C ast your mind back 4 years (and about 4 months), Japan was one of the surprise delights of the tournament. They played a kinetic, counter-attacking style built on dynamism and final third quality. They became the first Asian team to beat a South American team (a no joke Colombia squad for the record) and they ended their tournament after they were simply overwhelmed by an all-time great Belgium squad at the peak of its powers after competing with them for 94 mins.
Now, 4 years (and 4 months) later, somehow this nation that made their first world cup in 1998 has put together an entirely new generation that appears to have the potential to be much, much better than the one before.
The operative word here being potential. It’s fair to characterize the squad as, in the time since the last World Cup, being in a period of turnover. But the Samurai Blue’s manager, Hajime Moriyasu, has done a good job of using this time period to be experimental with the talent he starts and how he arranges it. This allows for a rather interesting discussion on how Japan will set up and play going into what is an objectively difficult group, but one they are in a position to actually compete in (if not, barring injuries, go much further).
They have an array of talent that is competing at the top level across Europe and, crucially for an international tournament, this talent is in a variety of positions that actually lend themselves to creating a cohesive squad.
The Samurai Blue play what is effectively a 4–2–3–1 that alternates between a 4–1–4–1, a 4–2–2–2 and a 4–3–3 depending on available personnel. Their hallmark is a pretty insanely relentless press. It’s not rare to see the Japanese wide players come all the way across the field to keep up pressure. But it’s not just mindlessly chasing the ball, whether it’s due to coaching or a pervasive ability to read the game, the Samurai Blue’s press is actually really well designed. Supporting players begin to slowly close in while cutting passing lanes, as the person leading the press springs it when there’s an opportunity to arrive at the opposing player almost immediately after they have received the ball.
It creates a sort of cascading pressure, forcing opposition players into increasingly hazardous positions until the ball is either won back or forced out of play. The thing that is unique about Japan’s press is the relentless commitment from every player. On a loose touch, opposition players will find themselves surrounded with immediate pressure and once Japan has won back the ball, because they press as a team, attacking players are usually already in positions to combine and play really exciting, direct, inventive attacking football.
But this style requires a lot of running, which could turn some of the selection headaches Japan is facing into a real advantage. With the increase to 5 substitutes per game, Japan is in a great position talent wise to rotate their front three almost every game, as in attack particularly there are several players of roughly equivalent quality currently competing for limited starting spots.
But given the increasingly role, as opposed to positionally, driven nature of the modern game, the best way to understand this squad is to go through the key personnel and the relationships between them. The ideal midfield is nailed on and the attacking players function interchangeably enough in terms of a system to only highlight a few individuals in each group. The defense, however, has been rotated almost every game and it’s worth taking some time to understand why Moriyasu did this and what he seemingly learned from it.
To start with a brief mention, Shuichi Gounda (33, Shimizu S-Pulse) has looked good, with the potential to be very good. He should and probably will be the number one. Fine with his feet, good distribution and a good to great shot stopper, a solid straightforward choice to get us started.
The aforementioned rotation over the past 2 years primarily seems to be trying to find a group that can cover for the weaknesses and accentuate the strengths of Maya Yoshida (34, Schalke 04). Yoshida has and will continue to play a massive role in this squads success or failure. He will probably be the captain as one of two players (at the time of writing) to return from the last World Cups team. He is a front foot defender that likes to step out of the back line to attempt challenges. This is really an extension of Japan’s relentless press but can be punished as Yoshida doesn’t have the pace to be as effective at it as he once was.
Nevertheless he is a really expansive passer, tasked with being the primary dictator of the speed of the Samurai Blue’s build up when in possession. He is able to consistently hit these really accurate, high-arcing balls that drop in a way that gives Japan’s more diminutive, techy, attackers a chance against more physically domineering defenders. This type of ball is difficult for even aerially dominant defenders to just head clear. They are not only tough to judge, but since they come almost straight down, clearing headers normally go up again rather than out.
