Falling into place

Hajime Moriyasu has all the pieces he needs for his puzzle, and it increasingly looks like he knows how best to put them together… (日本語版)

For all the talk ahead of the game about the Americans possessing superior physicality and speed, Japan laid down a marker from the first whistle against the U.S. in Düsseldorf on Friday, assuming control of proceedings with an aggressive and energetic pressing game and not taking their foot off the gas until referee Felix Zwayer brought the game to a halt after 90 minutes had elapsed – the German seemingly realising no amount of stoppage time would change the outcome of the match.

Daizen Maeda starting as the lone striker raised a few eyebrows but the Celtic man put in a tireless shift in the front third, chasing down every cause and striking the fear of God into the American defenders, who repeatedly panicked as the 24-year-old’s shaved head tore towards them and duly gifted possession to one of his blue-shirted teammates.

It wasn’t only Maeda buzzing around for the Samurai Blue though, and Hajime Moriyasu had similarly eager lieutenants all over the pitch.

Wataru Endo and Hidemasa Morita must be a horrible duo to come up against in the middle of the park, for instance, with the pair indefatigable as they constantly harried and hustled in the engine room, with one (or both) always on the spot to make an interception, cut off a passing angle, or snatch possession from the toe of an opponent before looking to launch a swift break.

In defence, too, Japan didn’t look remotely troubled physically, and with the exception of Jesús Ferreira heading over a glorious chance after a slack piece of marking in the seventh minute the imposing quartet of Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Takehiro Tomiyasu, and Yuta Nakayama had more than enough for what the Americans threw at them.

It is going to be especially interesting to see just where Takehiro Tomiyasu’s ceiling is, with the 23-year-old having steadily impressed every year since establishing himself in Avispa Fukuoka’s first team at the age of 18 and showing no signs of slowing down in his progress just yet. Equally confident in duels, foot-races, and when in possession of the ball, the Arsenal man is evolving into the total defender and looks set to become Japan’s main man at the back for the next decade.

Yuta Nakayama is also developing impressively, becoming bolder and more resilient as he grows in those unquantifiable areas of the game that can’t be taught, and if he can maintain such unshakability over the next couple of months then you have to feel he may finally have edged Yuto Nagatomo as first choice at left back.

Of course, for all the positives of the performance there was still criticism from some fans about Moriyasu’s selections, with the usual complaints about Player X not starting or Player Y being left on the bench. This is an inevitable part of football discourse these days, but the fact of the matter is that real sport is nothing like a video game. You can’t just throw the players with the best fantasy stats together and expect them to slay all before them, and the coach instead has to meld together human beings – each with their own minor niggles, off-the-field concerns, or intra-personal gripes – to form a coherent whole.

Player Z may have gone viral with a YouTube-friendly trick for his club last week, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is going to slide seamlessly into a different team, alongside different teammates, playing different tactics, under a different manager, against different opposition this week. 

The manager has to pick the team they believe will stand the best chance of winning against that day’s opponent. In the modern game the idea of a ‘Best 11’ is increasingly fading away, with teams now comprised of larger squads of more varied options, each of whom can serve different roles depending on the opponent and in-game situation.

Five substitutes are also now permitted, meaning a coach can literally change half of their outfield players as and when they want or need to. With that in mind, if you have a player who has consistently shown they can make an impact off the bench, then why not keep letting him do that?

Ritsu Doan and Kaoru Mitoma are two fantastic attacking talents, but so too are Takefusa Kubo and Junya Ito. Takumi Minamino and Kyogo Furuhashi can play a bit as well. As can Ao Tanaka and Reo Hatate. And what about Daichi Kamada and Ayase Ueda? Japan is currently blessed with greater depth than it has ever had, and while plenty of observers have vested interests or agendas as to why they think Player A should start ahead of Player B, they aren’t the manager, Hajime Moriyasu is. And, for the most part, he has got things right.

Germany, Costa Rica, and Spain at the World Cup will obviously pose a tougher challenge than a youthful America in a friendly game, but if Moriyasu continues to trust in his players and allows them to play to their strengths then Japan can certainly cause opponents problems in Qatar. The manager has a huge pool of talented players at his disposal, and all the signs are that he knows how to get the best out of them.


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