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Six things we (Japan) learned from the 2011 Asian Cup – Part 1

2 Feb 2011(Wed)

With so many goals, red cards, penalties, and late, late recoveries, to call Japan’s victorious Asian Cup campaign ‘eventful’ would be a masterpiece of understatement. To be honest, each of the six points made in this feature could have warranted an article of their own, but despite my best efforts to summarise, the overall volume still grew bulky enough to be best spread over two articles. The first three points are detailed below; the final three in Part 2.


1. Japan have the depth of playing resources to cope with a squad game

So the Samurai Blue didn’t always set the world on fire? So the defence rode its luck at times? So Jungo Fujimoto struggled a bit in the final? Before anybody tries to qualify Japan’s record-breaking fourth Asian crown, it is worth repeating that the dramatic 1-0 victory over Australia was achieved without Yuji Nakazawa, Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Tomoaki Makino, Gotoku Sakai, Daisuke Matsui, Takayuki Morimoto, and Shinji Kagawa. The loss of all three senior centre-backs before the tournament even kicked off was compounded by further injury problems for Daiki Iwamasa, forcing coach Alberto Zaccheroni to name the highly makeshift pairing of Maya Yoshida and Yasuyuki Konno for five matches out of six.


Seemingly as amazed as anyone else, the Italian admits he cannot remember a previous event where “reserve players produced results like this”. Morimoto would almost certainly have been first-choice striker ahead of Ryoichi Maeda had Catania not unexpectedly sent him for knee surgery just before Christmas. Matsui started the first two matches before suffering a torn thigh muscle; Kagawa all five until breaking his fifth metatarsal against South Korea. For Japan to wind up as champions despite such a casualty list was remarkable; to do so as tournament top scorers all the more astonishing.



2. Nagatomo’s ascendency highlights the strength of the first eleven

Keisuke Honda was officially named as the Asian Cup’s most valuable player, but with typical honesty and good humour, even the man himself publicly questioned his right to accept the honour. During the awards ceremony immediately after Saturday’s climax, this writer’s Twitter feed was awash with comments suggesting that a more deserving recipient would be Yuto Nagatomo – he of the rampaging, overlapping runs from left-back and devilish crosses that produced goals in both semi-final and final.


But a prize of much greater value was waiting around the corner. No sooner had Nagatomo arrived back in Cesena, his Italian home of just six months, than he was being whisked off to Milan to conclude a deal with Internazionale. If Kagawa to Dortmund trumped Honda to CSKA Moscow, then the choice of this effervescent former FC Tokyo star to finally fill what has long been a problem position for the reigning Serie A, European, and world champions is arguably the biggest overseas transfer in Japanese football history.


Clubs in Europe are finally recognising the qualities that Japanese footballers can offer. Pleasingly, a virtually full-strength national team XI can now be formed exclusively from European-based names. Even more exciting is the realisation that, of the line-up below, every outfield player bar captain Makoto Hasebe (27) is aged 24 or younger.


European-based Japan XI (4-2-3-1):

Eiji Kawashima (Lierse SK, Belgium); Atsuto Uchida (Schalke 04, Germany), Tomoaki Makino (1. FC Köln, Germany), Maya Yoshida (VVV Venlo, Holland), Yuto Nagatomo (Internazionale, Italy); Makoto Hasebe (VfL Wolfsburg, Germany), Hajime Hosogai (FC Augsburg, Germany), Shinji Okazaki (VfB Stuttgart, Germany), Keisuke Honda (CSKA Moscow, Russia), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund, Germany); Takayuki Morimoto (Catania, Italy)



3. Japan have a long-term plan geared toward greater impact in 2014...

Of course, it is not just about the players. Takeshi Okada’s Japan used a version of the 4-2-3-1 system so en vogue in the upper echelons of contemporary world football throughout much of qualification for the 2010 World Cup, but dismal friendly performances against the likes of Serbia and South Korea proved that the Samurai Blue were not yet ready to face the planet’s best on equal terms. This prompted the belated, but highly successful decision to introduce defensive midfielder Yuki Abe into what then became a 4-3-3 (or, more accurately, 4-1-2-2-1) formation in South Africa.


