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Japan still lack in attack, but time to back Zac

13 Sep 2010(Mon)

The difference, off the pitch anyway, with the last time that the Japanese national team had ventured west to Osaka was striking. While much of the crowd for April’s humiliation against a young Serbian eleven had slunk into the stadium mere moments before mumbling their way through Kimi ga yo with equally little gusto, on this occasion the platforms both at Nagai Station and at the connecting hub of Tennoji were chock-a-block with fans as early as 6.15pm – a full hour and a half before kick-off and way, way earlier than most Japanese usually like to leave their desks. Back in spring, beer was purchased largely as a medium into which to stare ruefully between increasingly frequent boos and other bursts of vitriol; now, the purveyors of Kirin were back in their rightful place as catalysts to the party. Proud supporters raised their paper cups (which never do make as satisfying a clinking noise as the real thing) and happily forgave all misplaced passes and needlessly conceded goals (well, one) down on the pitch in front of them.


Which was probably just as well. In most other circumstances, winning by only the odd goal in three against a Guatemala side ranked 119th in the world (one place below the Faroe Islands) and which failed to even qualify for the most recent edition of the CONCACAF Gold Cup in that notoriously competitive North, Central American and Caribbean region would have been considered categorically disastrous. Japan may have demonstrated a perfect start to the game, confidently racing into a 2-0 lead through two well-taken Takayuki Morimoto goals in the opening 20 minutes, but the bubble was then burst completely when Mario Rodriguez’s quick reply heralded the dawn of more than an hour’s worth of absolutely nothing.


Even then, it wasn’t as if anybody minded. There are bigger and more important tests to come ahead of January’s curiously-timed Asian Cup, while more significantly for the paying public, the euphoria of South Africa remains fresh in the memory. If even the players were unsure as to the game’s wider significance, this wouldn’t have been helped by the sight of new boss Alberto Zaccheroni sat in the directors’ box while Hiromi Hara – elected to serve as caretaker for the September friendlies when Japan were still manager-less – issued instructions from the touchline.


The appointment of Zaccheroni as successor to the ultimately (and surprisingly) successful Takeshi Okada is an interesting one. At a stage where Japan need to build on a last 16 appearance at an overseas World Cup that surely ranks as their finest ever footballing achievement, the Japan Football Association had two options – to follow the Huh Jung-Moo/South Korean route and target a domestic coach like Akira Nishino to further the overall development of Japanese football more organically, or to again look overseas for someone with that little bit extra to take the Samurai Blue to the next level. In Zaccheroni, the JFA have unquestionably hired the manager with the most glittering CV in their history.


However, the Italian’s most notable successes – third place in Serie A with little Udinese in 1998, and a Scudetto crown at AC Milan the following year – are sadly now as dated as the famous 3-4-3 system with which he achieved them. Since failing to hold onto his job at Milan’s city rivals Inter at the end of the 2003/04 campaign, ‘Zac’ had only found employment for a total of less than ten months in six years before the JFA came calling. An incomplete season at Torino in 2006/07 was followed by a mid-season appointment at Juventus this January with the mission of recovering the Old Lady from the depths of sixth position to which they had fallen under occasional SKY PerfecTV pundit Ciro Ferrara. One seventh-place finish and a 4-1 Europa League defeat to Fulham later, Zaccheroni’s contract was never likely to be renewed.


Tactically, Zaccheroni quickly abandoned his back three at Juventus for a variation on 4-3-3, but if his influence on the Guatemala friendly was as significant as reports on deep and lengthy discussions with Hara seemed to suggest, then it appears likely that his Japan will favour the 4-2-3-1 style employed by Okada until immediately before the World Cup. This column was an unequivocal advocate of the change to 4-1-2-2-1 but this reversal makes inherent sense for two reasons. Firstly, with Asia now the sole focus until summer 2013, Japan will be expected to dominate most opponents again and thus the defensive frailties of a ‘double volante’ pairing of (or akin to) Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe will likely be less of an issue. Secondly, the new boss now has plenty of time and opportunity to bed in younger players like Morimoto, Shinji Kagawa, and Hajime Hosogai; and perhaps foster a team that is comfortable playing in the en vogue formation of the 2010s even against the very best.


We can only hope that Zaccheroni has a firm enough grasp of his ideal system to impart it upon his players, but like with prime ministers and presidents, it is in everybody’s best interests to support him – at least initially – even if we might not all have chosen him ourselves.

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Posted by: BernieR | 09/17/2010 05:31 am

I thoroughly enjoyed the three European-based attacking midfielders (Matsui, Honda, and Kagawa). They constantly interchanged their positions against Paraguay, in particular Kagawa. Hiromi Hara, an avid La Liga observer, utilized the wingers well, in a 4-2-3-1 formation (even if the commitment of Paraguay and the quality of Guatemala were at times dubious). Yet, for me, it was the defensive midfielder Hajime Hosogai - here debuting for the national side - who impressed the most. Hosogai proved that his excellent club form for Urawa Reds is no fluke; the pleasant surprise was that he can more than assert himself at this international level. His aggressive physicality and his reading of the game - popping up everywhere in midfield to cut off the oppositions’ attack - is probably second to none. In fact, at times Hosogai alone appeared to be playing for a Premiership side! His dribbling, after dispossessing the ball from the opponents, often wins fouls as well. Moreover, his “double volante” partnership with Kengo Nakamura looked more promising than that of Endo-Hasebe. In a 4-2-3-1, in order for it to be successful, it’s a given that the holding midfield “two” be a destroyer/passer partnership (i.e. Busquets and Xabi). Kengo can keep the ball well, and excel when picking out an open space. Just look at his diagonal pass to Kagawa when the latter scored in the Paraguay match! Unless Yuki Abe does well for Leicester City, presently, the Hosogai-Kengo pairing looks the most promising for Japan - provided Zac fields a 4-2-3-1, that is...

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