The road to Russia
Japan travelled the road to their sixth straight World Cup under head coach Vahid Halilhodžić, who arrived in February 2015 to replace Javier Aguirre following the team’s Asian Cup exit. His side scored 27 goals and conceded none in a first group consisting of Syria, Singapore, Afghanistan, and Cambodia before navigating a slightly trickier final group with Saudi Arabia, Australia, UAE, Iraq, and Thailand with just one meaningful loss.
Halilhodžić’s reign was defined by his wide-ranging player selections, with struggling veterans such as Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa finding their call-ups threatened as qualifying went on. In their place rose promising youngsters such as Yuya Kubo, Takuma Asano, and Yosuke Ideguchi. Thirty-eight players participated in World Cup qualifying, and an additional 30 earned appearances in friendlies and sub-regional competition.
But while the Bosnian coach was confident in his process, those in power grew increasingly nervous about the team’s post-qualifying results, including a 4-1 shellacking by a confident South Korea side last December in the EAFF E-1 Championship. Japan Football Association chairman Kozo Tashima made the decision to pull the plug on April 9, claiming that Halilhodžić had lost the locker room, and replaced him with technical director Akira Nishino.
The former Olympic coach eventually decided that he didn’t have enough faith in Japan’s young generation, naming a squad of 23 players heavy with Europe-based veterans and containing no fewer than 11 players who participated in the side’s meek 2014 campaign in Brazil. With an average age of 28.2 years, it will be the oldest squad Japan have fielded at a World Cup.
How do they play?
In their pre-tournament sendoff against Ghana, the Samurai Blue deployed a 3-4-3 formation (or a 5-4-1 depending on how you read it), with captain Makoto Hasebe assuming a centre-back role he was familiar with from his time at Wolfsburg alongside Maya Yoshida and notorious ‘mood-maker’ Tomoaki Makino.
Despite plenty of chances created up front by Yuya Osako (and Takashi Usami, and Kagawa, and *sighs* Yoshinori Muto…), none proved themselves capable of hitting the side of a barn door. Meanwhile, defensive errors allowed the novice Black Stars to net goals early in each half, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of 64,000 fans who endured the rainy weather in Yokohama.
Japan shifted from 3-4-3 to 3-5-2 as the match went on, but eventually settled back to 4-4-2 as the clock ticked forward. How will they play in Russia? Only Nishino knows for sure, and based on his timid responses to media inquiries after announcing his squad on Thursday, it’s not clear he’s figured it out.
Who are their star players?
The only two players who have mattered in Japanese football in the last eight years are arguably Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, both of whom serve as the face of the national team and – perhaps even more importantly in Japan’s consumer-driven fandom – advertising campaigns for the JFA’s biggest sponsors, Kirin Beverage and Adidas.
They and Shinji Okazaki, the country’s third-most-prolific striker with 50 goals in 112 appearances, make up Japan’s ‘big three’. It’s been quite a while since any of them have been in top form: while Kagawa spent most of the spring injured at Dortmund and Okazaki has not scored for Leicester City since December, Honda has enjoyed somewhat of a revival at Mexican side Pachuca.
Their glory days, perhaps highlighted by the famous defeat against Italy in the 2013 Confederations Cup when all three made it to the scoresheet, are long past. Kagawa and Honda in particular will enter this World Cup with extra pressure, having played an instrumental role in Halilhodžić’s sacking. And since it’s unlikely that any of the trio will make it to Qatar 2022, this could be the last chance we have to see the ‘big three’ on a global stage.
How far will they go?
An optimist will point to the lead-in to 2010, when Japan lost four straight warm-up friendlies before a tremendous performance to escape the group stage and narrowly fall to Paraguay in penalties in the Round of 16. Like this year, there was a questionable squad with out-of-form stars (Shunsuke Nakamura), a head coach who had little goodwill with the fans (Takeshi Okada), and an in-form youngster who found himself on the outside looking in (Shinji Kagawa).
But it’s not 2010, and this is not the underestimated squad of J.League talent who combined to become more than the sum of their parts in South Africa. This is a team of mostly Europe-based players who all have the potential to do great things on the pitch. If they achieve that potential they can be a threat to any of their Group H opponents, but it’s truly hard to be optimistic about a third Round of 16 appearance for the four-time Asian champions.
What should we watch out for?
The hundreds of Japanese fans making their way to Russia will provide some levity inside the grounds, and their tradition of cleaning up their section after the match will surely become light news fodder as it did during Brazil.
But it may not be until after the tournament that Japan’s most important questions are answered: who will serve as the side’s next head coach, and will the likes of goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima (35), midfielder Makoto Hasebe (34), Keisuke Honda (32), and Shinji Okazaki (32) step aside to make way for the next generation ahead of next January’s Asian Cup?