Tuesday, 28 January 2020

January 10, 2020

 Japan 1 - 2 Saudi Arabia  

January 10, 2020

Japan 1

0 1H 0
1 2H 2

2 Saudi Arabia

Ryotaro Meshino (56') Scoring

Al-Khulaif (48')
Ghareeb (88 PK)

Ayase Ueda
Makoto Okazaki
Ao Tanaka 
Cautions  Omran

  Keisuke Osako; Taiyo Koga, Makoto Okazaki, Tsuyoshi Watanabe; Shunya Tanaka, Ao Tanaka; Shinnosuke Hatanaka (Yuki Soma 90+2'), Reo Hatate (Kyosuke Tagawa 72'), Ryotaro Meshino; Daiki Ogawa (Ayase Ueda 72')

No sooner had I switched on my PC, this morning, than I was bombarded with questions from friends and acquaintances wanting to know what happened to the Japan U-22 National Team on Thursday evening, in Thailand. Most were from people who do not really follow football, but who notice the scores of matches and are beginning to get confused. As usual, my Sister-in-Law managed to put the issue in the most succinct terms:

"What the hell happened?
One minute Japan is beating teams 5-0 or 9-0, and the next it is getting hammered by Asian rivals like Korea and Saudi Arabia. This makes no sense!"

 It is not particularly easy to answer such a question, especially in terms that a casual football fan would understand. Fortunately my Sister-in-law is a fan of theatre, both Kabuki and modern, so I put it to her this way: "You know how every lead actor in a play has a "stand-in", and every once in a while (just to keep them sharp) the director will rehearse with all the stand-ins, rather than the lead actors?"

"So youre saying the Jamaica match was the first string and the one last night was the stand-ins?"

Well . . . . not exactly. The Jamaica match was actually the stand-ins, with a couple first-string players loosely involved.
But you know how sometimes a really famous actor agrees to take part in a minor production, but the director knows ahead of time that s/he has other commitments, and will only be available for certain shows? So you have to hire someone to serve as a backup for the famous actor's back-up?

"Theyre usually called the Second Stand-in."

OK, well imagine that you held a casting call in order to fill two "Second Stand-in" positions, and 23 wannabe actors all showed up and insisted on performing. That's pretty much what has been happening in some recent matches. I can think of only two (MAYBE three) field players who started on Thursday night, and have an outside chance of making the final squad for the Olympics. Yes... it is pretty disappointing to see how lacklustre their performances are, but you can't really expect much if all your lead actors are missing.

"So where are the starting players? Why arent they participating? After all, this is supposed to be the qualifier for the 2020 Olympics."

And therein lies the dilemma that Japan is increasingly facing -- not only for full NT contests, but PARTICULARLY for age-group matches. There are about 20 players from this generation who already ply their trade in Europe -- enough to fill the entire Olympic roster and still have leftovers. But only one of these players (Ryotaro Meshino, who plays in chilly Scotland and is therefore on winter break) has been released for this tournament. The closest Japan has come to fielding a full-strength U-22 squad was at last year's Copa America. Every other match played up to now has involved (predominantly, at least) players who have only an outside chance of making the squad. Unless they deliver a truly stunning performance, theyre just holding the places for Europe-based talent.

No doubt, the coaches of top European youth National Teams are deeply familiar with this problem. U-23 matches are taken lightly by most such teams, because coaches know in advance that they will have difficulty convincing clubs to release the players. Coach Moriyasu seems to be unsure just how to approach the job of team-building. Suffice it to say that Japan will probably not field a full-strength Olympic team until a month or so before the Olympics. This most certainly does pose serious problems, if the Young Samurai Blue hope to meet their goal of an Olympic medal. But it also means that Japan has to a send out a bunch of pretenders for matches such as the ones scheduled to take place in Thailand over the next two weeks.

The defensive frailties displayed by Japan throughout the Saudi contest probably are safe to disregard, since those of us who follow the game closely were already skeptical about the talents of most players who started on Thursday evening. The back three were constantly overrun by fast Saudi strikers, while the "double-Tanaka" midfield has one too many Tanakas. Ao Tanaka probably can battle his way into Moriyasu's squad, but if Moriyasu does decide to call up Gaku Shibasaki as an overage player (highly likely. Shibasaki is one of the coach's most trusted players, and has featured in almost all NT contests since Moriyasu took over the helm, in 2018), he is a questionable starter. As for Shunya Tanaka ... last night demonstrated that he lacks the combative nature and athleticism to play at this level. The two wings are clearly not going to displace the likes of Hiroki Abe, Daizen Maeda and Takefusa Kubo, among other candidates, and while Meshino or Reo Hatate MIGHT battle their way into the team, both will have to overcome the inconsistency showed in last year's EAFC Cup.

Perhaps it is risky to ignore the final result in contests like last night's loss to the Saudis. But as soon as one starts to contemplate what the 2020 Olympic team will REALLY look like, it becomes clear that January's so-called "Olympic qualification tournament" has little or no bearing on how well the team will do at the actual Olympics.

Rumours about which overage players will be called to the Olympic Squad often turn out to be wildly off-base. I think we can safely assume that Keisuke Honda will NOT be around. However, the two most commonly mentioned names APART from Honda make a lot of practical sense. As already noted, Moriyasu views Gaku Shibasaki as the most suitable player to fill the role of field general, in the centre of the formation, at the full NT level. It therefore makes sense that he will be installed as the Olympic team captain. The other player whose name appears frequently is Yuya Osako -- a former teammate of Shibasaki at Kashima Antlers, and already installed as Japan's preferred "one top" player, thanks to his strength in controlling the ball up front and dishing to teammates, as well as his finishing prowess. Both Deportiva la Coruna (Shibasaki's club team) and Werder Bremen (where Osako plays) have publicly agreed to release the players for the Olympics, assuming they are called up. I think we can safely assume that both will be in the lineup, come July. 

Basing my choices on current form (for both NT and club), I think the following lineup represents the likely "first string":

 . . . . . . . . . . . . . Keisuke Osako
 . . Tomiyasu . . . Watanabe . . . Yugo Tatsuta? (Machida? over-age?)
. . . . . . Ao Tanaka . . . . Gaku Shibasaki
Daiki Maeda (Kubo) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Hiroki Abe
 . . . . . Ritsu Doan . . . . Takefusa Kubo (Maeda)
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . Yuya Osako

There are many other prospects not mentioned here, such as St. Treuden's Tatsuya Ito (on either wing) and Yuma Suzuki (anywhere in the top three), Frankfurt's Daichi Kamada (either wing or behind the striker) and more. The point Im trying to make is that there is enough talent to fill every spot on the Olympic roster at least once, without calling up a single player from the group that played against Saudi Arabia. While Ao Tanaka and keeper Keisuke Osako both played well enough to keep their names in the running, everyone else is just a "Second Stand-in". So it is pointless to compare the results of this match with -- for example -- the Jamaica contest which Japan won 9-0. The two results were recorded by completely different teams.

That does not necessarily excuse the poor performance on Thursday. Moriyasu, in particular, was guilty of some key mistakes (such as waiting too long to bring in substitutions). But the other players who failed to perform against the Saudis have merely confirmed widespread assumptions -- that they are not good enough to make the Olympic squad. Hopefully the remainder of this tournament will not be quite as disappointing as last night's contest, but even if Japan loses all three pool contests it will have little bearing on how competitive the Young Samurai will be at this year's Olympics.