Saturday, 24 August 2019

 

 Countdown to Copa

 Japan 2 - 0 El Salvador 

Date: 
June 9, 2019
  Location: 
Hitomebori Stadium, Sendai

Japan 2

2 1H 0
0 2H 0

0 El Salvador

Kensuke Nagai (19') 
Kensuke Nagai (41')

Scoring  
Shoya Nakajima Cautions Jiminez
Tamacas

  Daniel Schmidt; Shinnosuke Hatanaka (Ryosuke Yamanaka 59'), Gen Shoji, Takehiro Tomiyasu; Junya Ito (Sei Muroya 59'), Kento Hashimoto, Yuki Kobayashi (Gaku Shibasaki 80'), Genki Haraguchi (Shoya Nakajima 67'); Ritsu Doan, Takumi Minamino (Takefusa Kubo 67'); Kensuke Nagai (Yuya Osako 59')
 TBA


The past week has been a busy one for Japan's various National Team representatives, with the U-20 team taking part in the Youth World Cup, Nadeshiko Japan preparing to kick off the Women's World Cup, an U-22 (Olympic) team taking part in the Tournoi d'Espoirs, in France, and the Samurai Blue themselves playing two warmup matches against CONCACAF opponents in preparation for South America's showpiece tournament, the Copa America. At every level (except possibly the Women, who have already met every possible achievement in the sport), Japan has been looking better than ever, even if they have not necessarily racked up final results that match the quality of their overall play.

Perhaps the best way to evaluate just how promising the National Teams have been, of late, is to consider what qualifies as "failure", these days. For example, the U-20 squad were knocked out in the round of 16 by South Korea, despite having dominated play for almost the entire contest. An 84th-minute miscue by a defender gifted the Koreans the lone goal of the contest. Similarly, last Thursday evening, the full national team played a friendly against Trinidad & Tobago, which ended in a scoreless draw. For exceedingly long stretches Japan had virtually uninterrupted possession, because each time one of their attacks was broken up, the midfield would instantly reclaim the ball. Even the Trinibagans (?) best efforts to string a pass or two together failed to produce anything of real offensive potential. Yet the two teams finished the contest on level terms

Certainly, Japan's failure to score was a disappointment in both of these matches. But Samurai Blue fans have more than a little familiarity with the problem of inadequate finishing. The caveat is that, this time around, it was not simply a case of Japan lacking the killer instinct, or not having enough quality to put opponents away. On the contrary, expectations for this year's U-20 unit were always subdued, because most of the truly world-class attacking players of the generation were not even named. Players like Yuto Iwasaki and Leo Hatate (both 20) were sent to Toulon, the likes of Hiroki Abe and Daiki Kaneko are injured, while Ritsu Doan, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Sunday evening's star debutant, Yoshifumi Kubo, are already playing for the full Samurai Blue. Thus, even though it was frustrating to watch the young Samurai Blue (once again) waste one opportunity after another, it was not hard to see what the presence of one truly "experienced" striker would have done to change the outcome.

The failure to score in the Trinibago match was a bit harder to excuse, but was perhaps easier to understand. For the first time since the departure of Phillipe Troussier, Japan lined up with three men in the back line, instead of four. Many commentators suggested that the formation was partly to blame for the poor performance. This may be accurate, in the final analysis. However, those who understand the strengths and weaknesses of the 3-6-1 formation that many coaches (including Hajime Moriyasu) have been using in the J.League over the past decade or so recognised this as a failure of personnel selection, not strategy.

The formation that was pioneered at Sanfrecce Hiroshima by Mihailo Petrovic, and later used to Championship success by Moriyasu, aims to use a swarm of hard-working midfielders to dominate the centre of the pitch. By bottling up the opponent and winning the ball at advanced positions in midfield, the Petrovic 3-6-1 sets up sudden counterattacking thrusts, and limits the opposition's scoring chances. In essence, it is a defensive formation. Although many coaches (including Moriyasu) are beginning to find ways to make it less so, the underlying principles favour a counterattacking style. Particularly among J2 coaches, the formation is used with genuine "wingbacks" at the two wide midfield spots, so that against stronger opposition, it can easily be described as "5-4-1" rather than a 3-back formation. Teams that adopt such a philosophy often find it hard to put away weak opponents, because despite the wingbacks' role in attack, they often lack the finishing skills to truly make a difference on attack.

The problem has usually been addressed by using genuine midfield wings in the two wide spots, when playing against a weaker opponent. On Thursday evening, however, the two wide men were Yuto Nagatomo and Hiroki Sakai -- both of them wingbacks, not natural midfielders. Nagatomo and Sakai both have the ability to contribute on offense, and they did so against Trinibago. But neither one ever really took the ball around the corner, or deep into the box. Since the opposition was packed tightly into their own box, in an almost permanent defensive shell, Japan struggled to really break down the defensive block. The swarming Samurai Blue midfield absolutely dominated the contest, winning the ball back almost immediately, every time they were dispossessed. But with Trinidad & Tobago playing for a stalemate, the result was not unexpected.

