Tuesday, 11 December 2018

 

Why Japan will Win the World Cup

First, a few words to calm the concerns of those who spat coffee on their keyboard when they read that headline. No, I was not kidnapped and nobody has stolen my login password to post this article in my stead. No, I was not infected with an interstellar BodySnatcher virus, and replaced by a mindless clone that is incapable of rational thought. As for whether or not I am speaking with my tongue implanted so deeply in my cheek that only nonsense is able to emerge . . . well, I guess you will just have to read the entirety of this article yourself, and decide whether or not you think that I am truly serious, or just "'avin' a laff", as the Scousers say.

Japan’s rise as a footballing nation has been quite recent. Football has only been one of the top sports in Japan for about two decades, and even today, a large percentage of the country does not pay attention to the sport, except in a World Cup year. There is a small, very enthusiastic fan base that follows the J.League and the National Team closely, but the majority of the public probably knows less about either the names or the abilities of Japanese players than your average Bundesliga follower. 

For example, Koln’s Yuya Osako is still not a household name in Japan, and only truly hardcore fans have heard of Hamburger SV’s Tatsuya Ito. Most people know the names of the big, international stars like Honda, Kagawa, Hasebe and Okazaki, and they probably are familiar with a few good-looking and media-savvy J.Leaguers, particularly if they play for "popular" clubs. But they pay little attention to recent developments, a player's current form, or the names of rising stars. As a result, you can find wide differences in predictions about Japan’s prospects for this World Cup. People who follow football, and know the Samurai Blue well, are likely to have very different expectations than the “average Japanese supporter.”

This trend has been a source of confusion in recent World Cups. For example, in 2014 the fans who follow Japan closely knew that its core players were past their prime, and that the team was likely to struggle in Brazil. Average Japanese citizens, however, had inflated hopes based mainly on the success of a few Europe-based players and the team’s success in the Asian Cup, more than three years earlier. When Japan was knocked out of its pool group with just a single point, it was no surprise to hardcore fans. But it was a huge shock to the country as a whole. 

The same thing happened in Germany in 2006, when an aging team with a weak defence failed to pass the group stage. But the reverse often happens, as well. In 2010, only a small percentage of people in Japan had even heard of Keisuke Honda or Yuto Nagatomo, and their expectations were that Japan would have no chance against pool opponents, Denmark, Holland and Cote d’Ivoire. But Japan looked very impressive in group matches, and almost made the quarterfinals, losing on PKs in a match that many think they could have, and perhaps should have won. 

For this reason, as we look at the prospects for 2018, there is a big gap between the expectations of “average Japanese” and the opinions of people who follow the National Team closely. The problem is even worse this year, because the Samurai Blue are right at the dividing line between generations. If you ask 100 people on a street in Tokyo who the key players are, most would probably name Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki, Maya Yoshida, Makoto Hasebe and Yuto Nagatomo. But even though all of those names are on the final roster, the key to Japan's success or failure rests with players who are much less prominent in the minds of "average" Japanese fans. 

This was true even before the dramatic firing of Vahid Halilhodzic, in early April, but the appointment of former Olympic NT coach Akira Nishino makes it even more difficult to predict how Japan will perform in Russia. Halilhodzic had a history of making bad choices in player selection. His inability to stick with a single set of “favourites” and constant “experimentation” continued right up to the final two friendlies, played in March. Some believe that he had already settled on a squad that differed little, if at all, from the one that Nishino named on Thursday. His appalling selection of players for the two matches in Belgium were merely a "last look" at individuals who he had already decided to drop, and was merely giving a final chance to prove that they deserved another shot. 

Unfortunately for Halilhodzic, he had already accumulated a lot of ill will in relations with players and other coaches, not to mention with the big advertising executives who wield an enormous (and inappropriate) amount of power when it comes to selecting the final Samurai Blue squad. I have discussed this issue for years, and do not want to launch into another three-page rant about it. Suffice it to say that Japan NT coaches often have to play "mind games" if they want to drop a player whose face is already on the label of a Kirin Beer can. Halilhodzic may have thought he could strongarm these influence-peddlers by keeping all of his cards well hidden until the final announcement day.

But as we all know, his gamble failed spectacularly. The JFA used the Samurai Blue's limp performance in Belgium as a convenient excuse to drop the axe. I personally think that Halilhodzic was a poor judge of talent, and an even worse communicator. Perhaps my assumptions about his personnel choices in March give him too much credit. But if it seems that I am "bending over backwards" to explain some of his decisions, then the readers is welcome to read the paragraphs that follow as a similar attempt to put the best possible face on a thoroughly uninspiring picture. 

When he was named as Halilhodzic's replacement just two months before the start of the World Cup, Coach Nishino was put in a nearly impossible position. Not only is it very hard to build a team in just two months, but the external forces that made it so hard for Halilhodzic to choose his squad leave Nishino with even less freedom. Whereas his predecessor might have been justified in dropping some of the underperforming veterans from his squad, Nishino had almost no choice but to reinstate all the "big names". He even felt the need to select some of the most popular J.League players to his expanded squad of 27, even if they did not deserve selection.