The beauty of a well-executed 4-2-3-1 is the devastating fluidity with which attacks can be developed; the trouble is that such execution requires plenty of talent, mental dexterity, and above all practice. The latter is a problem exacerbated at international level, where coaches have only a limited time to spend with their players, and undoubtedly contributed to the goal-shy nature of much of last year’s World Cup. Spain, by contrast, benefitted from having drawn so many players from one club (and, in Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, what a club), as well as having grown together as a national squad since before Germany 2006.


For all the Wikipedia-inspired excitement in the Japanese media over the chances of this new Italian manager bringing over his famous (but actually a decade out of date) 3-4-3 tactics, Zaccheroni has been quite clear about his philosophy from day one. In the likes of Honda, Kagawa, and the other names mentioned above, the 57-year-old has identified a core of players he believes can be groomed to take on European and South American opposition without fear or inferiority. This is why he repeatedly emphasised the importance of retaining the 4-2-3-1 in Qatar so that the team could grow used to one another therein – even if this came at the expense of short-term results and/or performances. In this sense, actually winning the Asian Cup was a bonus, and doing so without the crocked 2010 vintage particularly significant. The next test, at the Copa America in July, will be one to savour.


(Continues in Part 2)

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Excellent analysis, as ever. Nagatomo, Endo and Okazaki were all more central to Japan's success than Honda. If I had to pick one, though, it would be Nagatomo. If it works out, his move to Inter could be massive for Japanese football.

Posted by: Michael | 02/03/2011 at 02:21 PM

Many thanks, Michael. I don't think I'm going to get up at 4.45am (done that once already this week for United-Villa) but I will be recording Bari-Inter tonight to watch tomorrow. Really looking forward to seeing how Nagatomo gets on, and only sorry he wasn't already at Inter when I saw them at the Club World Cup a few weeks back.

Posted by: Ben Mabley | 02/03/2011 at 05:49 PM

Ah yes, there is an advantage to living in England over the Far East when it comes to European kick off times. Two things really interest me about Nagatomo. Firstly, it's now mainly only fringe players like Yasuda who are starting their European careers in secondary leagues such as Holland or Belgium. If Honda had been a few years younger, he would've been more likely to end up in Serie A or the Bundesliga than at VVV Venlo. Secondly, what does Nagatomo's signing mean for Inter's rumoured £40 million bid for Bale? If he impresses between now and the summer, do you really need to spend that much on another attacking left-sided player?

Posted by: Michael | 02/04/2011 at 03:01 AM

Bugger, that's a very good point about Yasuda which I also made on Twitter the other day but forgot to incorporate into this article! Certainly, it is indeed the fringe players who are now heading to secondary European locations, which says an awful lot.

I do think we have to be careful not to run before we can walk, mind; Honda developed enormously playing in Holland - even in the second-tier Eerste Divisie - and it would be a huge shame if we end up with more cases like Masashi Oguro sitting on the bench at Torino for game after game.

Either way, I expect Honda would have left CSKA had the Asian Cup (and possibly Liverpool's crazy transfer situation, though I'm glad he didn't end up there) not got in the way. Russia now have an 18-month season coming up before switching to the 'normal' European calendar - I'm sure our man will get his move come summer.

As for Bale, I suppose you could still play him on the left of an attacking three in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, as he often does with Spurs, with Nagatomo at left-back. It might be a bit much to have them both on the same flank, though. Hopefully Nagatomo will impress - I'm glad I didn't get up early this morning as he stayed on the bench throughout! (Finding this out on a Gazzetta dello Sport app while fast-forwarding through to the relevant bits at a far more respectable time in the morning was a winning alternative.)

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