Starting Over: Moriyasu Building Next-Generation Samurai Blue

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu talks about his future plans for the team during a recent interview.

For Japan national soccer team coach Hajime Moriyasu, the 2022 World Cup is nothing but a memory. Heading into the next World Cup cycle, he plans a major revamp to the team that defeated two European powerhouses and made it out of the group stage in Qatar.

“We are not in a position where we can be satisfied,” the 54-year-old Moriyasu said in a recent interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun. “Instead of building on what we have, we will start over from zero.”

The team that Moriyasu called up for a pair of international friendlies in March represented a planned changing of the guard in the lead-up to the 2026 World Cup, which will be hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Missing from the Samurai Blue roster were such veteran stalwarts as Schalke’s Maya Yoshida, FC Tokyo’s Yuto Nagatomo and Urawa Reds’ Hiroki Sakai. The youth-oriented team went winless in the friendlies, playing to a 1-1 draw with Uruguay on March 24 and losing 2-1 to Colombia four days later. But Moriyasu is sticking to his long-term strategy.

“There might be pain along the way, but I’m prepared for it. I’ll take responsibility,” Moriyasu said.

“We will give young players opportunities and build a solid foundation, then bring in the veterans to provide competition for positions.”

Moriyasu’s emphasis on defense regardless of position has remained unchanged.

“If we have a player who cannot defend when we face a strong opponent, it creates a numeric disadvantage,” he said.

One of his most urgent tasks is finding successors to defenders Nagatomo and Sakai, who have played at the highest level. In the two friendlies, Yukinari Sugawara of Dutch club AK Alkmaar started at right back and, although he made his mark from an offense perspective, his performance was not enough for Moriyasu.

“To catch up to the other two, experience is important,” Moriyasu said. “I want him to have the strength to be a solid defender.”

Still, Moriyasu has hopes for the development of the 22-year-old, who was considered for both the

Tokyo Olympic and World Cup squads but did not make either.

Moriyasu expects the new era to be spearheaded by the “Tokyo Olympic generation” of 20-somethings featuring the Europe-based trio of Borussia Moenchengladbach’s Ko Itakura, SC Freiburg’s Ritsu Doan and Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma. He already senses that they are accepting of that burden.

“[The three] have shown they are ready to take on the responsibility,” Moriyasu said. “I sensed a feeling of reliability and freshness.”

As for appointing a new captain, Moriyasu said the idea is to see which player emerges as a leader. “[Wataru] Endo [of VfB Stuttgart] is here, but selecting a young player is also possible.”

In the March friendlies, both Uruguay and Colombia had developed a strategy to stop Mitoma, an indication of how teams now regard Japan as a formidable opponent. Moriyasu welcomes the increased intensity.

“The level of seriousness was different [than in the past],” he said. “It shows that Japan’s progress is being recognized. It makes it more difficult for us to win but the situation will allow us to develop further.”

Looking ahead to the next matches — friendlies on June 15 against El Salvador and June 20 against Peru — Moriyasu said: “When there is positive pressure, that is when growth occurs. I’ll be careful myself so that we don’t get complacent and lose our intensity.”