The tides have turned

Japan national team is currently involved in the Copa América 2019 and head coach Hajime Moriyasu has a clear plan, shared with JFA: the mind is set to 2020 Olympics and Tokyo, with the real chance of winning the gold medal (just look at the average level three years ago in Rio and you’ll realize this hope isn’t misplaced). That’s why the roster involved in Brazil is so young, the youngest in the competition.

Bu there’s another point to underline: after 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup, many profiles have been left aside, ignored and excluded from the national team. Between the retired players, the ones not performing accordingly to a NT-level and the injured, some names have been missing JNT. And I could do a LOT of examples.

Masato Morishige, Ryota Oshima, Ryota Morioka, Yosuke Ideguchi, Yoshinori Muto, Yu Kobayashi, Kenyu Sugimoto and Takuma Asano haven’t featured into the national team from a decent time. But there are two players whose evolution might be worrying for the Nippon Daihyo, although for different reasons.

18 months ago, one of those two was rated as one of the best players in J. League, earning a deserved return to the national team after struggles in Europe and a walk of redemption. The other was tipped to be the future of Japan national team between the posts, but injuries, bad management and the lack of results of his club pushed him out of the rotation.

I’m talking about Mu Kanazaki and Kosuke Nakamura. So different, so distant in their career and paths, yet so close to my J. League eyes.

December 2016. It looks so far away.

The MVP

18 months ago, Mu Kanazaki had just ended his best campaign ever in Japan. It’s not about the stats, but dominance on the pitch: Kashima Antlers became addicted to his skills and ductility, which let him lead the squad to great results and be among senators in that squad. But are we talking of the same guy still scoreless after almost 20 games in all competitions in 2019 season?

Yes, we are. The history of Mu Kanazaki is strange: he was a young prodigy at Oita Trinita, where though he shone as midfielder, as a box-to-box player, capable of scoring and leading the squad with his vision. It’s not an accident that Oita won the 2008 J. League Cup and played their best season-ever with him in the squad (alongside many future J. Leaguers: Masato Morishige, Akihiro Ienaga, Hiroshi Kiyotake and others).

After that, Kanazaki advanced his range on the pitch and moved to Nagoya Grampus, where he had the chance to win another title, the 2010 J1 League. But the offensive midfielder also won his first caps with Japan national team: first the debut against Yemen in January ’09 (he came in for Shinji Kagawa), then another three games before the 2010 World Cup. At age 21, he was ready to take the world as his own.

Then what? He jumped. He took his leap towards Europe after three years with Grampus, being acquired by 1. FC Nurnberg in January 2013 on a free transfer. It seemed the right choice, since also his former team-mate Hiroshi Kiyotake imposed himself in Bundesliga with that team. But for Mu, it went differently: four games and it was over. The German club let him go to Portimonense and his career could have ended there.

But the Algarve region – and especially Portimão – has become a safehouse for Japanese players. Mu Kanazaki was the first one, but also Shoya Nakajima and now Shuichi Gonda chose it to pursue a career in Europe. In fact, it worked for Kanazaki: he was tearing defenses apart in the Portuguese second division, hence Kashima Antlers saw an opportunity there to take him back to Japan in January 2015.

Defining that a “successful move” would be an understatement. Formed by the European experience and developed into a strange type of striker, Kanazaki amazed the League for two years. Kashima Antlers won the title in 2016 and the former prodigy was essential to bring the title home, showing an immense personality and even being a key-member in Antlers’ run at the FIFA Club World Cup.

But personality comes with a luggage. Kanazaki isn’t the easiest player to deal with. You can see how his temperament flowed out in the pitch through great reads and plays, but it also backfired when he had a public fight with his manager, Masatada Ishii, or when he had to contest a PK to his team-mate Yuma Suzuki, only to miss it. I compared him to Draymond Green, the Golden State Warriors forward: both fearless, super-prepared, but tough to manage.

At the peak of his performances (41 goals in 105 games with Antlers, with two seasons of double digits-goals and a third on the way) and the just missed World Cup, Kanazaki took another leap. This time, though, it didn’t work. Kashima Antlers let him go in a swap for South Korean center-back Jeong Seung-hyun, while the forward opted to “start a new challenge” by signing for Sagan Tosu.

There couldn’t be a worst move than that. Sagan Tosu played a widely defensive brand of football under manager Massimo Ficcadenti and this pattern didn’t change with Kim Myung-hwi. The partnership with Fernando Torres would have been pure stardom three years ago (and we also saw some technical sparks between the two), but the Spaniard doesn’t have the rhythm to play a certain brand of football anymore.

About Kanazaki… he tried. Hard. You could easily say he was the footballer to put the biggest effort in every game, but it didn’t work: three goals in 2018, zero in 2019. Despite the good wage that Sagan might offer to him, this is damaging him. And it damaged his history with Japan national team, despite he made a great return.

