Sunday, 17 February 2019

Asian Cup: Lost in Translation?

Over the past two weeks, football fans around the world have been treated to their first few glimpses of the the future of Japanese football. Over the course of six matches (to date), against both strong and weak Asian opposition, some of the performances delivered by this Japan squad have been misleading. But even if you had no prior knowledge of the team or its players, it is hard to see how anyone could draw the sort of conclusions that we have seen bandied about in the press, particularly since the start of the knockout round. Some of the summaries we have seen in the European press, especially, are so off-target that the only possible conclusion is that the author wrote their article based solely on the final scores of matches, and maybe 45 seconds worth of highlights. The obsession with Japan's narrow margin of victory, prior to the Iran match, was particularly baffling, since anyone who has followed Asian football for any length of time understands the "extraneous factors" which tend to prevent regional powerhouses from recording blowout wins, even against the meekest of opposition.

Unfortunately, family matters prevented this writer from offering a more extended analysis of the Samurai Blue and its performances in this tournament (or even a summary of the quarterfinal match, against Vietnam). Hopefully, the following analysis can make up for that oversight, and give football fans a clearer, less superficial view of the team that has now gone eleven matches without a loss, and shows signs that it might outshine even the so-called "Golden Generation".

The most misguided (though perhaps understandable) comment about the Samurai Blue, both before and following their 3-0 victory over Iran, was that they were struggling on offense and "underperforming," particularly in comparison to Iran, who were installed even before the opening kickoff as "tournament favourites". To be honest, this writer was also a bit disappointed with the team's performance in the early phases of the tournament. However, there were legitimate and easily visible reasons why Japan won all of its previous contests by a single goal. These not only included the officiating bias that we have come to expect at AFC tournaments, but also many personnel issues. Those who actually know the names of Japan's top players, and have seen their performances at the end of last year, understood the legitimate excuses coach Moriyasu could offer to explain his team's modest, yet ultimately effective play in earlier contests. Glossed over in press previews of Iran-Japan was the fact that the Samurai Blue were the only team to retain a perfect record through the pool round.

Despite my implicit criticism of the football press, above, I can understand the problems many journalists face in trying to analyse Japan. It would be nice if the Europress had a few writers who specialised in Asian football matters, but since that is not the case, one can understand the difficulties writers faced. It is hard to evaluate the performance of players you have never even heard of, prior to January 2019. When the tournament kicked off, at least half of the articles describing the Samurai Blue dwelt extensively on the fact that the team did not include well-known names like Kagawa, Honda or Okazaki. Those of us who follow Japanese football more closely understood that those aging stars have been bypassed in skill and competitive strength as much as a year ago. This writer was not the only one who questioned whether Kagawa and Okazaki even deserved to go to the World Cup last year. . . . and as it was, neither made a real impact in Russia. 

But while Moriyasu Japan has turned the page on these veterans, this team still has not had time to really develop into a tight, well coordinated unit. Nor has the coach determined which of the many candidates for spots in the Samurai Blue squad offer the most potential and talent. Since writers outside Japan are unlikely to know the difference between Ritsu Doan and Ritsumeikan, the selection headaches coach Moriyasu faced coming into this tournament made no impression at all on those who would later try to analyse performances. One can overlook the factors that kept key players like Shoya Nakajima, Gen Shoji, Yuya Kubo, Hidemasa Morita, Kento Misao and many others out of the picture, because there were competent alternatives who could step into their positions. But one selection in particular has been a serious headache for the Samurai Blue in this tournament.

Yuya Osako established himself as the standout centre forward for Japan over the course of almost a full World Cup cycle. He was one of the standouts in Russia, and at age 28, he is certain to remain in that role through the next World Cup. But since taking the helm, Moriyasu has been experimenting freely with new options, in an effort to find a suitable backup. When he first named his squad for this Asian Cup, Moriyasu decided to call up a young prospect who gained some attention with his play at Shimizu S-Pulse, last year. Koya Kitagawa has never even entered the National Team conversation prior to this tournament, even at the youth level. But when Moriyasu named him, he probably did not expect Kitagawa to make more than a brief pool-round appearance to, demonstrate his potential (or lack thereof).

The calculus was thrown into confusion, though, when Osako's expected backup, Takuma Asano had to pull out due to injury. Osako himself nearly pulled out as well, due to a gluteal injury that kept him out of club action for almost a month. Asano's replacement, Yoshinori Muto, is a very different type of player, though he is capable of handling the duties as the lone striker if called upon. The problem is that Muto arrived late in the UAE, needed time to develop chemistry with the rest of the team, and then when he did play, managed to pick up two yellow cards over the course of two brief appearances. As a result, he was ineligible for the key contest against Vietnam, and only available for two of the matches prior to Japan-Iran. 

