We’re ready for Phase 2

It’s not easy to collect your thoughts after a harsh delusion. Yet, sometimes you have to, especially if you can find a silver lining in a tough playbook. Japan have just lost their first final ever out of five attempts. And they did against Qatar, in a clash that probably should have seen them as favorite, even more after winning against Iran for 3-0 in the semi-finals.

Unfortunately, it didn’t go Japan’s way. Qatar were no surprise as you may have seen in the tournament: while outside the pitch I keep my doubts about the rush in shrugging off certain questions (and it’s not like the country has jumped over rules to naturalize players: just watch handball’s team, recently and in the past), on the pitch Qatar deserved to win. Plain and simple. They were effective like Japan never managed to be during this whole Asian Cup (except for the second half against Iran).

With just three shots, Qatar found two goals and hit the post; on the other side, the Samurai Blue didn’t find the same groove of the semi-final, having huge problems thriving in the final third of the pitch and creating almost no chance during the first 45’. The story was severely different in the second half, when Japan pushed – always with some troubles in finishing – and found the goal of Minamino, the first allowed by Qatar in the whole tournament.

The change between an anonymous Haraguchi and Muto, with a double striker and Minamino moved to the left side of the field, actually worked. There were 10-15 minutes when Japan could have turned the game on their side, because Qatar were feeling a shortage of energies and certainties, even being too much defensive. Then the Yoshida handball and the penalty by Afif closed the contest, crowning Qatar as champions for the first time ever.

Why be positive, then?

You would say that after a tournament like this one – where Japan didn’t seem to play with all their gears except for 60-70 minutes, while instead approaching games with a more defensive mindset – there aren’t too many solid points to keep. It wasn’t the usual Japan and it felt like a disappointment maybe also because the Moriyasu reign – which faced the first defeat today, after ten wins and one draw – started with a blasting and exciting team, which almost never showed that side in UAE.

But you have also to put in place other stats to put everything in the right context. After the World Cup in Russia seven months ago, many players are currently missing: Hasebe, Honda and Gotoku Sakai retired; Kawashima isn’t involved anymore, Okazaki and Kagawa for now are not taken into consideration due to their club’s form. To that, you have to add injuries, which kept Morita, Asano and most of all Nakajima out of this tournament. At the same time, Shoji was committed to his first European steps and Kosuke Nakamura – who should be the next no. 1 of this national team – suffered two tough injuries and he needs time to properly get back.

At this point, the squad was already decimated and my only desire for this team was to reach Top 4. I was ready for a sore loss against Iran, but it went even better than my expectations. Just like in 2011, the squad is in full transition and a final is a good result, especially keeping in mind how it has come (playing with a careful approach and not in full throttle, just like Japan used to). Plus, the shape of certain players – Haraguchi, Inui, Yoshida, Shibasaki and Muto – wasn’t the best, because their club adventures aren’t exactly thriving.

Moreover, Moriyasu basically gave up on subs – he fielded the same 4-2-3-1 with the same men for all games, except the useless game against Uzbekistan in the group stage –, with the head coach subbing two players before the 80th minute only in two games out of a total of seven. With Wataru Endo missing the final (a key-absence) due to injury, Japan seemed to lack that light pushing you over the obstacles.

There are though good news: against Iran, Japan fielded an all European-based starting XI and I think it’s a record. Thinking to their first game ever in the continental stage – against… Qatar, in December 1988 –, Japan can look back proudly. Back then, there were non-pro playing for the national team, with even many players still involved in university activities. Three decades later, Japan can field a competitive team despite all those absences. And many more players will move to Europe again (Junya Ito just signed for Genk).

Last but not least, after 10 years, Japan could finally feature a solid couple of centre-backs, since Tomiyasu’s tournament is a massive statement and Gen Shoji – now committed to his first days in France – remains a good prospect for the next decade. This hoping that Maya Yoshida will have the wisdom of being involved, but not as a main candidate for the role. And maybe we’ll leave players like Makino, Sasaki and Yamaguchi behind us.

This guy is gonna go places.

Maintain the long view

While there’ll be certainly joy in the streets of Doha and the Gulf War will continue in the next months, Japan can count on one bottom line. Just like an Italian song reminded me, “Generally who wins die young, while defeats keep you alive”. This may be valid also for Japan, which can finally proceed to the second step of their football plan.

Of course, you don’t have to forget how many elements must be tested. Is there really a Plan-B for Moriyasu? Can he succeed despite putting aside his favorite line-up in his Hiroshima times, the 3-4-2-1, which doesn’t suit the current generation of players? Will he manage in the right way the growth of these kids, also looking towards Tokyo 2020? A lot of questions, but to answer them you have to start from some clear numbers.

The pro-world is thriving in Japan, with 55 clubs featuring such status; many players are in Europe and the national team achieved a final despite huge changes over the arch of just ten months (including three different coaches: did you forget Halilhodzic?). But there’s also another stat actually impressive to judge Japan in the long-term.

Japan debuted in 1988 and their score in the Asian Cup is 25-12-6. And three of those six defeats over three decades came in 1988, on their debut: the others arrived today, in 1996 and 2007. No national team has kept that kind of consistency. After a fifth final – the first lost –, it’s time to Japan to move forward. Asian Cup may take the way back to Tokyo in 2023, but the next decade might be the right frame for a step up in performances.

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