This brings us to the crucial caveat in this entire article. In order to take the headline seriously, the reader must find some way to convince themselves that the personnel choices and the underlying content of Wednesday's debacle at Yokohama International Stadium have little or no bearing on the strategies and selections Nishino will use at the World Cup. If the Samurai Blue is to avoid total embarrassment in Russia, they will need influential contributions from players who did not even set foot on the pitch, Wednesday evening -- player  like Takashi Inui, Gen Shoji and Hiroki Sakai. Nishino will also have to avoid excessive dependence on fading stars like Honda and Kagawa (even if they do make key contributions in a "supporting role"). Above all, one must assume that Nishino allowed Tomoaki Makino and Ryota Oshima to play a full 90 minutes on Wednesday, despite knowing that neither player has the talent or the intelligence to play football at the World Cup level.

------------

If those assumptions are just a bit too much for you to swallow - and in this writer's more rational moments, he would have to agree - then you can just conclude that this article (and particularly the headline) is just my way of taking the piss. In other words, you are entirely justified if you stop reading this article right now, and take it for granted that this is simply the bitter rant of a thoroughly disgusted Fool for the Beautiful Game, who can see the spectacular potential that the Samurai Blue truly possesses, and wants to rub that recognition in the faces of fools, financiers and fatuous front-office flacks.

As for those who refuse to give up on their dreams, and cling to their pillows in the early-morning light, desperate to wring one final glimpse of glory from the magic possibilities of an unwritten future, prepare yourself for the most enthralling fairy-tale you have ever heard.  If it is indeed just a fairy tale, then it is one that desperately needs to be written, if only to ignite a brief flicker of hope in the cold monochrome reality of money and madness that has closed in over the Beautiful Game.

That fairy tale begins in the most innocuous of ways, as the best fairy tales usually do, with a humble, unheralded nobody whose fortunes are so poor that the leading challengers and contenders pay them no heed at all when the contestants are ushered into the arena. Akira Nishino and his team have one thing working in their favour, even in the eyes of the most cynical onlooker: there is absolutely no pressure on them to perform, because nobody in their right mind expects them to win a single game (if even a single point). No matter how badly the team performs in Russia, it will be easy to blame everything on Halilhodzic and the JFA. On the other hand, if they manage to perform well, everyone will think that the players are wonderful and Nishino is a genius, to have overcome the odds. Each minuscule achievement, including even the tally of a single goal, will buoy the spirits of the team, and intensify the rising spiral of emotion that any team, even the most experienced and star-studded, needs to carry them through the long battle that is the World Cup.

As for the essential elements of any fairy tale hero -- self-confidence and a sense of destiny -- the Japanese players seem to have those qualities in abundance, despite the disappointing result against Ghana. Virtually every player came away from the contest with upbeat assessments of how the individual play progressed. There were defensive lapses, yes, but no goals allowed (indeed, only one SHOT allowed) from the run of play. The offense repeatedly failed to make connections, and the number of chances that went begging due to miscommunication was too large to count. But there were also numerous opportunities created, and several runs of play which were inspiring to even the most cautious observer.

As a dress-rehearsal for the World Cup, the Ghana match certainly was not a great advertisement for the team's prospects of glory. Yet the only hints of negativity came from those two players who (if Japan is to perform well) are least critical to the team -- Tomoaki Makino and Ryota Oshima. Both made critical blunders that hurt the team in the Ghana match, and not surprisingly, both expressed disappointment with their own play and the impact it had on the match outcome. These downbeat assessments are to be expected, especially if you assume that this was their final chance to prove their value to the coach, who was already on the verge of dropping them to positions deep on the bench.

On the other hand, as this writer has noted many times, Makino has never been a player whose skill set and mental poise suit him for international play. His inclusion owes in part to his media presence, which over the past year or two have earned him a spot on a can of Kirin Beer (making him "almost untouchable" in Nishino's initial selection). His high profile is also a reflection of the enthusiastic character and infectious energy he exudes. As a cheerleader on the bench and a positive influence in the locker room, he may have a part to play in this team's success. But if Japan is to proceed far in this World Cup, his spot in the lineup must be taken by a more trustworthy and levelheaded player. Fortunately, Japan has such a player in Gen Shoji - a relatively young and athletic Kashima Antlers defender who (together with Naomichi Ueda -- also named to Japan's 23-man roster) managed to hold a full-strength Real Madrid team to a draw over 90 minutes, in the 2016 Club World Cup. 

