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Qualifying the qualifiers

16 Sep 2011(Fri)

At long, long last, it appears that fielding players out of position so as to avoid modifying the system has finally convinced the Japanese domestic media of Alberto Zaccheroni’s intentions. While the Italian’s reign thus far has been irritatingly dominated by misplaced excitement over his trademark 3-4-3 formation, the man himself has always openly admitted that this is nothing more than a backup option. Ever since day one, ‘Zac’ has sought to utilise the confidence that stemmed from a successful 2010 World Cup and the excitement of a new golden generation to mould his Japan into a world-class 4-2-3-1 – a formation that ultimately failed under predecessor Takeshi Okada. It was therefore no shock when, after a brief trial of the 3-4-3 alternative this spring, the Italian returned to the former formation for August’s friendly with South Korea and the opening World Cup qualifiers against North Korea and Uzbekistan earlier this month.


The recent double header – the Samurai Blue’s first competitive matches since winning the Asian Cup back in January – did, however, serve to highlight a number of key issues that will require solving over the next 24 months. Zaccheroni is the latest Japan manager to embark upon the particular duality of developing a team capable of taking on greater global challenges as underdogs, while still having to prepare the side to beat lesser Asian nations against which they start as heavy favourites. A lack of cutting edge against opponents content to play for the draw has been a common Japanese affliction in previous World Cup qualifiers (and in Qatar), and while the 1-1 draw in Tashkent on 6 September was quite acceptable, a laboured, last-gasp home victory over North Korea four days earlier felt all too familiar. (Literally so, seeing as Japan had beaten the Chollima 1-0 in similar fashion at the same Saitama Stadium back in 2005.)


In this regard, it was slightly surprising to witness no real tactical modifications to break through the nine Korean players that seemed permanently stationed in their defensive third; at least, until Pak Kwong-Ryong’s red card on 84 minutes prompted the cavalry charge that brought a headed winner for Maya Yoshida deep into injury time. Perhaps this implies that Zac is not yet satisfied that his players can use the 3-4-3 alternative effectively. Another possible explanation, however, is that backup full back Yuichi Komano is not quite as ideally suited to a more dynamic role on the left wing as the injured first choice, Yuto Nagatomo.


The other major absentee for the two September qualifiers was Keisuke Honda, and it was Zac’s insistence on bringing in replacements to fulfil an identical role in the roving three that finally convinced the wider Japanese press that, under this manager, 4-2-3-1 remains categorically the way forward. His choices of understudy, though, were intriguing. Yosuke Kashiwagi, who started against North Korea, had hardly impressed at the Asian Cup, while the visit to Uzbekistan saw Makoto Hasebe pushed forward to sit behind striker Tadanari Lee while Yuki Abe was recalled to the skipper’s usual volante position.


In both cases – especially the latter, when Zac was forced to pull Hasebe back into a temporary 4-1-4-1 to stem the Uzbekistani tide before half time – Japan looked rather narrow and unbalanced until the stand-ins were replaced by a more natural creative midfielder, Hiroshi Kiyotake. It could well be that, despite still not earning an international start, these developments have served to establish Kiyotake as first-choice reserve, and as the likeliest eventual challenger – next to Takashi Usami of Bayern Munich – to Shinji Okazaki’s position alongside Honda and Kagawa in 2014.


Hasebe will surely continue to sit behind the attacking midfield trio in future, but the makeup of the volante pairing remains a key long-term issue for Zac to solve over the next three years. While the majority of the overseas-based internationals are aged 25 or under, Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo will be 30 and 34 come the next World Cup. Even with greater experience, combined with Zac’s careful coaching, it is hard to see that the absence of a more destructive player in either of the deeper-lying positions won’t remain exactly the same problem as it was for Okada once Japan emerge from the very different challenges of qualification. Much will therefore be anticipated of Hajime Hosogai’s education at FC Augsburg and, later, Bayer Leverkusen. A genuinely established number nine would be nice, too – but that’s a story for another time.

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