It’s this very expansiveness, coupled with his defending style and lack of dynamism in recovery, that creates a crucial player with a rare, but looming defensive liability. A partner that mitigates this risk while still fitting into, let alone offering something to the system is not something that has been necessary for Japan to have success in the AFC (they scored 46 goals in 8 games in their first round of qualification), but if they are going to compete at their potential on the highest stage, something has to be done.
One of the first considerations when looking at the team sheet is Hiroki Ito (23, VfB Stuttgart). The left-footed centerback has been consistently good for the national team, but this in and of itself creates an additional problem. Ito has been mediocre to good at centerback and great to excellent at leftback. When playing fullback, Ito is able to take advantage of a developing, really exciting relationship with the nailed on starting left-winger, Karou Mitoma, and the combination between them has been the impetus for a lot of the attacking threat, especially in outside AFC friendlies (particularly the game against Ghana).
In the final third, Ito’s positioning draws defenders away from the positions Mitoma likes to attack. He is a threat to cross in his own right, so when defender’s step out to close him down he has the quality to play through balls for Mitoma or other attackers to run onto — giving them a head of steam to dribble at defenders — or just whip dangerous balls into the box himself. His decision making also allows him to help retain possession in more advanced areas acting as a kind of a wide junction that connects defense, midfield and attack.
But with him out wide, the left side of the Samurai Blue’s central defense is a problem. Yoshida has looked best playing on the right, but in the last 4 years Japan have frequently shifted him into the left center-back position
Ko Ikatura (25, Borussia MG) doesn’t work as a partner for Maya Yoshida. First off in possession, since neither Ikatura nor Yoshida are natural left-footers, when they play together they frequently swap positions. Ikatura has the capability to be an expansive passer but at his current development level, this is inconsistent and completely goes out the window when he shifts into the left center back slot.
Whereas Yoshida, playing out of position, is still able to be the passing hub of the side, but his ability to influence the game offensively is definitely compromised. When Yoshida isn’t able to be at his best at the center of Japan’s build-up it consistently slows the game down for a team that is at its best when accelerating to and maintaining a very high tempo. Ikatura doesn’t play with the ambition to contribute to this process at current and him being on the pitch reduces Yoshida’s ability to do so…so offensively this is a no-go.
Shogo Taniguchi (31, Kawasaki Frontale) is out for similar but more aggressively negative reasons. Whereas defensively, Ikatura isn’t really disciplined or energetic enough to cover for the occasional heart in mouth moments Yoshida produces, Taniguchi is as, if not more, likely to produce those kinds of moments on his own. He is also dramatically less accomplished as a passer as opposed to the other options. In the trouncing of Ghana he was one of the few negative performers, his defensive positioning looking pretty erratic when under threat (he also gets sent in the Paraguay game).
Japan have also tried playing Takehiro Tomiyasu (24, Arsenal) at left-center back, particularly before Hiroki Ito and the other natural left footer we’ll get into broke out. Tomiyasu has actually looked great in the LCB position. He has played alongside Yoshida several times and the two seemed very comfortable with each other, there’s this shared understanding of whose job it is to do what, when, that seems to enable Yoshida to be as ambitious offensively but less volatile. The athleticism and positional discipline Tomiyasu displayed, on top of the fact that both these things are specifically in line with his club-level reputation makes this feel like a viable option.
Yuto Nagatomo (36, FC Tokyo) has most often played on the opposite flank, but somehow, pretty inarguably, in the run up to this tournament has looked the outstanding candidate to start on the right. Honestly, when I saw Nagatomo was still getting games, I assumed it was the classic hesitancy to change that has plagued so many teams in recent years. I thought there is no way this 36 year old, playing in the J1, who hasn’t won a national team game he has started this year outside the AFC should probably even be in the squad, let alone a starter and for a while kept trying to find a setup that was better without him.
But there simply isn’t one, and not just due to lack of competition. He has earned the right to retain his starting spot start through performing consistently, and with legitimate quality for the national team. He has looked ridiculously dynamic–not even just for his age–with an intelligent positional sense, a cool head in possession, defensive stability and specifically brings a palpable, direct thrust to whichever side of the field he plays.