Similarly, Oshima falls short of the quality one would expect from a player who is the critical link between defense and attack. If Oshima starts any matches in Russia, you can be certain that Japan will be on the losing end. His selection is almost entirely an effort to fend off any criticism from fans of Kawasaki Frontale, whose J.League title last season inflated the expectations of fans, but whose main candidates for NT selection (Oshima, Yu Kobayashi and Shintaro Kurumaya are the most prominent) simply do not have the quality to displace any of the existing core NT members.

Fortunately, another candidate for the same spot in the lineup is Gaku Shibasaki, a low-key and almost autistically soft-spoken player whose performances in Spain this year went under the radar of most football fans. His raw talent, on the other hand, led Getafe coach Jose Bordalas to describe him as "the most talented player in this team, (... but one who is...) hard to fit into the team concept we had established (... when Shibasaki came back from injury, in March)". On Wednesday, Shibasaki's introduction in the second half triggered a surge of creativity and half-chances for Japan, triggered by his pinpoint passing and tactical vision. Unfortunately, by the time he reached the pitch, Japan was chasing a two-goal deficit and other players who would complement Shibasaki well (most notably, Honda, Yuya Osako and Takashi Usami) had already been subbed out.

Assuming that those two changes are already fait accompli (and as I have already noted, the alternative is utter disaster), the 3-4-3 alignment that Nishino employed against Ghana is actually a very solid base on which to build. Interestingly enough, most non-Japanese observers described it as a "five-back" alignment, and this is actually an apt description for anyone who has not seen the "Petrovic 3-6-1" system employed with any degree of consistency. Nagatomo, playing at the left midfield wing, makes it particularly easy for the European-based commentator to view this as a five-back system. Against strong opposition, one would assume that the opposite wing would be occupied by one of the two Sakais (Gotoku or Hiroki), whose ability to play a central role at both ends of the pitch mirrors that of Nagatomo. However, the alignment also allows the coach to bring on the likes of Inui, Muto or Usami in this spot, to intensify the offensive thrust of the formation.

Football fans who have never seen a J.League match may be intrigued by the mention of this "Petrovic 3-6-1", a formation that has no exact equivalent in Europe. It most closely resembles a 3-4-3 lineup, and this explains why Japanese sources use the appellation in their official match reports. However, in the 3-6-1, positional roles are much more flexible, with the two midfield wings often collapsing on defense to create a five-man back line, the central defender stepping forward to leave four-at-the-back, and various other permutations. Since introduced at Sanfrecce Hiroshima by Mihailo Petrovic, in 2007, it has become a popular base for experimentation, with as many as a dozen J.League teams employing some derivation of the underlying 3-6-1 concept. Those who are interested may be able to find an article I wrote about the formation, back in 2013, at the now-defunct "ONEWorld Sports" website. In any event, though opposing coaches will probably analyze it as a variation of a 3-4-3, the fact is that the base concept of this formation is something that no opposing coach will have seen, or played against before.

Assuming that the above assumptions (about Makino and Oshima) are met, the real question that will determine how far Japan can go in this World Cup is how effective the two "shadows" -- players who fill the two channels, just behind Yuya Osako -- can be. The two most obvious choices for the positions are Kagawa and Honda, but both have reached a point in their careers where one has to ask if they still have the proverbial "fire in the belly" needed to wrest victory from the opponent in the critical moment of the contest. Both are at the close of their National Team careers, and despite the fact that neither has been in "great form" of late, both possess the physical, technical and mental skills needed to excel on the world stage. It is simply a question of whether they can rediscover the intensity and creativity that both displayed in abundance, during their prime. Takashi Inui and Haraguchi also have the potential to play at this level, but have yet to step forward as real "go-to" players for the Samurai Blue. 2018 would be an ideal time for either one to write their name into National Team history. It must be said, however, that all of the offense-oriented players in this squad have had campaigns to forget, in early 2018. None of them is in form, and most have spent some or all of the past year either in the physio's room or on the bench.

If I havent already offered enough opportunities for skeptics to jump off the bandwagon and decide that this really is just a lot of pent-up ennui, vented by a writer who is thoroughly disgusted with "what might have been", here is one more point to consider. Due to the late change of coaching, and the bureaucratic bullshit that has always been one of the JFA's greatest weaknesses, Coach Nishino has virtually no "plan B". Too many of the players on this roster are present for reasons that have almost nothing to do with their suitability or the contributions that they can be expected to make. Even one injury to a key player will bring this fairy tale to a quick and unhappy conclusion.

And yet, in the immortal words of Fox Mulder: "I Want to Believe!"

This is a story that is begging to burst free from that misty magical realm of wannabe and wishitwereso, to dance for its appointed hour upon that Midsummer Night stage. It is not merely a deperate, deluded grasping at straws by those who see the end approaching and wish for one final act - one final chance to put two fingers up at logic and "common-sense", and then dance across the stage with a nod and a wink at those who share your love of The Beautiful Game. This is a tale for the ages, and you will revel in the opportunity to watch it unfold. It truly can happen. It WILL happen.

I want to believe.