For the first time since the first tournament in 1930, the World Cup is set to be held in December in the Middle Eastern country, Qatar. As with every World Cup, fans usually come together and create their dark horses for the tournament. This year, there are many choices to pick from out of the 32 teams competing for the trophy but there is one team that stands out in particular that could potentially go on and have an incredible run in the competition: Japan.
The finest team in Asia, Japan, won a challenging World Cup qualifying group that included Saudi Arabia and Austria, and in 2018, they gave eventual third-place team Belgium a serious fright. Four years later, this team is undoubtedly one of the best Japan has ever had, with the majority of the roster playing their football in prestigious European leagues, which provides this Japanese team with a wealth of skilled players that can devastate opponents.
It was a heart-breaking exit from the 2018 World Cup for Japan after conceding a 94th-minute winner to Belgium in the round of 16 stages in Russia, but it proved that the Samurai Blue were more than just underdogs; they were a genuine competitor for the latter stages of the tournament and there’s no reason to say that it won’t be the same case for this World Cup.
THE FULL SQUAD
Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Strasbourg), Shuichi Gonda (Shimizu S-Pulse), Daniel Schmidt (Sint-Truidense).
Defenders: Yuto Nagatomo (Tokyo), Maya Yoshida (Schalke 04), Hiroki Sakai (Urawa Red Diamonds), Shogo Taniguchi (Kawasaki Frontale), Miki Yamane (Kawasaki Frontale), Ko Itakura (Borussia Monchengladbach), Takehiro Tomiyasu (Arsenal), Hiroki Ito (Stuttgart).
Midfielders: Gaku Shibasaki (Leganes), Wataru Endo (Stuttgart), Junya Ito (Reims), Takumi Minamino (Monaco), Hidemasa Morita (Sporting CP), Daichi Kamada (Eintracht Frankfurt), Yuki Soma (Nagoya Grampus), Kaoru Mitoma (Brighton & Hove Albion), Ritsu Doan (Freiburg), Ao Tanaka (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Takefusa Kubo (Real Sociedad).
Forwards: Takuma Asano (Bochum), Daizen Maeda (Celtic), Ayase Ueda (Cercle Brugge), Shuto Machino (Shonan Bellmare).
GROUP STAGE FIXTURES
- Germany vs Japan: November 23 (13:00, Doha).
- Japan vs Costa Rica: November 27 (10:00, Al-Rayyan).
- Japan vs Spain: December 1 (19:00, Doha).
WHY YOU SHOULDN’T SLEEP ON JAPAN;
This Japan side is fairly direct. Although they have had a high percentage of possession over the last year, it would be unexpected to see them spend a lot of time on the ball in this tournament, especially when playing teams like Spain and Germany. They excel in transitions, and if they can force Spain and Germany into counterattacks, that will be ideal for their style of play.
To provide their teammates with more passing options and make it harder for the opposition to mark them, Japan’s holding midfield combination frequently staggers during this phase and the ball advancement phase (one sits higher while the other drops deeper). Japan is usually adept at using brief passes to build up from the back. They invite the opponent to press higher to try to dislodge them and are extremely patient during the build-up and ball progression phases.
It would be expected for Japan to use this strategy frequently at the World Cup. When the opponent gets aggressive, they’ll try to bat them out with careful passing at the back to provide a path through them and into space behind the midfield. The patience, judgement, calmness, vision, and technical passing ability of the defenders, as well as the movement of their attackers into the space behind the opposing midfield, are all essential to making this work. This can provide Japan with the chance to immediately attack the opposition’s absorbent backline and produce overloads, just like they would when attacking in transition.
Moreover, they let out a physical aura in a not soo physically dominated group and this specimen can come critical in possibilities for them to progress through the group stages. Winning duels and second balls after pressing the opponents to kick the ball far can help Japan not only win the possession back in the middle of the park but also catch through on goals with pace before they can settle in. This can also come critical in keeping the ball off their own net as their fleshy centre-backs can make certain from it reaching anywhere near dictated.
Defensively, in the high-block phase, the Samurai Blue often positions themselves to defend. The front four of Japan’s 4-2-3-1 formation typically position themselves closer to the ball and the risky passing possibilities become available to them with where the ball is at that precise instant. When the centre forward plays the ball out from the back, the winger who is closest to the ball will frequently become fairly active and press the centre backs.
The secret to Japan’s counter-pressing is that even when they cross their line, their centre-forwards and wingers track back and keep pressing the ball handler. Players will simultaneously emerge from deeper positions to provide support. As a result, the opponent’s ball carrier is overpowered by enthusiastic Japanese jerseys all around him, which causes a turnover. Japan’s forwards will seek to offer choices and take advantage of space wherever it is present after regaining possession, frequently behind the opposition’s backline.
Japan’s group may be unfavourable, but their transitional style and defensive organisation could prove to be a huge problem for their opponents in the group stage, and a surprise is still definitely possible.
Japan has been rather unlucky in their group stage draw, facing previous winners of the World Cup in Spain and Germany. This is especially a shame given the rise of such a rich seam of talent in recent years. The Samurai Blue will boast optimistic talents like Tomiyasu, Minamino, Mitoma, and Kubo as well as several talented alternatives.
They have a team that can certainly win, and they also have a number of young players who will certainly express themselves on the pitch. Although qualification out of the group is not impossible, Japan’s illustrious supporters may be pessimistic about the tournament as the group features difficult matchups that could lead to elimination. Japan is anticipated to be knocked out to the naked eye, but given their form, calibre and desire to succeed, it may not come as that much of a surprise should they qualify to reach the latter stages of the knockout round.
Daichi Kamada has always been a top-quality player, operating as an attacking-minded midfielder for his club this season. He’s managed to provide seven goals and four assists in just twelve games this season in the Bundesliga to help his Frankfurt side up to 5th place on the table.
On the international stage, Kamada has rotated between multiple positions both in the midfield and the forward line and has already shown promising signs for what may come for the 26-year-old and Japan. In the World Cup qualifiers, Kamada managed to supply five goal contributions in eight games – resulting in the side’s most productive player and will undoubtedly be one of the main threats for any of Japan’s opposition this winter.
Goalkeeper: Shuichi Gonda.
Defenders: Takehiro Tomiyasu, Shogo Taniguchi, Maya Yoshida, Hiroki Sakai.
Midfielders: Takefusa Kubo, Watara Endo, Hidemasa Morita, Junya Ito.
Forwards: Daizen Maeda, Daichi Kamada.