Hiroki Sakai (32, Urawa Reds) who has been the starter at right-back, made the squad, so Moriyasu may default back to him and play Nagamoto on the left given the injury to Nakayama, and because Sakai is consistent, 3–out-of-5 star player in his own right, but given recently he seems to have slid down the pecking order this change would represent an — albeit not major — downgrade in quality and a step backward for the overall strength of the first XI.
Given all this, the first choice back 4 (fitness permitting) seems pretty clear, Itakura, Tomiyasu, Yoshida, Nagamoto - With Sakai to come in, if there are injuries.
Which brings us nicely into the midfield. To zoom out for a moment, due to the weaker quality of opposition in the AFC, the Samurai Blue were able to breeze through qualification without being forced to find a consitent, ideal defensive set-up. This in addition to the fact that the part of the system that really gives the side its relatively stingy quality is the relentless press. All of this has forced the midfield to become the core of the sides defensive stability.
For the past few years, in Wataru Endo (29, VfB Stuttgart) Japan have had a really mobile, intelligent, tough tackling defensive midfielder they can call upon when facing trickier opposition. But, they recently switched the default set-up from having one to two sitting midfielders to pretty magnificent effect. In Hidemasa Morita (27, Sporting CP) Japan have found not only another option to progress the ball, but a partner for Endo that embodies everything right with this side. Other players in the starting XI may have more evident quality, but when these two play together they breathe a new life into the Samurai Blue.
You’ll almost never see opposition teams play through the middle of Japan and that’s largely due to them. Offensively both are really, really intelligent in transition. They make decisions quickly and help retain and regain possession of the ball in build-up, both particularly adept at turning situations that usually would require a clearance into opportunities to attack.
The speed at which they do this can not be overstated, Endo has a great understanding of where Japan’s players are on the pitch at all times, and is able to dump the ball off to more offensively minded player’s quickly in a way that accentuates the high octane style of the Samurai Blue. Morita not only is reserved in his positioning at the right times to allow Endo to dump off the ball to him, but is a much more progressive passer on top of being able to make the kind of mazy runs through midfield that act as a pressure valve, giving the team another option to progress the ball.
Japan actually have surprisingly solid depth in every position but defensive midfield. Of course injuries to first XI players would hamper any team’s ability to succeed but the specific injury worries for the Samurai Blue, at the time of writing, Morita, Kubo, and Nakayama are all serious enough to speculate a bit about what their absence could mean.
In watching Japan’s games from this year you can see their performances kick up a level around June when the current squad really began to coalesce. This is around when Morita became a nailed on starter. He is one of the trickier losses to replace in the whole squad, since the other central midfielders, Gaku Shibasaki (30, CD Leganes) and Ao Tanaka (24, Fortuna Dusseldorf) while good, are not really sitting–let alone defensive midfielders.
Nakayama has played CDM in the past but is injured and while Kamada plays technically in a double pivot for his club, that role in this side will restrict him, which makes this a less than desirable way to use the player who should be the creative hub of the side. So there is really no one else in the squad that can replace his role in the system.
Expect… Morita if fit to be first choice alongside Endo, but in case of injury Tanaka will get the nod.
Kubo's an absolute delight to watch, he oozes quality and is so outside-the-box with his attacking threat, he is one of the players that consistently surprises you over the space of 90 minutes with the things he tries and is able to pull off. I shan’t deign to utter his name in the same breath as he who shall not be named, but it’s this surprising and inventive quality, that isn’t flashy yet still leaves the mouth agape that causes people to draw unfair comparisons between him and the alien.
Kubo’s biggest problem so far has been a lack of end product, and in this Japan side that doesn’t need to be his sole, even primary responsibility, as it often has been at club level. I really believe one of the reasons Mbappe was able to shine in Russia was that he wasn’t required to be the creative hub, but rather was allowed to just be the X-factor in a humming system and Japan this year has the potential to provide a similar kind of platform for Kubo’s greatness to really shine.
