Harmony, communication key to Japan’s progress at World Cup

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Japan players celebrate after their victory over Spain on Dec. 2.

Japan’s national soccer team made it to the World Cup round of 16 for the second consecutive tournament before falling to Croatia in a penalty shootout. Although the team missed out on a long-sought spot in the quarterfinals, the Samurai Blue surprised the world by getting through a tough group that included Germany and Spain.

On Nov. 29, ahead of the third Group E match against Spain, some of the Japan players were worried about the challenge ahead of them and they discussed their concerns with head coach Hajime Moriyasu during a training session.

The team adopted a defensive 5-4-1 formation, which Eintracht Frankfurt, midfielder Daichi Kamada’s club, used in a Europa League match in April when it defeated Barcelona, a club with many players who featured in the Spain squad.

“We’ve become much stronger in one-on-one situations, but when the whole team presses forward, we struggle,” Moriyasu said. “Japan won’t win a 100-meter sprint, but in a relay, our ability to link the baton makes us medal contenders.”

Moriyasu’s style of management produced results when he led Sanfrecce Hiroshima to three domestic J1-league championships, even though the team had been losing strong players year after year.

Moriyasu believes the key to competing on the world stage is bolstering the overall strength of the team by taking advantage of the players’ individual strengths.

He carefully communicates with team members and is comfortable leaving a player out if he feels they are a disruptive influence, regardless of their abilities.

However, when Japan faltered in the early stages of the World Cup qualifiers, there were rumblings among squad members who have been exposed to the tactics of European clubs.

Some players cried out for tactics that would enable the team to win, and the situation ended up becoming a flash point.

During a national squad trip to Germany in September, captain Maya Yoshida, Wataru Endo and Gaku Shibasaki, among others, told Moriyasu they wanted to “discuss how to win.”

The coach and players talked about various scenarios, including how to start games and how to react when the score changes.

Moriyasu, who did not want the team to feel constrained by tactics, was surprised they wanted so many details. But together they came up with solutions as the head coach wanted to give them an opportunity to utilize their full capabilities.

The players who compete in Europe have a different mentality. As a result, Japan has adopted a style closer to that of European teams.

Moriyasu emphasized the harmony in the camp when the Europe-based players joined the squad in November, ahead of the World Cup.

The last pre-World Cup friendly against Canada featured several fringe players, such as midfielder Yuki Soma, to ensure that all 26 squad members would be ready for the tournament.

“It doesn’t matter if I play or not. Winning is everything,” said Takumi Minamino, who has found himself on the bench more often than not recently.

After competing at his fourth World Cup, Yuto Nagatomo said Japan fielded “a great team” at this tournament. “It was the best I’ve ever played in,” the veteran defender said.

Although Japan was unable to overcome the round-of-16 challenge, the harmony in the squad complemented the individual skills of players, enabling the team to defeat Germany and Spain on the way to the knockout stage.