Muted glory or glorious failure? Japan’s exit in the round of 16 at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar might suggest that the national team is not progressing. That’s the stage they reached 20 years ago for the first time and have now reached four times in their seven World Cup appearances.
In Russia in 2018, Japan went 2-0 up against one of the favorites, Belgium, and gave their awesome fans hope of reaching the quarterfinals. Belgium stepped up a gear and Japan could do nothing to hold on to their lead. No one expected Japan to win, even when they were 2-0 up. Things are a little different now.
BBC commentator Danny Murphy said Japan deserved to beat Croatia and could return home with their heads held high. This time the tears rolling down the faces of Japan’s players were not because they lost, but because they knew they could have won.
Twenty-one members of Japan’s 26-man squad play in Europe or have played in Europe and most have done well at their clubs. In the past, many Japanese players tried their luck in Europe but returned home with their tails between their legs having failed to make an impact. The difference with the current squad is that the players have adjusted to the European game and know they can perform in the leagues their World Cup opponents play in. Japan has held on to its inferiority complex for too long. The big guns of football now know that Japan are no pushover.
Everyone expected Germany and Spain to beat Japan in the Group Stage. The Germany game can be seen as Japan’s graduation into the upper level of football, not unlike the Japan rugby team’s sensational win over South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Importantly, Japan’s rugby team followed up with a brilliant performance in the 2019 World Cup. Japan did likewise by beating Spain after Germany. As with Japan’s rugby team, no one will underestimate them anymore.
But Japan still needs to get past the round of 16. What this World Cup has done is given them the belief that they really can do it. They should have done it against Croatia, who presented fewer problems than Spain or Germany, but Japan didn’t fire on all cylinders in the knockout game – and at times in other games.
The Germany game was a wake-up call for manager Hajime Moriyasu. Takefusa Kubo was one of the most high-profile players in the squad, having been signed by Real Madrid, but he was overwhelmed against Germany. Equally, Takumi Minamino, Japan’s other poster boy pre-World Cup and who has achieved success in Germany, didn’t live up to expectations. He was a failure at Liverpool (and Southampton) and, like Kubo, he has struggled to live up to the hype. More importantly, he’s not good enough in the national team. This World Cup has been a good sorting process for Moriyasu.
Shuichi Gonda did OK in goal but as with other Japanese goalkeepers he’s struggled dealing with high balls from corners and free-kicks. Japan’s search for a dominating goalkeeper goes on.
The backline is done. Hiroki Sakai (32) was never really good enough, Maya Yoshida (34) is running out of legs and the team needs an upgrade to replace Yuto Nagatomo (36). Ko Itakura was very good in Qatar and Shogo Taniguchi filled in well for him against Croatia. Miki Yamane had a decent outing at right back and Takehiro Tomiyasu is likely to be the first name on the team sheet when he’s fit, which he wasn’t in Qatar. Hiroki Ito will have to up his game if he wants to be a contender. But Japan not only needs to replace its aging defenders, it must find new team leaders like Yoshida and Nagatomo.
Moriyasu gave himself problems when playing a back three as he had to decide if the wing-backs were going to be wingers or backs. He basically chose one of each in Junya Ito (winger) and Nagatomo (not a winger but “Bravo” for trying). Nagatomo’s replacement was Kaoru Mitoma who brought his excellent Brighton form to the national team and really, really impressed. And he’s a real wing-back in that he can defend very well and attack brilliantly. Junya Ito doesn’t fit that bill, even though he was given the job.
In central midfield, Japan is solid. Ao Tanaka grabbed the glory with the winning goal against Spain, but along with Wataru Endo and Hidemasa Morita, Japan had a solid defensive setup in front of the backline.
Japan’s failure to progress really came from a failure to score a second goal against Croatia. For all the glory against Spain and Germany, Japan let themselves down against Costa Rica and Croatia. There were too many stray passes or bad decisions.
In the group games, Daichi Kamada was terrible; against Croatia, he was the best player on the pitch (don’t take my word for it; legendary Manchester United keeper Peter Schmeichel said the same thing), but Moriyasu took him off. Mitoma was arguably the best player in the group games, but he wasn’t given 90 minutes in any of Japan’s games.
Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano hinted at greatness, but in reality they weren’t consistently good enough. Daizen Maeda came away from the tournament with great credit, scaring the crap out of defenses and goalkeepers, but you can’t help wondering if Japan would have done better if they’d taken along his Celtic teammates, ace striker Kyogo Furuhashi and creative midfielder Reo Hatate.
There are always tons of “what ifs” after a major tournament and it’s easy to second-guess team selection and the manager’s decisions. The big decision facing the Japan Football Association is whether or not to retain Moriyasu. You would think it’s a no-brainer. He’s an intelligent manager, clearly not afraid to make radical decisions and his players believe in him. It’s hard to say he got many decisions wrong in Qatar and he will have learned so much.
Talk of bringing in a top foreign coach doesn’t make any sense at all. Japan has to build on what it’s got and what it’s gained from this World Cup.
And … er … learn how to take penalties.© Japan Today