(Over the next month or so, we’re going to be doing previews for all 32 teams participating in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Yes, all 32 teams. We’ll make you laugh, cry, get mad and perhaps question why you read us in the first place. We hope you enjoy the product nonetheless)
Japan were the first team to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup through the Asian qualifying process with a 1-1 draw over Australia. Japan had to go through the two year qualification process in Asia and were tops in Group B in the fourth round of qualifying over Australia. Japan have been a successful football nation, probably Asia’s most decorated since they co-hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup with South Korea, with an Asian Cup victory in 2004 and 2011, a round of 16 showing in the 2010 World Cup and a respectful showing in the 2013 Confederations cup even though they left the tournament without garnering a single point.
Japan under Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni have modeled their side as a fast moving team who play under a standard 4-2-3-1, with Honda getting the duties of the #10 role. In comparison to teams like Chile and Columbia who play similar types of squash buckling football, Japan are much more firm in what they’ll play as their formation shape. Japan also don’t quite the luxury of depth but their recent results show that Japan are worthy advisories for nabbing one of the two qualification spots from Group C.
Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege), Shusaku Nishikawa (Urawa Reds), Shuichi Gonda (FC Tokyo)
Defenders: Masahiko Inoha (Jubilo Iwata), Yasuyuki Konno (Gamba Osaka), Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Masato Morishige (FC Tokyo), Atsuto Uchida (Schalke), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Hannover), Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart)
Midfielders: Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka), Makoto Hasebe (Nuremberg), Toshihiro Aoyama (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka)
Forwards: Keisuke Honda (AC Milan), Yoshito Okubo (Kawasaki Frontale), Shinji Okazaki (Mainz), Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Nuremberg), Yoichiro Kakitani (Cerezo Osaka), Manabu Saito (Yokohama F Marinos), Yuya Osako (1860 Munich)
The obvious tandem with Japan is the midfield duo of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda. To put it blunt, Kagawa had a very rough season. The former Dortmund star struggled in nailing down a position under David Moyes. There was even a “#FREESHINJI” twitter campaign during his lack of playing time with Manchester United. Where his time in the EPL has been at times a horror place, he’s found his time with the Japanese national team to be his safe haven. Kagawa will probably be placed on the left hand side in Zaccheroni’s 4-2-3-1/3-4-3 formation with him interchanging positions with Honda in the #10 role. The duo in the Confederation’s Cup last year were the sole bright spot, playing brilliantly in perhaps the game of the tournament vs Italy in the group stage. Honda has a vast track record of playing very well for his home side, and the midfield maestros will need to be at their creative best to make up for their suspect deep midfielders.
The man in form though for Japan is Mainz’s leading goal scorer in Shinji Okazaki. He’s scored a total of 22 goals in all competitions this season, with him taking sole place as the Bundesliga’s greatest single season Japanese goal scorer from ironically enough his teammate Kagawa. He primarily played as the striker for Mainz as his goals helped lead the team to the Europa League. It was a startling season when you consider his lack of goals with Stuttgart.
One reason why was his new deployment as a striker instead of his more common position as a winger. Also another reason was his SH%’s holding up rather well despite a much higher volume of shots from last year to this year. Where will he play will be interesting. Does Zaccheroni play him up front where he’s revived his domestic career or will he play him along the flanks and perhaps Osako or Kiyotake will play the set up man for the potential three prong attack in the midfield.
One of the issues that can pop up for Japan is just how much they fair defensively. To be fair it’s the same question that can be asked for all teams (paging Chile and Columbia) who favor playing attack minded football. Japan though seem out of all to have a lack of holding midfielders who can complement an actual decent backline, headlined by Yuto Nagatomo. You can actually make the argument that from the three of Japan/Chile/Columbia, they have the best potential backline. It’s a lot to ask for Hasabe to be the anchor of that group and allow for their very solid attacking to do their job, but Japan will depend on that greatly.
The Japanese should not be taken lightly in terms of their chances of making it to their second straight round of 16 and third in the last four World Cups. In contrast to Chile and Columbia, Japan will have more problems with how they surround their back line with their deep lying midfielders than with the back line itself. Depth might not be Japan’s strong suit, but their starting XI is very much legitimate. I personally don’t think Japan can make the gap between themselves and Columbia/Cote D’Ivoire, but then again any team that can trot out a trio of Honda/Kagawa/Okazaki have the ability to make that prediction look exceedingly stupid.