Setting off on the road to 2026

A new era is set to begin for the Samurai Blue, but change is likely to be gradual as Hajime Moriyasu sets his sights on the 2026 World Cup… (日本語版)

It has been nearly four months since Japan were eliminated from the Qatar World Cup by Croatia, and with the dust having settled and Hajime Moriyasu being handed a new contract the Samurai Blue are now all set to take their first steps on the road to 2026.

This month’s pair of friendlies against Uruguay and Colombia should provide decent run-outs for the side in Tokyo and Osaka, and the slightly new-look squad announced on 15 March offers some encouraging signs for the next phase of Moriyasu Japan’s evolution.

The exclusion of several veterans of course made headlines, but while none of Maya Yoshida, Hiroki Sakai, Yuto Nagatomo, Shuichi Gonda, or Gaku Shibasaki will be involved this time around they can’t be entirely written off from playing some part over the next three years. It doesn’t, however, look especially likely that any of them will be involved in the squad that hopefully ends up boarding the plane to the U.S, Canada, and Mexico.

Moriyasu had hinted that Gonda wouldn’t be considered on account of now playing in the second tier with Shimizu S-Pulse, with Daniel Schmidt looking like he’ll initially be the new first choice. Keisuke Osako and Kosei Tani are both talented options to challenge him, although it is a little surprising that Kosuke Nakamura wasn’t included, with the former Kashiwa Reysol man’s reputation in Portugal growing steadily thanks to his impressive performances for Portimonense.

The defence has also been freshened up, with Haruya Fujii of Nagoya Grampus earning his first call-up after Yokohama F. Marinos centre-back Ryotaro Tsunoda, another first timer, was forced to pull out with a knock, and plenty of energy brought in in the full-back positions.

Daiki Hashioka and Yukinari Sugawara have been in and around the squad before but now have chances to show they can stake real claims for starting berths, while 21-year-olds Riku Handa and Kashif Bangnagande are another pair of vibrant, attack-minded full-backs whose selections bode well for the future approach of the team.

Further forward things look slightly more settled, with LASK’s in-form Keito Nakamura the only new inclusion, but it’s hard to argue with most of the names listed in the midfield roles.

Kaoru Mitoma is now surely on the cusp of becoming the face of this team – and his club, too, with one friend in Brighton informing me that it is “Mitoma Fever” right now back in my hometown – and with Daichi Kamada, Ritsu Doan, Junya Ito, and Takefusa Kubo all performing well at the highest levels in Europe Japan are blessed with a wealth of creative talent in the attacking midfield area.

At centre-forward, meanwhile, it looks like Moriyasu has essentially gone for two different styles: a pair of traditional No.9s in Shuto Machino and Ayase Ueda, and two speed merchants who can press opposing defenders and break in behind in Takuma Asano and Daizen Maeda.

If this is indeed how the manager views the role of the man leading his line, then we may come a little closer to understanding Kyogo Furuhashi’s omission, which once again provoked some head-scratching bearing in mind his consistent scoring form for Celtic.

While I would probably still pick Furuhashi if I was the manager, the fact is I’m not and Moriyasu is. He is building his Japan team, and it isn’t entirely clear how Furuhashi would fit into it. The former Vissel Kobe man isn’t really a target man who can play with his back to goal and hold the ball up for teammates, and while no slouch he also doesn’t have the searing pace of Maeda and Asano, meaning he essentially falls between the two stools Moriyasu appears to have laid out.

While Furuhashi’s finishing ability can’t be questioned – he was third top scorer in J1 in 2021 with 15 goals despite playing just 21 games, and is averaging more than a goal a game in the SPL this season – the truth is he is playing in a hugely unbalanced league for one of the only two teams to have won the title in the past 37 years (soon to be 38). Is that keeping him at a sharp enough level to contribute in the international game? We have to assume that for the time being Moriyasu thinks not.

Of course, that isn’t to say Furuhashi won’t be given another opportunity to show what he can do for his country at some point in the coming months, and this is far from being the squad Moriyasu will be taking to the North and Central America in three years.

Let us consider the first Japan squad after the 2018 World Cup, for instance. 

Masaaki Higashiguchi, Tomoaki Makino, Sho Sasaki, Sei Muroya, Genta Miura, Toshihiro Aoyama, Shoya Nakajima, Yu Kobayashi, Shintaro Kurumaya, Jun Amano, Kento Misao, Tatsuya Ito, and Kenyu Sugimoto (who went on to pull out with an injury) were all named for the 11 September 2018 friendly against Costa Rica (a game four days earlier against Chile was called off on account of the earthquake in Hokkaido).

None of these players ultimately made it to Qatar last year, but Hidemasa Morita, who was only introduced as a replacement for that squad (along with Amano) when Hotaru Yamaguchi and Ryota Oshima pulled out, did go on to play a central role for the side.

The fact is that the transition between generations is always more of a gradual process than it can sometimes appear, and the make-up of international teams evolves greatly throughout the qualification process in accordance with fluctuations in players’ form and fitness.

Sweeping conclusions can’t be drawn from the make-up of this squad then – and nor will they be possible from the outcome of these two games either – but the seeds of Moriyasu Japan v.2.0 have been planted, and it will be fascinating to see how they grow from here.


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