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3-4-3? It’s really not that exciting, you know

16 Jun 2011(Thu)

Unfortunately, I’m going to have to get a little bit grumpy about the Japan national team now. Don’t worry, though – I only anticipate the feeling lasting about 24 months. You see, with the JFA having reversed their decision to reverse their decision to pull out of the Copa America, I found it entirely appropriate that the recent Kirin Cup should serve up four and a half hours of unprecedentedly goalless dross. As was remarked on these very pages, ooh, about 24 months ago, Japan’s position within Asia and the latter’s within world football means we are somewhat locked into a four-year cycle divided evenly into two halves at opposite extremes of the excitement swing-o-meter.


No longer able to place glorified friendlies with Peru and Czech Republic reserves into a context of July in Argentina, the television people advertised their coverage as build-up matches for the 2014 World Cup qualifying rounds, which Japan will enter this September. Bollocks. What these really were, were come-down games.


Over the past two years, we have seen Takeshi Okada endure a turbulent period of preparation before leading the Samurai Blue to their best ever World Cup showing in South Africa, a surge of confidence under a new manager, and victory in the Asian Cup built upon last-minute drama, penalty shootouts, and – at the end, anyway – some really quite good performances. Now, all we have to look forward to is a long, drawn-out process to determine which four-and-a-half teams will qualify for Brazil from an AFC region in which three nations indisputably stand head and shoulders above the rest. With no disrespect intended, the opponents Japan have faced in the opening stages of their three successful World Cup qualifying attempts since France ’98 read: Oman, Macau, Nepal; Oman (again), Singapore, India; Thailand, Bahrain, Oman (again again). Played 18, won 15, drawn two, lost one. Scored 59, conceded five. Points 47 from an available 54. Oh yeah, and these days you only have to come second in the group to advance anyway.


No, the Kirin Cup was only vaguely notable for the experiment that still-sort-of-new boss Alberto Zaccheroni conducted in lining his players up in a 3-4-3 formation. And this – or, specifically, the number of hyperbolic column inches that continue to be devoted to it – is easily the most annoying thing of all.


When ‘Zac’ arrived in his role last September, pundits who had fiercely derided Okada’s desire to abandon an unbalanced 4-2-3-1 in favour of 4-3-3 (a move that instantly made Japan stronger at both ends of the pitch, with and without the ball, and in terms of results) as backstabbingly defensive were suddenly very excited. This, they explained, would mean the Samurai Blue adopting a most attractive 3-4-3 system – with three whole strikers! – akin to that with which the Italian had achieved great success at Udinese and AC Milan. More than a decade previously. Unsurprisingly, Japan instead played the autumn friendlies and through the entire Asian Cup in a revised 4-2-3-1; the new manager harnessing the post-South Africa confidence with greater freedom for emergent attacking stars like Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa.


Yeah, but maybe that was just a stop-gap? After all, as soon as the Asian Cup was over, Zac tried out his famous 3-4-3 in the Tohoku earthquake charity match – with reasonable success – before spending the best part of a week coaching the system to his players during the Kirin Cup. Well, perhaps. But then let’s listen to what the manager has actually said. While repeatedly expressing his belief that Japan’s playing resources are well-suited to 3-4-3 – and simultaneously revealing his sustained affection for the style – he has always qualified this by stressing how hard it is to coach, especially with the limited time available for national teams.


After the Team as One game in Osaka, Zaccheroni commented, “I spoke with the players about increasing the alternatives available to us. 3-4-3 is extremely difficult – I particularly dislike the tendency for it to collapse into a back five. But I do see the appeal of defending with a three, and hope that we will be able to adopt this system as the match situation demands.” Having drawn 0-0 with the Czechs last week, he elaborated slightly: “3-4-3 is currently nothing more than an alternative option. If you use the same system and do the same things all the time, then the players will never grow, but trialling a 3-4-3 over these two matches has enabled them to grow to some extent. The formation can now be put on the back burner until it is needed again.”


Contrast this with the continental championships in January, throughout which the manager insisted that Japan’s 4-2-3-1 way of playing would not be changed regardless of the opponent, and constantly emphasised that getting the players used to this system was of far greater significance than any glory in the short term. Given that Japan improved throughout the tournament and ended up crowned champions of Asia, why on earth would this plan have been abandoned? Despite what certain ‘analysts’ wanted to hear, 3-4-3 is still what Zaccheroni has always said it is: an alternative option. The fact that 4-2-3-1 succeeded so well in Qatar simply allowed him to spend more time exploring his options this spring.


So when will this alternative be deployed? Well, everybody needs options. And nobody, least of all Zac, will have failed to notice that Japan’s biggest problem in January came in breaking down very defensive, theoretically much weaker opposition like Jordan, Syria, and (to a slightly lesser extent) the host nation. A lack of cutting edge against teams content to play for the draw – maybe not with a Macau, but certainly against a Bahrain – has been a common Japanese affliction in previous World Cup qualifiers. Perhaps a cultural preference for contributing to the whole above personal glory is behind a shortage of number nines and an abundance of tens in the new golden generation, but either way, it is sensible to have a different means of dealing with this than simply throwing on additional, inadequate strikers. As seen in the first hour of the charity match, a 3-4-3 can offer Japan a controlled manner of attacking in numbers if opponents sit back and afford them the time and space to do so.


To cut a long story short, there’s no reason whatsoever to assume that Zaccheroni has put 4-2-3-1 – a formation with which Japan could face the world on equal terms at Brazil 2014 – on the back burner. That’s where he’s already said he’s put the 3-4-3. It would be a real surprise if the Italian opts to start with the latter formation in August’s friendly with South Korea in Sapporo; much more so come the qualifiers a month later. We should expect to see it when Japan need a goal against a Syria or a Qatar – therefore, the only way it would ever become the regular formation is if the Samurai Blue are found wanting in the final third every time.


Hang on, perhaps that’s what Zac’s been planning all along.


No, stop it, I was joking...

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