The general perception of this formation is so ingrained that even when genuine midfielders are used on the wings, as was the case on Sunday, the announcers were calling them "wingbacks". But the difference in actual performance was obvious as soon as the El Salvador contest kicked off. As for why more offensive players were not used against Trinibago, Moriyasu's choice of personnel for the Copa America suggests that this was simply a way to test a formation that will surely be needed if Japan should run up against Brazil or Argentina. If (as I expect) he adopts the 3-6-1 for all of Japan's Copa America contests, defense-oriented wings like Nagatomo and Sakai will surely be needed against the tougher opponents. But the real threat posed by the 3-6-1, if Japan uses it in the next World Cup cycle, lies in what happens when you put speedy, ball-savvy midfielders on the flanks.

Last night, against El Salvador, Moriyasu had a chance to try out this latter approach. On the left wing was Hannover's Genki Haraguchi, while Genk's Junya Ito lined up on the right. Both players had spectacular evenings, with Ito only a shade behind brace-scorer Kensuke Nagai in the running for Man of the Match. The result was one of the most comprehensive victories the Samurai Blue have achieved in years. The Japan midfield was so dominant that El Salvador frequently struggled just to maintain possession in their OWN END. Ito probably should have scored on at least one of the pell-mell runs he made after pilfering attempted passes to the Salvadoran left wing. But even without a goal, his performance was one of the real highlights.

Naturally, the "big story" for most Samurai Blue fans was the second-half appearance of 18-year-old Takefusa Kubo. Japan has always loved the "great new hope", and Kubo's emergence as a very important cog in J.League-leading FC Tokyo's attack, this season, has vaulted him into nationwide "pin-up boy" status. The youngster put on a very convincing show in his 25-minute National Team debut, nearly scoring a goal after making a lovely steal on the right flank and charging through the Salvadoran defense on the dribble.

Skeptics should keep in mind the equally over-the-top reception that Ritsu Doan got following his debut, less than a year ago. Though Doan continues to look like a strong prospect for the future, his contributions to the National Team dropped off following the hot start he got, last fall. In fact, he was one of the least convincing contributors in the two recent friendlies. Considering his age (20) and the fact that his club performance at Groeningen continues to sparkle, the slight letdown is no real concern. Nevertheless, it should serve as an example of what often happens to young Samurai Blue prospects who receive excessive (and excessively fawning) attention so early in their careers. If Kubo should explode onto the international stage at this summer's Copa America, of course that would be great for all concerned. But there should be no worries if he should fail to perform. One can already see his long-term potential, and the biggest concern is that he doesnt let the sudden glare of spotlights distract him from steady work and improvement.

As noted, the use of two speedy, ball-savvy wingers in place of wingBACKS made all the difference in this contest. From the opening tap, the only question on the mind of viewers was how long it would take the Samurai Blue to score, and how many they would tally before the final whistle. When centre-forward Kensuke Nagai finally did hit the net in the 19th minute, Japan had already created a dozen dangerous chances. Whenever El Salvador had the ball, the seven midfield players (including Nagai) pressed the ball, with the sort of midfield swarming that experienced J.League fans recognise as "the Petrovic 3-6-1 at its best." There was a fair amount of confusion in attack, as Nagai was playing his first match ever with Doan and Minamino, while Ito and Haraguchi are used to subbing in for Doan and Minamino, rather than playing alongside them. Even with all the stray passes and near-misses, the Samurai Blue attack had the 38,000 fans in Sendai on their feet almost constantly.

The breakthrough would actually be crafted by a defender -- U-20 star Takehiro Tomiyasu -- who collected a back pass after the midfield had pried the ball away from El Salvador, and launched it down the right channel. Nagai displayed his greatest asset, speed, by outrunning two defenders to the ball, flicking it back with the bottom of his foot as both stumbled past, then cut across the face of goal to drive into the low right corner. Japan should have been able to double their lead just moments later, when Minamino was blatantly chopped down inside the penalty area, but the referee chose to show some mercy to an El Salvador unit that looked like collapsing altogether. Japan kept the pressure on, with Ito, Minamino and Nagai all getting shots on target, but keeper Henry Hernandez was able to hold the score close until just before the break. With four minutes to go until half time, Haraguchi burst around the left flank to collect Kento Hashimoto through ball. Racing to the end line, Haraguchi cut the ball back for Nagai to drive past the keeper, completing his brace.

Unfortunately, Nagai would come off shortly after the restart due to injury. A lusty sholder charge by the Salvadoran defender seemed to either bruise or dislocate his shoulder, and this prompted Moriyasu to begin his second-half substitution schedule before the stroke of the hour. The raft of changes included a shift to four backs, and the easing of Japan's overloaded midfield press. It was only after the Samurai Blue shifted to their conventional 4-2-3-1 that El Salvador managed to create anything that a neutral observer might describe as "offense." Japan continued to dominate play, and nearly scored two or three times on spectacular one-touch exchanges, but without the extra man in midfield, they struggled to finish off their moves.

Nevertheless, the performance on Sunday evening -- from every player on the squad -- is cause for real optimism, especially if the experience they gain in South America can tighten up their coordination and communication. Since the J.League is still in full swing, Japan will be well below full strength at the Copa America. Yet the team's performance in its two warmup contests suggests that they have the raw material, at least, to make a real impact. One certainly would expect them to surpass their previous performances in the tournament: in 1999 they managed just a single point (a 1-1 draw with Bolivia), and in 2011 Japan withdrew at the last minute, due to disruption caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake. Based on what we saw against El Salvador and Trinibago, it certainly looks like the team can best that record; the question is "how much better?"

Only time will tell.