After a rocky start to their World Cup qualifying campaign, Japan seem to have struck the right formula under Hajime Moriyasu as the side heads into Thursday night’s huge match against Australia on the back of five successive victories.
Despite being placed in the hot seat after losing two of their first three qualifying games while only scoring one goal during that period, Moriyasu has made wholesale changes to his preferred XI since the side’s shock loss to Oman. These alterations have held the Samurai Blue in good stead as they look set to automatically qualify for their seventh consecutive FIFA World Cup.
Heading into Stadium Australia as the 23rd ranked nation in the world (and second ranked in Asia), Japan will provide a huge challenge for Graham Arnold’s Socceroos whose hopes of automatically qualifying for the World Cup are hanging by a thread after a set of second half fade-outs and disappointing results against the likes of China and Oman away from home.
While the Socceroos will be buoyed by a raucous crowd of around 40,000 fans who will look to create a cacophony of noise, the Samurai Blue will likely be unfazed as their away record in qualifying speaks for itself.
Kings of pragmatism and assuredness outside of Japan, the Samurai Blue have won three of their four away fixtures with their only loss coming in the form of arguably the group’s most gruelling away trip in Jeddah as Moriyasu’s side fell victim to Saudi Arabia in front of more than 50,000 spectators.
Interestingly, all of Japan’s away victories in qualifying have yielded the same result – 1-0 victory to the Samurai Blue – which is testament to the way in which Moriyasu’s side can suffocate the life out of games through their composure in possession while also maintaining strong defensive principles which lead them in good stead without possession of the ball.
In terms of individual quality, it’s difficult to argue against Japan being superior to Australia. Even with Arsenal’s rock solid defender Takehiro Tomiyasu unavailable due to injury, Japan’s 27-man squad contains six players plying their trade in Europe’s top five leagues alongside countless others starring in Belgium, Portugal and Scotland.
Speaking ahead of the match, Australia’s assistant coach René Meulensteen paid homage to this quality while equally asserting that his side will look to make the most of their strengths.
“We all know that Japan is a strong team with good players but it’s all about identifying the trends and where we can hurt them,” he said.
“You mentioned two enormous qualities of our squad, the ability to fight and [run] but on top of that we can play a really good game, we need to make sure we get the plan tactically right and make sure we have very good focus, great concentration, and more than anything, the courage will win us the game.”
While Celtic marksman Kyogo Furuhashi remains sidelined due to a persisting injury, Ange Postecoglou’s fellow Japanese signing Reo Hatate has been reinstated after some strong performances under the Australian in the Scottish league. The Kawasaki Frontale graduate has drawn plaudits for the ease with which he has settled into the pace and physicality of Scotland after having dominated in his first few months in Glasgow.
On top of the aforementioned Tomiyasu, Japan will also be without national team stalwarts Yuya Osako and Hiroki Sakai who have each been ruled out due to injury. Despite this appearing to represent a blow on the facade, former Mainz centre-forward Osako has drawn criticism in his homeland for his performances in qualifying, particularly with such adept reinforcements breathing down his neck.
Although Thursday night’s fixture has an added layer of importance for the Socceroos given their precarious position in qualifying, a win for the Samurai Blue will confirm their place at the World Cup and relieve some of the pressure on their final game in the group where they will take on Vietnam in Saitama.
Junya Ito (Genk, Belgium, Right Winger)
Ito is Japan’s primary talisman and is typically stationed on the right side of attack. Fast, powerful and armed with quality in the final third, Ito is a direct threat who likes to run at defenders 1v1 and can deliver quality crosses from wide areas. The Socceroos are no stranger to the threat posed by Ito after he gave Aziz Behich a torrid time during the Samurai Blue’s victory in Saitama.
Meulensteen acknowledged Ito’s quality in his media duties pre-match, describing him as “very very quick, very good in 1v1s” while re-enforcing the importance of “dealing with that.”
One of the premier players in Belgium’s top division, Ito has been a constant threat for Genk this season, registering six goals and 13 assists for the eighth placed side. The long-haired wide player is arguably in the form of his career and continues to stake his credentials for a move to a top European side with his consistent performances on the right of attack.
Ito’s directness and speed arguably makes him a departure from the norm in Moriyasu’s side with the Japanese manager typically preferring to play with more patient and ball-oriented players. In this sense, Ito’s skillset makes him a unique asset for the Samurai Blue who gives their attack a different dimension.
Given that the 29-year-old has scored in each of Japan’s last four games in World Cup qualifying, halting Ito’s influence will be of principle importance for Arnold’s side should they wish to overcome the Samurai Blue.
Takumi Minamino (Liverpool, England, Left Winger)
Japan’s creative fulcrum and a technical maestro, Minamino is a crucial player for Moriyasu and typically starts from the left of attack. Having starred in an attacking quartet alongside Erling Haaland, Hwang Hee-Chan and Dominik Szobszlai under Jesse Marsch at RB Salzburg, Minamino earned a transfer to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool where he has since struggled for consistent minutes in the Premier League.
