looking further ahead. There is no time to bask in individual victories or enjoy moments of triumph, with them instead being framed as stepping stones on the road to whatever comes next.

In England, for instance, finishing fourth in the Premier League has surpassed the winning of a domestic trophy as a target for many clubs on account of the UEFA Champions League berth, and associated riches, it provides. For a certain strata of fans, meanwhile, supporting their club by focusing on the actual games they are playing has taken a backseat to the bizarre fetishisation of the transfer market, with one eye, if not both, constantly on what potential new signings – often only seen through brief clips on YouTube or Twitter – will bring to the team down the line.

The High School competition here strikes something of a similar tone, with observers cooing over the standout performers by emphasising the trajectory their careers could take in the coming years or which J.League clubs are sniffing around the signatures of the latest batch of No.10s strutting their stuff. The slogan of this year’s edition, meanwhile – “To Tomorrow. Then to the Future!!!” – also left no doubt as to how the tournament should be viewed.

That is understandable, but while many of these players will certainly go on to forge careers for themselves in the professional game, both at home and abroad, the vast majority of them will not. Their focus right now should not be on tomorrow or the future and whether they ultimately ‘build on’ this success by becoming professional or ‘fail’ and end up doing something else, but instead on savouring today, on revelling in the triumph of winning one of the most fiercely contested football tournaments in Japan, of playing in front of over 42,000 people at a world famous venue.

The cliche of ‘taking each game as it comes’ is anathema to football journalists, but it persists for the very good reason that is the best way to approach things. Grand plans can be made and long term targets set but, just as with everyday life, you shouldn’t take your eye of the ball when it comes to day-to-day matters.

That is perhaps especially important when considering that these players are at an age when everything is new and exciting and bursting with possibility. The mid-to-late teens are a period when experiences, friendships, and achievements become forged for life, and those who made it to the final of this year’s tournament will forever tell the story of their 2022 Coming of Age Day.

As Covid-19 continues to drag on, we are increasingly reminded of the unpredictability of life and importance of appreciating and enjoying what we have. An entire class of students faces the prospect of spending a large chunk of – perhaps even their entire – three years at high school under restrictions that prevent them fully capitalising upon one of the most exciting, formative times of their lives, making it even more important that they are able to relish the moments of release that do come their way.

Like winning a national football competition. Some of these players will become much more familiar to us over the coming years, others of them won’t. But for now, they should just enjoy the moment.

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January 2022