Japan worse than the sum of their parts

June 10, 2010

Japan's 4-1-4-1

Japan probably should be better than they are considering their attacking talents, but manager Takeshi Okada is intent on playing a certain way, even if it means leaving out star names.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – international football is about assembling a cohesive XI rather than squeezing all your best talents into one team – but there’s no guarantee it’s going to work. Japan were unconvincing throughout qualification and their three pre-tournament friendlies have all ended in defeat.

All three games show that Japan can pass the ball well. They pack the midfield with good technical footballers which can result in them dominating possession – against England, it was 67-33 in Japan’s favour. The problem is that they don’t turn the possession into goals against top-level sides, and they have scored one goal in their last five friendlies in 2010.

The ball tends to stay for too long in non-threatening areas, almost as if there’s a reluctance to get into the final third and risk losing possession. And that doesn’t really make sense when they have creative players like Makoto Hasebe and Keisuke Honda, suggesting that Okada’s tactics aren’t really getting the best out of the side.

The first XI

Japan’s shape has been described as both 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, but it’s probably closer to 4-1-4-1. The central striker will be Shinji Okazaki, a very small, hard-working player who will run the channels, but tends to become isolated – many fans would prefer him to have a partner in Catania’s Takayuki Morimoto, but Okada doesn’t seem to have much faith in him.

The band of four features some excellent footballers, so much so that Shunsuke Nakamura rarely gets a start. On the right will be Honda, a left-footed playmaker (and yes, he also has a good engine on him), with Yoshito Okubo playing a more direct role on the left. He may be Japan’s secret weapon – he impressed in substitute appearances as Wolfsburg won the Bundesliga title in 2008/09, but with the form of their other forwards, never really got a chance in the first team.

The holding player will be Yuki Abe, as conservative a central midfielder as you’re likely to find. His positional awareness gives more freedom to the captain, Hasebe, a hard-working creative player and Yashuito Endo, a more functional midfielder.

The central defensive partnership is composed of two physically imposing but positionally unsure players in Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio, both of whom are more competent in the air than on the ground, whilst the full-backs like to support the midfield without bombing on too much – Atsuto Achida is an exciting prospect at right-back but now looks like being replaced with Yasuyuki Konno. Yuto Nagatomo should be the left-back, a decent player on the ball but at 5′7 able  to be dominated in the air.


Japan have never won a World Cup match overseas – they might have a chance to change that in the opening game against Cameroon, but progression to the second round will be very difficult.

They arguably have the best bench of the unfancied teams in the competition though, as they’ll be able to throw on moth Morimoto and Nakamura if they are struggling for goals (which they will). Whether Okada chooses to use them at all, we’ve have to wait and see, but if Japan are to leave their mark on this tournament, it will probably be through individual moments from their attacking players, rather than a run to the latter stages.