Sunday, 16 June 2024

August 5, 2019

 Japan 2 - 0 Paraguay  

September 5, 2019
Kashima Stadium

Japan 2

2 1H 0
0 2H 0

0 Paruguay

Yuya Osako (23')
Takumi Minamino (30')

Kento Hashimoto Cautions Gomez

  Shuichi Gonda; Hiroki Sakai (Naomichi Ueda 46'), Maya Yoshida, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Yuto Nagatomo (Koki Anzai 67'; Gaku Shibasaki (Ko Itakura 76'), Kento Hashimoto; Ritsu Doan (Takefusa Kubo 46'), Takumi Minamino, Shoya Nakajima (Genki Haraguchi 46');  Yuya Osako (Kensuke Nagai 67')


About three months ago, when the Samurai Blue took part in the Copa America in Brazil, the team that Coach Moriyasu named was filled with J.League-based youngsters hoping to break into the squad for Japan's hosting of the 2020 Olympics, next year. The young team performed quite well, despite being knocked out at the group stage, and the young faces who featured prominently offered football fans overseas a first chance to look at the up-and-coming generation of young talent in Japan. This week, when the squad for matches against Paraguay and Myanmar was announced, there were only three members left who still play their club football in Japan.

This partly reflects the fact that many of those who took part in the Copa America (among them Takefusa Kubo, Hiroki Abe, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Daniel Schmidt) leveraged the performance to attract interest from clubs in Europe. But it also shows that the Samurai Blue are taking few chances in their opening match of World Cup qualification. When Japan kicks off its qualification campaign against Myanmar, next week, there will be no uncapped youngsters in the squad, and only a few who fall into the age category for next summer's Olympics. Instead, Coach Moriyasu recalled veterans such as Maya Yoshida, Hiroki Sakai, Yuto Nagatomo and Eiji Kawashima.

If the overall squad selection showed a preference for experienced, reliable personnel, the starting eleven against Paraguay was even more firmly rooted in the past. There are surely some Samurai Blue fans who think that Yoshida, Nagatomo and Kawashima might still be in the frame for NT duty 2022's big bash in Qatar . . . . . indeed, some might even believe that the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki are still in the mix. I could be mistaken, but I think MOST of the Samurai Blue faithful are ready to move on. This was evident in how heavily the pregame TV coverage hyped the potential for bench appearances (naturally, with Kubo atop the list, but Koki Anzai, Junya Ito, Kensuke Nagai and Musashi Suzuki were also featured repeatedly in warmup shots).

The core of the starting lineup was pretty similar to the first string that took part in January's Asian Cup. The only major differences were Shuichi Gonda in goal, and FC Tokyo's Kento Hashimoto filling in for Hotaru Yamaguchi as Gaku Shibasaki's deep midfield partner. As an in-form player from an in-form team, Hashimoto seemed like the most logical choice for another call-up. His play certainly complemented that of Shibasaki, who is a Shetland Sheepdog First Class when it comes to herding an opposing player directly into a teammate, and Hashimoto is just as adept at pickpocketry. The twin volantes' complete mastery of play only became fully apparent after they were subbed off, and for the first time in 90 minutes, Paraguay began to control some possession.

The rest of the squad played with the same consistency and flashes of brilliance that they displayed at the Asian Cup. It was always going to be hard to "evaluate" this contest, since it is not fully clear what its true purpose is. If this was indeed nothing but a tune-up for Myanmar, the expectations might not be so high. But if this was intended as a showcase for the "old guard" -- a chance for the veterans still in the NT picture to stake a claim -- then the content of the contest (at least the first half) gives Sakai and Nagatomo some hope.

The one positive change from the Samurai Blue's performance in the Asian Cup was a greater intensity, particularly on the physical end, from virtually every starting player. Paraguay seemed to realise that they were overmatched in ball movement soon after kickoff, and resolved to use hard tackling and physical pressure as their one and only trump card. Time after time, the Japanese players simply rode the tackle and kept the ball moving into attack. Only a lack of clinical finishing prevented the result from being more lopsided.

The contest kicked off with one Samurai Blue sequence after another, as the back line and the twin volantes won the ball back seemingly every time it was cleared. Shoya Nakajima and Takumi Minamino repeatedly dribbled fraying threads and runs in the seams of the Paraguay defense, while Yuya Osako's strength on the ball allowed his teammates to cut into open spaces as he distributed passes from the post. Ritsu Doan was once again the least convincing of the three, but he also was involved in some of the dazzling exchanges of short passes around the top of the Paraguay box. Ten minutes in, one such exchange sent Minamino through behind the defense, but he pulled his low-angle shot inches wide of the far post.