It is hard to feel anything but sympathy for Kitagawa, whose inadequacy was apparent within ten minutes of his first appearance. After he came on as a substitute in the opening match against Turkmenistan, every member of the domestic football press pronounced judgement, and predicted that Moriyasu would never call him up again. Though one is reluctant to be TOO harsh in evaluating the S-Pulse frontman, it is painfully clear that Kitagawa is completely out of his depth in international football, even against the likes of Turkmenistan.

Tragically for both Kitagawa and the Samurai Blue as a whole, he has played more minutes in this tournament than either Muto or Osako. Following his two-goal performance in the opening match, Osako's "pain in the ass" tightened up once again, making it difficult for the Werder Bremen ace to play effectively, and posing a risk of even more serious injury if he overextends it again. To his credit, Kitagawa did his level best to help out by running incessantly at the ball on defence, and dragging a defender off to the "inactive" side of the pitch when Japan had possession. But his lack of international-level ball skills or tactical awareness has been so obvious that for long stretches of the Oman, Uzbekistan and Vietnam matches, his teammates would sometimes shape to pass and then pull back, realising that the blue jersey they had spotted was Kitagawa.

In essence, Japan played three entire matches -- and a substantial stretch of the game against Turkmenistan -- with only ten "real" players on the pitch. According to coaches, Osako was fit enough to come on in any of those matches, if he had been needed. However, even with a dead weight at the top of their formation, the Samurai Blue managed to build a lead in each contest. This allowed coach Moriyasu to give Osako plenty of time to rest and recover. 

If anyone had doubts about how influential the Bremen front-man is to the Samurai Blue's overall performance, those doubts were dispelled against Iran. Despite playing only 165 minutes in total, over two matches, Osako leads the team in scoring with four goals -- a brace against Iran and two more against Turkmenistan. In his absence, coach Moriyasu adopted a game plan that has been frustrating to watch, but entirely effective. In a post-match interview following the Oman contest, Wataru Endo admitted that the coach had instructed his players, once they had taken a one-goal advantage, to adopt a resolutely defensive stance and run out the clock.

The contest against Saudi Arabia played out in much the same way. I criticised this tactic myself, in our match report for the Japan-Saudi contest. But after giving the matter much thought, it does seem to be a valid tactic. Over half of the players on this team have less than six months' experience in playing at the international level, and some are very young indeed. Ritsu Doan and Takehiro Tomiyasu are both 20, Takumi Minamino 22, and several of the players who are 25 or younger have only a handful of international caps. Since they have only just reached the age where they can get a driver's license in Japan, Coach Moriyasu apparently decided that they need some practice in how to park a bus. 

The experience factor also helps to explain Japan's relatively slow start in this tournament. Doan and Minamino both demonstrated great potential in their Samurai Blue appearances last year, and they certainly deserve to be in this team, rather than aging players like Honda or Kagawa. Nevertheless, both have let the spotlight and the pressure get to them in this tournament. Neither one has really impressed (at least prior to the Iran match), and there were many signs in the pool matches that they had let success swell their heads. The third member of this line, Genki Haraguchi, has also performed below expectations. That is mildly disappointing, but certainly not surprising for players their age.

Against Iran, Minamino seemed to rediscover his sharpness and poise, while Doan improved enough to suggest that he will bounce back in time. Even if he should prove to be a flash in the pan, Junya Ito is at the front of a VERY long line of candidates to step into that role. As for Haraguchi, one suspects that he will be pushed out of the squad as soon as Nakajima returns. The 27-year-old has always been an uneven performer, and with young left-wingers like Hamburg's Tatsuya Ito, Kashima's Hiroki Abe and FC Tokyo's Takefusa Kubo waiting in the wings, this may be his last hurrah for the Samurai Blue.

If you were able to follow the above discussion, there should no longer be any "mystery" about why Japan won all of its previous matches by a single goal, or why the team suddenly gelled into a dangerous, creative and goal-hungry unit against Iran. Osako's presence alone is enough to dramatically change the team's overall competitiveness. His influence on both attack and defense is impossible to overestimate, particularly when you consider that his replacement in two-thirds of the previous matches was as effective as a department-store mannequin. Factor in the greater poise shown by Minamino and Doan, and the result against Iran is anything BUT surprising.

So far, this discussion has revolved almost completely around Japan's attacking unit. The relative youth and lack of fame these players possessed prior to the Asian Cup help to explain why most journalists have been so far off the mark in evaluating Japan's potential in this tournament. In terms of the team's prospects for the next World Cup cycle, however, the most influential players are likely to be found one line deeper into the formation. Gaku Shibasaki has fallen into a difficult position at his club, Getafe, not so much due to his skill, but because he does not fit well into the Getafe team structure, and (one suspects) because of some sort of interpersonal friction in the squad. But his performances over the past month should surely win him a move to more friendly surroundings. When he first arrived in Spain he was a smash hit with both fans and teammates at Tenerife, and his disappearance into the recesses of the Getafe bench has baffled many opposing coaches, who would be happy to pick up his contract.