In my personal view, Mitoma’s ceiling is not nearly as high but he is still a really exciting watch and a promising prospect. Mitoma can have a tendency to play hero-ball and dribble with his head down, which gets worse when he receives the ball further away from the box, but is nonetheless the outstanding choice to start on the left. Even though Kubo plays as a classic winger, he is a bit more positionally versatile then Mitoma, in terms of having a more consistent level of effectiveness, in a wider variety of areas on the pitch. This allows him to drift over to link up and play off the ball on Mitoma’s side, which sort of compounds the threat each pose when they play together.
Junya Ito (29, Stade Reims) should start on the right if Kubo isn’t healthy. He actually has an argument for starting either way based on how he has played for the national team. Junya Ito is a more classic winger who leverages this positioning to make out-to-in runs. After recovering a long pass into the halfspace or wide channel, receiving a ball from the midfield to feet or intercepting a pass out to the full backs, he likes to drive toward the box or byline to find positions to shoot or cross.
Ritsu Doan (24, SC Freiburg) is also a good, more direct option as he primarily plays inverted as opposed to the rest that are all more chalk-on-the-boots types, but he makes sure to keep defenders honest, spacing the field and attacking the back post when the ball is on the far side before, coming inside to receive the ball when the opportunity is there.
Expect... Kubo to start on the left and Ito on the right.
Kamada - The Jack
Kamada is really exceptional as a true central midfield jack of all trades. At first glance he almost appears to be a second striker or attacking midfielder, but he doesn’t overly stand out in most of the traditional metrics used to quantify attacking threat or creativity. This is because Kamada is truly an attacking midfielder, as opposed to an attacking midfielder or even what might be better referred to as midfield attackers. The latter fit the tactical profile of your Kevin de Bruynes, Thomas Mullers or Jamal Musialas (Bruno Fernades?), where their primary job is to attack, rather than retain possession and progress the ball, even though they often do this as well since they operate in more traditional midfield positions.
But despite this season’s goal scoring numbers that fit this profile, this isn’t really where Kamada is at his best. He really shines when operating as a slightly deeper, sort of metronomic roaming 8, pulling opposing players out of position, allowing his team to play through the press, and him to drift forward to receive the ball further up to create and finish chances. In this role he can dictate play and progress the ball through a really adept positional sense and elusive movement.
Expect… Kamada to be the side's key attacking midfielder/number 10.
Though primarily and initially used by both Matsumoto Yamaga and Yokohama F. Marinos as a left winger, Maeda is able to operate in a number of positions as a forward, including on the opposite flank, as an attacking midfielder or occasionally a second striker. Regarding his stamina and conditioning, former coach John Hutchinson referred to Maeda as a "machine", while Arthur Papas, who also coached Maeda during his time at Yokohama, has said Maeda "possesses athletic qualities far superior to most players at the professional level", hailing his pace and sprinting.Minamino
As for the other centre forwards they are moderately interchangeable. Takumi Minamino (27, AS Monaco) may be the biggest name in the squad but he has been poor in the last few months. To briefly cross into conjecture, It’s almost like he’s been playing like someone who thinks they are better than they are, there seems to be an inability to recognize his current talent level, which results in him, more empirically, consistently overplaying and getting caught in possession. He is for sure a useful squad player but is not as dynamic as almost every other forward option and as a result of this is additionally not as relentless in the press.Aeysa Ueda
Aeysa Ueda (24, Cercle Brugge) is another outstanding candidate through the middle. His ball retention skills and link up play have simply looked far better and more dangerous than the other choices, though they have also shown the ability to be clinical when they have played. Again, the attack is a bit more straightforward as these players are of a similar profile when it comes to the larger system.
In theory, there is a lack of an out and out, proven, consistent goal-scorer but this is a bit of a red-herring. They have several in-form players that should step up in a tournament like this where goal scoring by committee is a lot more feasible, as long as the system consistently creates chances, which it does.
Expect… rotation up front depending on form and the nature of the opposition.
As we saw against Germany, the Japanese are not here to be day-trippers. They genuinely believe they can shock the world and despite injury to some key players in the spine, they have resolve and enough stardust within the ranks to keep opponents honest.
Verdict: Round of 16/Quarter Finals