Largely consigned to a bit-part role from the bench, Minamino is behind Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino in Klopp’s attacking pecking order, but he has still proven his quality during some superb cameos in the cup competitions. Handed starting opportunities in this season’s League Cup, Minamino was Liverpool’s top scorer in the competition en route to defeating Chelsea in the final.
For the national team, Minamino’s intelligent movement off the ball in conjunction with his innate ability to find space in the opposition’s penalty area makes him a threat in possession. Where Minamino excels most, however, is in the intensity of his press when Japan lose the ball. The 27-year-old has had the principles of counter-pressing ingrained within his playing style after his time at Salzburg and he is adept at leading Japan’s press and winning the ball back for the Samurai Blue.
Wataru Endo (VFB Stuttgart, Germany, Defensive Midfielder)
The captain of Bundesliga outfit VFB Stuttgart, Endo is Japan’s lynchpin at the base of midfield. Having started all 27 of Stuttgart’s game this season, Endo’s experience at the highest level is a valued commodity for Moriyasu’s side who rely on energy and intensity from all 11 players who take the field at the one time. In the absence of Maya Yoshida, Endo has also taken the captain’s armband for the Samurai Blue which demonstrates his rich leadership skills.
Technically, Endo is superb. He enjoys playing short passes and is very good at releasing the ball under pressure. In this sense, Endo plays somewhat of a quarter-back role for Japan in that most attacks stem from Endo playing progressive passes in between the lines for the likes of Ao Tanaka and Hidemasa Morita.
Additionally, Endo is strong in the tackle and is willing to engage in proactive defensive actions high up the pitch in order to win the ball back for his side. Such is the quality of Endo that it is almost baffling that Endo was not given the opportunity to play in Europe until the age of 25 when he kickstarted his European adventure with Sint-Truiden in Belgium. The resolute holding midfielder will have to be bypassed if Australia want to have a chance of defeating the Samurai Blue.
How will they line up?
Moriyasu has preferred to operate with variations of a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 as manager of the national team. With that said, however, in their recent stretch of victories, Japan seem to have settled on a 4-3-3 system which involves high pressing, dominance on the ball and short passing.
The team’s 1-0 loss at the hands of Saudi Arabia was a seminal moment for Moriyasu who introduced wholesale changes following the defeat that have held him in good stead. This is none more evident than in the case of Leganes midfielder Gaku Shibasaki who started all three of Japan’s opening fixtures in the third round of qualifying before he was ruthlessly dropped from the XI following an inexplicable error in Jeddah which handed the Green Falcons their decisive goal in that October fixture.
Since that day, Shibasaki has started just one game for the Samurai Blue as Moriyasu has opted with the more energetic pairing of Tanaka and Morita as his preferred choice of players to occupy the number eight positions in his 4-3-3. Another casualty of the Saudi game was Eintracht Frankfurt’s attacking wizard Daichi Kamada who, despite recording 15 assists in the Bundesliga last season, has failed to replicate that form at national level.
Kamada has not featured under Moriyasu since the loss in Jeddah and was not even named in the manager’s squad for the upcoming qualifiers.
Since swapping the 4-2-3-1 for the 4-3-3, Moriyasu’s side have been noticeably more efficient in the final third, averaging almost five shots on target per game compared to just over three per game before the alteration. The win streak that has eventuated suggests that Moriyasu has found the combination which works for his side, meaning he is unlikely to spring any surprises in Sydney on Thursday.
“If you really analyse the Japanese teams over time, they are quite set in their own ways and their own style, so I don’t expect too many surprises,” said Socceroos assistant René Meulensteen.
“Like us, they have players missing, they have to come up with different personnel.”
In particular, Moriyasu will have to look towards his squad for a replacement for Osako who has started up front in all of Japan’s round three qualifying fixtures thus far and is clearly a favourite of the Japan boss. A tall reference point who likes to attack crosses, Osako provides a different dimension to Japan’s other centre-forwards.
In this regard, Moriyasu may have wanted to opt for the more mobile Daizen Maeda who has hit the ground running for Postecoglou’s Celtic and, despite his short stature, is still more than capable at attacking crosses and finding space in the box. Maeda is more similar to injured teammate Kyogo in the sense that he prefers to run in behind opposition defences, as opposed to Osako who likes to drop deep to receive the ball.
Unfortunately for Japan, Maeda has also been ruled out of the game against Australia, leaving Moriyasu with a huge conundrum in terms of who leads the attack.
One potential solution could come in the form of Daichi Hayashi who has impressed for Sint-Truiden after playing an integral role for Japan’s Olympic team who lost in the bronze medal playoff to Mexico. With six goals in Belgium’s top flight this season, Hayashi more of a creator than a natural goalscorer but would arguably represent a like-for-like replacement for Osako in terms of his ability to act as a reference point in build-up.
The other option for Moriyasu is to trial Minamino in the false nine position that he has played at times for Liverpool. This would likely see Union Berlin attacker and experienced campaigner Genki Haraguchi reinstated on the left of the attack. This seems like the less likely of the two options given that Moriyasu will look to keep the team as similar as possible to the ones that have proved so successful of late.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3):
Gonda; Yamane, Yoshida, Taniguchi, Nagatomo; Endo, Tanaka, Morita; Ito, Hayashi, Minamino