Monday, 24 September 2018

 

The Value of Being Underestimated

As the Samurai Blue prepare for one of the biggest challenges in National Team history, you might expect the global sports media to take a closer look at the team that advanced from Group H ahead of both Poland and Senegal. Yet as of Sunday night, just two days before the team enters its round-of-16 clash with Belgium, there is no indication that anyone - not even Belgian coach Roberto Martinez - has even bothered to find out anything about the team's main players. In his latest press conference, Martinez noted that the two teams played a friendly just six months ago and commented: "There has been a change in the coach, but no real change in the team. . . There won't be any surprises." Not only does he seem to actually believe that this is the same team that Belgium defeated 1-0 in November 2017, but every sportswriter commenting on this press conference appears to think so, as well. In fact, there is so little interest in the team that half of the articles being published in international newspapers cant even be bothered to get the team's nickname correct!

Those who read our report on the Poland match, on Thursday, know full well that this writer was infuriated by both the personnel chosen for that contest, and the tactics used in the final fifteen minutes of play. But there may be a silver lining to that contemptible performance, after all. Since Japan squeaked through into the knockout round by the narrowest of margins, and put on a cynical and virtually unwatchable display in the final quarter-of-an-hour, both press and prospective opposition seem to have given little attention to the content of play in the first half. Indeed, they have somehow managed to forget the games against Senegal and Colombia as well. This is probably the greatest advantage the Samurai Blue will have in their upcoming contests - despite three very solid performances in the Group round, nobody seems to have given the Samurai Blue a second glance. In fact, the coach of their July 3rd opponent hasnt even bothered to look at the Japan roster, or compare it with the team he played against last November.

This is one of the most important reasons why this writer predicted a history-making performance by the Japan National Team, at this World Cup. Certainly I am less optimistic than I would be if Japan was facing England on Tuesday night. No other country in the world has such a stereotypical, and dismissive view of Japanese football, and if the Three Lions were indeed Japan's next opponent, I would have already wagered six-months wages on a victory. But while Belgium is a more formidable opponent, and a team that is less prone to underestimating the opposition, all indications are that the Belgians, too, are unaware that the team in Russia right now is dramatically different from the one that took on Belgium in Belgium, six months ago.

For one thing, Vahid Halilhodzic never seemed willing to give Gaku Shibasaki a chance to demonstrate his abilities. Under Halilhodzic, Shibasaki received just two starts in the past two years, playing mainly as a late substitute and almost always in one of the attacking midfield slots. In the past four matches under coach Nishino, Shibasaki has been a regular starter, has been used as a defensive midfielder, and has impressed everyone who watched the matches as one of the most important players on the squad. Similarly, wingback Hiroki Sakai saw little starting duty under Halilhodzic, but has been a regular component of Nishino's starting unit. Takashi Inui, though a slightly more frequent member of the squad, was viewed as a reserve, and possibly not even a candidate for the final 23-man squad under Halilhodzic.

Perhaps the most important change of all has been the introduction of Gen Shoji, as Maya Yoshida's partner in central defense. Excluding the East Asian Cup (which is viewed as a chance for NT coaches to take a look at players who are NOT core members of the national team), Shoji received just four caps and a total of 277 minutes of playing time over the full three years of Halilhodzic's reign as NT coach. In the five matches since Nishino took over as head coach, he has already surpassed that mark, and is one of the main reasons why Japan's defence has stopped shipping goals by the hatload.

Clearly, this is not the same team that faced off against Belgium last November. Not only is the personnel different, but the underlying concept, and style of play has shifted dramatically. Halilhodzic tried to get his team to develop one-on-one skills; as he put it, Japanese players needed to learn how to "win the duels." This objective is a good one, in principle. However, you cannot expect players to reach a world-class level in their one-on-one play, overnight. Perhaps some teenager at a J.League club's youth team will one day be able to take on defenders with the sort of individual brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, but none of the current NT players is ever going to reach that level.

Japan has always adopted a team-based style of play, using double-teams and traps to win the defensive battles and quick passing exchanges to create scoring chances. Individualism is not an area of strength. Halilhodzic's effort to develop this one-on-one ability recalls Zico's attempts to get players to make their own tactical decisions on the field of play, rather than just following orders in some pre-designed game plan. His refusal to diagram specific plays or tactical moves forced Japanese players to learn tactical awareness. These efforts were largely unsuccessful in the short term, because the only players that managed to really reach an international level of tactical awareness were those few (like Hide Nakata and Shinji Ono) who already had it. But a decade later, most Japanese players now have superior tactical awareness, and greater creativity than even the top NT players back in the Zico era. The point is that Halilhodzic's objective may have been a good one, but it was not going to pay off in a strong performance at THIS World Cup.

Coach Nishino has returned to the traditional Samurai Blue philosophy, in which every element of the game - both offense and defense - revolves around teamwork. Those who wrote off Japan's chances before the World Cup even started were basing their judgement on the personnel, and the type of football used by Halilhodzic. The longer they continue to believe that this is the same team, the better it will be for Nishino and his charges. the lack or time or effort that sportswriters, pundits, opposing players and coaches have invested in studying the Samurai Blue is perhaps best illustrated by the continuing identification of Keisuke Honda as "Japan's key player", despite the fact that he has played only 38 minutes, over three contests. Honda is indeed playing a valuable role, as a potent offensive weapon to use in the final 20 minutes of a contest, when opposing defenders are tired and his decisive play can create goals. But it is unlikely that he could be effective against fresh, energetic opposing defenders, and almost certain that he lacks the stamina to put in a full 90 minutes.

The key to success, for Japan, lies in the ability of all ten field players to contribute at both ends of the pitch. It is an overused cliche to say that star players win matches, but TEAMS win titles. In Japan's case, though, this cliche is the essence of their game. Whether it be the dangerous attacking runs of wingbacks Yuto Nagatomo and Hiroki Sakai, the contributions of Shibasaki as the orchestrator of offense, albeit from a deep-lying defensive position, or the key defensive stops by striker Yuya Osako, which preserved victory against Colombia and ensured a draw with Senegal, every one of Japan's players has a contribution to make at both ends of the pitch. Against Belgium, this sort of teamwork is likely to be critical. No individual Samurai Blue player is capable of matching up one-on-one against the likes of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, or even Marouanne Fellaini for that matter. Belgium clearly has the edge in size, power, and speed.

But the critical point that everyone outside Japan seems to be missing is that Nishino Japan was established a mere two months ago. Prior to Halilhodzic's departure, players like Shibasaki and Kagawa, Yoshida and Shoji, or Osako and Inui had never even set foot on the pitch at the same time. For a team like Japan -- which relies heavily on teamwork -- this means that they are becoming more competitive with each passing day. Though the team performed fairly well against Colombia and Senegal, there were repeated instances where a promising play fell apart because players misread their teammates' intentions. Similarly, on defense, Japan performed fairly well in pool matches, but made a handful of critical mistakes due to confusion over which lane to fill, or over who would take the man and who would take the ball. If the Samurai Blue can iron out these wrinkles before the Belgium match kicks off, there is every reason to believe that they can claim victory.

A month ago, when this fairy tale began, nobody outside of the JSoccer community seemed to think Japan had any chance. Few even believed that the Samurai Blue could claim a single point at this World Cup. Now the crowd has grown; there are a handful of loyal Japanese supporters who are starting to believe in destiny. But the world still views Japan as naught but a stroke of luck and a cynical use of codified canons. So long as this attitude prevails, Japan will retain an important edge over any opponent. I still believe. Do you?