The opportunities continued, stirring the crowd at Kashima Stadium to raucous life, pleading for an opening tally. They did not have long to wait. After Nakajima had repeatedly threatened to break free on the dribble, through the Paraguay left channel, both midfielder and defender on that side moved in to play him very tight. A quick one-to exchange between Minamino and Nakajima got both players to bite, and Nagatomo immediately began to gaze with longing at the acres of open greenspace that opened up before him. Nakajima, also noting the huge opening, flipped the ball out to the wing and Nagatomo was off on a romp. The veteran wingback probably could have taken a run at goal himself, but Osako was already parked at the top of the six-yard box awaiting the final pass. Nagatomo fired it in on one-bound and Osako sharply redirected it inside the near post.

Moments later the lead was almost doubled, as the attacking unit displayed their ability to fight through challenges. A steal by Shibasaki at midfield launched a sudden counterattack, with four speedy and ball-savvy players dashing for space. One Paraguay defender after another tried desperately to snuff out the attack with a professional foul, but Nakajima and Osako both bulled their way through yellow-card-worthy challenges to finally set Doan off to the races. But with the keeper far off his line, Doan flubbed his last touch and sent a shot straight into Fernandez' chest.

The second goal did arrive soon after. Once again, the short passing exchanges opened gaps in the Paraguay defense, and Hashimoto found Nakajima in open space on the left. Turning upfield to survey the possibilities, the Porto midfielder saw defenders pick up each member of the attacking unit as they lined up to await his cross, but there was nobody left on the far wing to pick up wingback Hiroki Sakai. The big Marseille defender charged into the opening to receive Nakajima's sacrificial lamb-splitting through pass, and began his run of net with only the keeper to beat. But with Fernandez already set and awaiting a shot at the right post, Sakai unselfishly rolled the ball across the face of goal. Sweeping in from the left, Minamino found the back door unguarded, unlocked, and hanging wide open on its hinges, making his side-footed finish a casual affair.

The first unit had several chances to add to that lead before half time, and generally made the case for a spot in the same lineup when Japan faces Myanmar. At the break, Doan and Nakajima came off and were replaced by Genki Haraguchi and the hottest miha target in Tokyo, Takefusa Kubo. This was an unfortunate choice, since Nakajima was key to many of the first half's most dangerous chances, whereas Kubo was active in many opportunities during the second. It would have been nice to see the two of them working around the pivot of Osako and Minamino. Haraguchi's contributions were largely forgettable (at any rate... Ive forgotten if there were any), as were Doan's in the first 45 minutes (apart from the missed goal).

In addition, Naomichi Ueda came in for Sakai, but moved alongside Yoshida in the back line, allowing 20-year-old Bologna newcomer Takehiro Tomiyasu to move out to wingback. Ueda and Tomiyasu are both able to play either central- or wing-back in a back four, as well as side back in a three-man line. This gives Coach Moriyasu a lot of flexibility when considering ways to change the shape of his formation and tactics in the second half.

The opening 15 minutes of the second half were exciting, as the crowd buzzed about the prospect of Kubo getting his first National Team goal. However, despite several very close calls, today was not to be his day. The former Barcelona, former Tokyo, former Marinos, former Real Madrid, now-Mallorca-based teenager sent one blistering free kick off the palms of Fernandez, and caromed an impossibly audacious low-angle shot off the crossbar, but by the 60th minute it was obvious that he had become too obsessed with doing something all by himself. Most will see it as a solid performance for a still-tender young player, but in all truthfulness Kubo could have bagged a hat trick of assists if he had simply fed an open teammate instead of trying to grab the headlines. No doubt that is a lesson he will learn, in time.

At the 66 minute mark, though, Osako and Nagatomo made their exits and were replaced by Kensuke Nagai and Koki Anzai. Neither one really managed to impress, and the raft of changes by this time had disrupted any sort of fluidity in play. The insertion of Ko Itakura for Gaku Shibasaki, in the 76th minute, completed the disruption, and the contest petered out meekly in its final fifteen minutes.  

All in all, this was a pretty good performance by the "veterans" of January's Asian Cup campaign, but not a particularly strong argument for any of the new faces to take over a spot. The only possible exception to that would be the replacement of Doan with Kubo -- a move that might make the attack even MORE imposing, but would entail the sort of risks that we saw in the latter half of Kubo's run-out. The precocious teenager can look extremely impressive, toying with defenders and dribbling about like he had velcro on his sneakers. Yet a reasoned analysis of his contributions shows that he is detracting from the team's overall play as he does so. Maybe the best solution is to stick him in immediately, against Myanmar, let him get his eagerly awaited first goal, and hope he will then focus on finding a tighter fit with his teammates.