Tuesday, 12 November 2019

August 10, 2019

 Japan 2 - 0 Myanmar  

Date: 
September 10, 2019
  Location: 
Saitama Stadium

Japan 2

2 1H 0
0 2H 0

0 Myanmar

Shoya Nakajima (16')
Takumi Minamino (26')

Scoring  
  Cautions Nant Cho
Zaw Ye Tun

  Shuichi Gonda; Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Yuto Nagatomo; Gaku Shibasaki, Kento Hashimoto; Ritsu Doan (Junya Ito 61'), Takumi Minamino (Musashi Suzuki 76'), Shoya Nakajima (Takefumi Kubo 81');  Yuya Osako
 TBA


Japan's journey towards the 2022 World Cup kicked off on Tuesday evening, when the Samurai Blue traveled to Myanmar to take on a team ranked more than 100 positions below them on FIFA's most recent international rankings. As I noted in the report filed after Japan's recent 2-0 victory over Paraguay, one of the biggest questions on the minds of Samurai Blue fans is what direction Coach Hajime Moriyasu will take the full National Team during the early phases of this qualification round. Will he continue to call up his most experienced unit, and focus strictly on qualification, or will he take the first round of World Cup qualification as an opportunity to prepare his younger players for the 2020 Olympics?

The question arises in part because -- for the first time since Philippe Troussier in 2000 -- Moriyasu carries both the head coaching responsibilities for the National Team and a supervisory role as U-23 head coach Akinobu Yokouchi's direct superior. In the past, the coach of the full NT has focused almost entirely on older players, while the age group coaches had almost sole control over both player selection and strategy for their youth teams. It is not yet guaranteed, but most expect Moriyasu to step in for a more direct role as the Olympic team head coach, some time next Spring. Yokouchi is currently managing the U-23s, who struggled in friendlies against Mexico and the USA, last week (both against full-strength adult teams). But after watching the success with which Moriyasu lead the same group in the Copa America, in Brazil, it seems probable that he will select and direct the squad that plays in the 2020 Olympics, next year.

Broadly speaking, Moriyasu has two main choices for how to handle the responsibilities he carries as the "supervising" coach of the U-23 team: He can line up a relatively tough series of friendly matches for these youngsters, and keep them separate from the full NT squad until after next year's Olympics. Alternatively, he could immediately induct the U-23 generation into his full NT squad (retaining only 3-5 veterans), and use the 2022 World Cup qualification round as the venue for building his Olympic team.

Those old enough to remember Philippe Troussier's stint and Samurai Blue coach will recall how successful he was in his effort to completely rebuild the team in his own image. In late 1998, just after he was hired by the JFA, Troussier attended a friendly which the U-20 team was using to tune up for the 1999 Youth World Cup, in Nigeria. Seeing the tremendous promise of a group that today is revered as "The Golden Generation", Troussier immediately appointed himself as the new U-20 team coach and set about building the core of a squad that would remain essentially unchanged for the next eight years. The same group of youngsters not only finished second in the world (to Spain) in 1999, but they proceeded to win the 2000 Asian Cup and the quarterfinal stage of the Sydney Olympics (after a PK loss to the USA).

Looking at the talent his disposal, Moriyasu seems inclined to try a similar strategy with the current Olympic squad. Most of the key players in this generation were called up to take part in last June's Copa America. The young team performed quite well, despite being knocked out at the group stage, giving football fans overseas a first chance to look at the up-and-coming generation of young talent in Japan. So solid was their performance, in fact, that six members of the squad earned high-profile moves to new European clubs.

Most overseas football fans have heard about Takefusa Kubo's high-profile signing with Real Madrid. In addition, solid results at the Copa America earned Hiroki Abe a contract with Barcelona's B team, while Koki Anzai, Daizen Maeda and Daniel Schmidt earned contracts with Portominense, Maratimo and Sint Trueden, respectively. In addition to these J-League players who moved to Europe over the summer, two more young Copa America members leveraged the publicity to take a step upward in their career tracks. Takehiro Tomiyasu was already playing in Belgium, but his play in Brazil caught the eye of Serie A coaches an earned him a move to Bologna. Similarly, PSV Eindhoven plucked Ritsu Doan from their midtable rivals, Groeningen.

In other words, the quality of these youngsters should be more than adequate to handle the opponents Japan faces in its first round of WC2022 qualification. Asian teams have been improving by leaps and bounds, over the past few years, so one is reluctant to make any claims that underestimate their potential to cause upsets. Nevertheless, the Samurai Blue should be more than capable of dispatching Myanmar, Mongolia, Kyrgizstan and Tajikistan. The question Moriyasu needs to address is whether it makes more sense to start building a younger squad immediately, or whether it makes more sense to let a more veteran unit handle the Asian minnows, and develop the Olympic squad via friendlies against top-tier opponents.

So which will it be? Are we going to see Osako-Minamino-Nakajima + α as the established attacking unit, with Shibasaki and a J.League Rottweiler-of-the-month completing the preferred First Team, from now through 2022? Or will younger candidates like Kubo, Abe, Maeda and other Olympic prospects be phased in immediately, as preparation for the big show in Tokyo?

The answer to this question may be influenced heavily by someone other than Moriyasu, his staff, or the JFA. The recent surge in the percentage of NT players currently in Europe may boost Japan in the long term, but in the short term it has put the JFA in conflict with many European clubs. No doubt Werder Bremen coach Florian Kohfeldt would be thrilled if Japan agreed not to call Osako up until after next year's Olympic games. The JFA will be hoping that he never sees the yellow-card foul Osako received around the 25 minute mark. But the same friction may arrive with respect to some of the youngsters, who have to establish themselves at new clubs in a new country while still making a reliable contribution to the Samurai Blue.

Whatever else we might say, it will be very interesting to see how the team develops over the next few months. Moriyasu provided no real hints of his intentions (... or did he? ...) by sticking with the exact same starting eleven used against Paraguay. This decision pretty much ensured the content and result: A thoroughly experienced but slightly un-focused group of professionals trying not to be overly vexed by the incessant fouls and long deliberate delays perpetrated by a team that just wants a face-saving, low-scoring home result. You can criticise them for not putting Myanmar away with a third goal, but as a competitive contest, this match was over in the 27th minute.

Japan secured the opening goal with relative ease. Sixteen minutes in, Shoya Nakajima picked up a ball at the top of the box, saw no opponent lunging into his path, and simply curled a lob pass into the top right corner of goal. That would be the last open shot the Samurai Blue would be given, though, as the home team played out of their skins trying to keep the score respectable. Ten minutes after Nakajima's opener, Ritsu Doan dribbled into the box and almost exposed another gap, but a Burmese player lunged into the lane to block the shot. When the ball rebounded back to Doan, he immediately spotted Minamino at the far post, completely unmarked. Doan's soft chip was headed through the open back door by Minamino, and the final result was essentially secure.

Two minutes later, Zaw Ye Tun went studs-up into the calves of Yuya Osako and the Bremen ace very nearly lost his temper. The head official swiftly intervened, and ensured that there were few similar incidents. But under the circumstances it is no surprise that the final score sheet remained unaltered for the remaining 62 minutes.

This is the danger of using your First String against low-level AFC opposition. They rarely if ever cover themselves in glory. Far better to use these Asian matches as a chance to give the Next Generation real, first-hand experience in FIFA A matches that MEAN something. Hopefully we will see a BIT more experimentation next month, when Japan faces Mongolia and Tajikistan.