Sunday, 21 July 2019

 Immature Opening to Copa America

 Japan 0 - 4 Chile 

June 17, 2019
Sao Paulo, Brazil

Japan 0

0 1H 1
0 2H 3

4 Chile


Scoring Erick Pulgar (41')
Eduardo Vargas (54')
Alexis Sanchez (82')
Eduardo Vargas (83')

  Keisuke Osako; Teruki Hara, Naomichi Ueda, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Daiki Sugioka; Gaku Shibasaki, Yuta Nakayama; Daizen Maeda (Koji Miyoshi 66'), Takefusa Kubo, Shoya Nakajima (Hiroki Abe 66'); Ayase Ueda (Shinji Okazaki 79')

Perhaps it is too soon to write a clearheaded evaluation of Japan's performance against Chile in their opening Copa America contest, since emotion is bound to interfere in the analysis. But considering how thoroughly forgettable this performance was, it seems unlikely that I will recall the details if I should wait more than an hour or two. The outcome was certain as soon as the starting lineup was announced, but even for a woefully inexperienced unit, the performance by this group of players was an embarrassment to the Samurai Blue legacy. At least we need not wonder why nobody bothered to televise the match live, in Japan. The only live feed available to people back home was provided by DAZN -- perhaps a marketing coup for the J.League's official media provider, but not a good indication of how serious the JFA is taking this tournament.  

Lets start by TRYING to give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt, and put the best face possible on the team's performance against Chile. For one thing, a single glance at the opposition Japan faces in Group C was enough to tell us that Chile would be the most dangerous opponent in the pool. Coach Hajime Moriyasu has said from the start that the primary purpose of this summer's excursion to South America is to try out new faces and new strategies, while a secondary objective is to start laying the groundwork for the 2020 Olympic squad. It was always clear that the coach intended to throw some of these young prospects in at the deep end and see if they could handle the pressure.

  But the extent to which Moriyasu took this philosophy was unexpectedly extreme. Some of the players who received their first National Team start were clearly not up to the task. In fact, debutantes like Daiki Sugioka, Yuta Nakayama and Ayase Ueda went straight to the bottom of the pool and may never resurface. To be fair to the team as a whole, there were some flashes of promise . . . but not from the three individuals mentioned above. A.Ueda (to distinguish him from the defender N.Ueda) could have opened his career with a hat trick if he had possessed even the most rudimentary of finishing skills. Four times, teammates delivered balls to him on a silver platter, yet he was subbed off in the 80th minute without even having managed a shot on target. Daiki Sugioka and Yuta Nakayama seemed to be trying to outdo one another in a competition for the worst first touch. At least two of Chile's goals came directly from errors by the two players holding down Japan's left flank. The two centre backs -- Naomichi Ueda and Takehiro Tomiyasu -- actually managed to impress any scouts who might have been in the crowd, since they were constantly scrambling to clean up the messes left by Sugioka and Nakayama.

But the biggest disappointment of all had to be the performance of Takefusa Kubo, whose recent transfer contract to Real Madrid earned him a whirlwind of publicity prior to this match. Those who have been following the youngster's career, however, will be familiar with how "unfinished" Kubo is, as a player. If the Real Madrid coaches are able to teach him how to defend, perhaps he may blossom as a genuine star prospect in the future. But as this contest demonstrated, he still lacks the strength, guile, mental poise, and defensive sensibilities needed to handle truly world-class opposition. He had a few decent runs over the course of the match, but Chile were alert to his potential and -- with just a little added defensive attention -- marked him out of the contest almost completely.

Many Samurai Blue fans will be looking at the run of play and asking themselves how Moriyasu could get his player selection so wrong. For starters, you have to assume that Shinji Okazaki could have finished off at least two of the chances that A. Ueda squandered. This would have given the contest a very different complexion indeed. It is perhaps understandable why Moriyasu opted for a 4-5-1 formation rather than three backs, but this decision forced two 20-year-old defenders to play in wingback roles that they have never even excelled at in the J.League. Sugioka looks like he might have potential playing in a back three, given his speed and strength in the air. But he obviously lacks the ball skills and positional sense to play at wingback. Not only was he unable to support the buildup; but on defense, Alexis Sanchez toyed with him like a wily old alley cat torturing a mouse. Teruki Hara fared SLIGHTLY better, but he certainly was not able to handle a player of Arturo Vital's quality. If not for the hard work of N.Ueda and Tomiyasu, and a LOT of defensive support from Gaku Shibasaki, Chile could have scored even more than four goals.

Even those players who delivered decent performances did not look particularly effective, or comfortable, with the formation and tactics. Daizen Maeda was perhaps the most impressive of the new faces in the squad, but his speed and dribbling skills were utterly wasted on the right wing. When he did get behind the Chile defense, he showed a lot of promise. Perhaps if used up front, in place of A.Ueda, he could have made a better account of himself (he surely couldnt have done any worse in finishing off chances). Similarly, Kubo might have delivered a bit more if he had some space and support. The 18-year-old seems to perform best when he has a big striker to use as the pivot for his lateral movements. Ueda most certainly is not that type of player, and Shoya Nakajima is even less so. Nakajima was the only offensive component that created trouble for the Chilean defense, but he couldnt do much without decent support.

When Coach Moriyasu finally brought on his subs -- Koji Miyoshi, Hiroki Abe and Shinji Okazaki -- Japan's offensive flow improved. But even then, all of the most dangerous attacking play was orchestrated by Shibasaki. The Samurai Blue captain was the provider on three of the four shots that A.Ueda flailed at impotently, and if his defensive responsibilities had not been so oppressive, perhaps he could have done even more. But against a team of Chile's calibre he had his hands full with defensive cover, and was rarely in a position to contribute much more than the occasional threaded pass into space.

In summary, this was a contest that Samurai Blue fans will be happy to forget . . . indeed (given the lack of TV coverage), most people in Japan will probably never see anything beyond the final score. The most "positive" takeaway for Coach Moriyasu will be the knowledge that some of his young prospects are incapable of playing at this level. Perhaps it was best to expose their shortcomings against a class opponent like Chile, and rule them out of future NT consideration. One would expect to see a much different (and hopefully more experienced) lineup against Uruguay, where Japan will need at least a point to have any hope of progressing. But unless Moriyasu does a much better job of utilising his personnel, this tournament will be a short and frustrating one for Japan.