Shibasaki's skills going forward, particularly his passing precision and creativity, have not been fully exploited in this tournament. This reflects the conservative philosophy that Moriyasu adopted while Osako was on the bench. Some Japanese journalists noted after the Oman and Saudi contests that Shibasaki was the most vocal in expressing frustration with the bus-parking practice. However, against Iran his ability to move the ball quickly from defence into attack was as important to team success as his tenacious one-on-one defending. Alongside Shibasaki in deep midfield, Wataru Endo has delivered his best performances to date. Those who follow JSoccer will be aware of my long-term reservations about the 25-year-old's potential. But a move to Sint-Truiden in Belgium seems to have toughened him up, and compelled him to play with greater positional integrity. While I still worry about his occasional lapses, there is no denying that he has been one of the standouts for Japan in this tournament.

Unfortunately, Endo received a knee injury in the Iran match, and probably will miss the final against Qatar. In this writer's opinion that was a blessing in disguise, since it allows Tsukasa Shiotani to return to the lineup. Shiotani received some national team attention, and his first two Samurai Blue caps, way back in 2014, when he was playing in Hiroshima for none other than Hajime Moriyasu. However, after a few impressive seasons and three league titles for the Purple Archers, injuries and competition from younger players pushed him out of the starting lineup, and in 2017 he accepted a move to Al-Ain, in the UAE. The move seemed to rejuvenate the 30-year-old, and he not only captured the hearts of Al-Ain fans, but also captured headlines by scoring against Real Madrid in the final of last year's FIFA Club World Cup. Shiotani played only once prior to the Iran match, in the final pool contest against Uzbekistan. However, in a match played at his club team's home stadium, he put in a very impressive performance, and scored the winning goal of the contest. Since Shiotani will be the only "local boy" to play in the Asian Cup final, against Qatar, his presence in the lineup may earn Japan more fan support than they have received in their previous matches.

I saved the best for last, since the biggest surprise of this Asian Cup (at least for Samurai Blue fans) has been the sparkling play of 20-year-old centre back Takehiro Tomiyasu, who joined Endo at Sint-Treuden towards the end of last season. In the opening match against Turkmenistan, Moriyasu attempted to use him alongside Shibasaki in deep midfield, but despite having very good ball skills for a big man, he seemed uneasy and uncertain in such an advanced position. After moving back a notch to join Maya Yoshida in central defense, though, the youngster has been positively brilliant. Tomiyasu's strength in the air was extremely valuable against Saudi Arabia and Iran, who seemed to think they could expose a Japanese weakness with high balls into the box. Just as important, his passing precision and good instincts were displayed in the quick transition to counterattack. He even scored Japan's winning goal against Saudi Arabia, heading home from a corner kick.

The less I say about the three veterans in Japan's back line, the better. Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo and Hiroki Sakai have all been steady, composed and consummately reliable, but none has really impressed on the defensive end. Sakai and Nagatomo contributed significantly on the attacking end, particularly in matches where the presence of Koya Kitagawa limited the number of effective offensive players. However, one senses that all three are playing their last big tournament. Samurai Blue fans can expect to see Tomiyasu joined in central defense by either Toulouse's Gen Shoji, Cercle Brugge's Naomichi Ueda (who partnered Tomiyasu for the Japan U-20 team), or Genta Miura, another youngster (22) who looked reasonably solid over 90 minutes against Uzbekistan, in the pool round. The wingbacks also face a great deal of competition from upcoming prospects. Sei Muroya and Sho Sasaki both performed well in their 90-minute stints against Uzbekistan, but there are a host of other candidates who should begin to get opportunities to don the Samurai Blue kit over the coming few years.

All in all, this Asian Cup has been a very encouraging one for fans of the Samurai Blue. Despite having almost a dozen of his top choices pull out of contention due to either injury or club commitments, Coach Moriyasu has been able to steer his team smoothly through to the Cup Final. A lot of fans are nervous about the prospect of facing a West Asian opponent in what has already been a highly contentious tournament, marked by visibly biased officiating and genuinely dangerous behaviour by fans and opposing players alike. It would not be at all surprising to see Qatar claim the trophy, considering the lengths to which the AFC stooped just to get UAE and Qatar into one half of the final four. But win or lose, the Samurai Blue have announced the start of a highly promising new era, with their play at this tournament. 

Whether this generation can surpass all of its predecessors, and make an extended run into the World Cup knockout round, only time will tell. But it certainly promises to be an exciting ride . . . . .