Holding back team's progress
28 June ~ Japan may have ended the Confederations Cup without a point but the team left the tournament with a host of new admirers. Outplayed in their opening loss to hosts Brazil, they showed signs of great attacking potential in a thrilling loss to the Italians, then looked threatening but failed to deliver against Mexico. With a goalscoring striker, results could have been much better.
During their time in Brazil the Japanese defence was singled out as being the central cause for concern. However, Japan have the players to improve at the back – it is the lack of an out-and-out striker that is the more serious problem. Furthermore, it's a situation that is nothing new.
Japanese football has a strong tradition of exporting technically gifted midfielders. Since the inauguration of the J-League two decades ago talented players such as Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura have been able to make successful transitions into European football. The current generation, spearheaded by the trio of Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, have led to suggestions that Japan could potentially become the first Asian team to be considered on a level with the usual World Cup favourites from Europe and South America.
The difficulty in producing a striker capable of competing internationally comes partly from the reduced physicality found in the Japanese game, but there are also cultural aspects that play an important role in the development of the country's players. Japanese society revolves around the group dynamic. On the football pitch this can be seen in a strong team spirit and work ethic but the ruthlessness that characterises the attacking players of stronger international teams is notably absent. Most of the great goalscorers have had the single-minded mentality required to make the most of the slightest opportunities. Conversely, Japan generate build-up play of a high quality but consistently defer the responsibility of taking the final shot, as witnessed in the recent defeats in Brazil.
In their three matches at the Confederations Cup the role of lone striker, playing ahead of a triumvirate of attacking midfielders, was largely given to Ryoichi Maeda who, like every striker to play for the national team since their World Cup debut in 1998, has found success domestically but not abroad. The Japan team has already confirmed their return to Brazil in 2014 and are arguably the strongest side the country has ever produced. But without a principal striker at the level of those in support, they lack one of the essential components needed to properly challenge. Iain Pearce