In November 2015, Kanazaki was called up by manager Vahid Halilhodžić to play against Singapore as a center-forward. First game, immediately a goal; then another on his successive cap, against Afghanistan. But before the start of the next round of World Cup qualifiers, he was excluded from the squad because of the fight with Ishii. Even a rusty man like Halilhodžić couldn’t handle him.

Kanazaki was involved only in just one more game, the first match of the EAFF Asian Championship against North Korea. He wasn’t called anymore from that game. And that’s a shame, because he could have been useful in Russia and UAE. A new cycle has now started and the Sagan striker is 30 years old. Probably it’s just time to find a new J. League adventure to go back to those Kashima glory days.

The Chosen One

The kid grown watching Oliver Kahn’s incredible run of wonders in 2002 World Cup always dreamed of being the man between the posts of his national team. And if you think about it, someone like Kosuke Nakamura might be (or might have been, your choice) the right player for a generational change in a position where Japan traditionally lacks interpreters.

18 months ago, Kosuke Nakamura was living the best possible life: Kashiwa Reysol were one of the most entertaining teams in J1 League, a wonderful lab where you could watch many talents. He just started featuring in the national team and the EAFF Asian Championship was a total disaster for the Nippon Daihyo, but it was a masterful showcase by the young goalkeeper.

December 2017: Nakamura mastering the art of goalkeeping.

Then what? Life intervened. In several hits of 2018, I’d say. But let’s go in order.

The first problem was the managing of his profile: despite being tested in that competition, Vahid Halilhodžić never wanted to leave Eiji Kawashima behind. And this happened despite the no. 1 of Japan had a difficult season at Metz, where he indeed featured for 30 matches, but the club ended the championship with a relegation in the last place of the table.

Instead, Nakamura was ready to fly. He played four games before the World Cup, but his installment as no. 1 was never a real chance. And it became even harder when Halilhodžić was sacked and replaced with an internal solution, since Akira Nishino strengthened his belief of having all the senators in the right place. It worked in Russia, but still… not a good move on the long term, because it hurt the chance of Nakamura.

The second situation is related to injuries. The goalkeeper suffered two sudden, but massive incidents with Kashiwa. The first is before the World Cup and it probably hindered his chances of starting. Even seeing Nakamura in the roster for Russia was doubtful.

On the last matchday before the break, in May 20, Nagoya Grampus are hosting Kashiwa Reysol. The guests are struggling, but they’ll be able to snatch a 3-2 away win to hope for a better future. Meanwhile, though, Nakamura suffers a brutal injury: after trying to catch the ball, he suffered a massive fall on his neck, with concussion and fearing even worst consequences. Luckily, he was able to feature in Russia, despite not playing any game.

But bad luck isn’t over with Kashiwa’s no. 23, because – once returned – he suffers another massive injury. Strange as the first, but another sign of curse. On July 18, just after the World Cup, Kashiwa Reysol are hosting FC Tokyo. Guests will win 1-0 courtesy of an own goal, but on the same action, the knee of Cayman Togashi hits violently the head of Nakamura. A massive concussion results in the goalkeeper being escorted out of the pitch.

This second situation is tied to the third: Kashiwa Reysol plunged during Summer and they ended 2018 being relegated. We’ve already talked about it, but it was an unexpected outcome. In my opinion, they could have been a dark horse in the title-race and they ended going to J2. The absence of Nakamura for three months was instrumental in this scenario.

Kirihata, the back-up keeper and long-time member of the squad, didn’t deliver. When Nakamura came back, everything was already compromised, and he wasn’t at the pinnacle of his form. These troubles, the lack of total explosiveness he showed in his first two years and some uncertainties continue to show during this 2019 season. Yes, he kept 10 clean sheets, but he doesn’t look like before.

Fourth, but not last: the change of heart in the head coaching position at the helm of Japan national team. Hajime Moriyasu doesn’t seem to be sold on Nakamura. He picked Daniel Schmidt, Masaaki Higashiguchi and Shuichi Gonda for the Asian Cup. Higashiguchi played two amazing seasons despite Gamba’s struggles, but he didn’t see the pitch under Moriyasu. Nakamura wasn’t involved in the Asian Cup and that’s a massive bummer.

If 2018 World Cup could have been his first chance to retain his no. 1 status, 2019 Asian Cup should have been his chance. Instead, due to injury and Kashiwa’s situation, he hasn’t been involved since Japan v Paraguay of June 2018. And Moriyasu seems to prefer goalkeepers with better foot to build up the plays from behind rather than the explosive and reactive, but less gifted Nakamura.

What now?

In Brazil, we’ll see an experimental roster, ready to take on the next Summer Olympics. Many of them might feature in that tournament, maybe alongside players who have already declared how they’d like to be in Tokyo 2020 (e.g. Keisuke Honda). Nakamura and Kanazaki wouldn’t have probably been there anyway.

But are we witnessing crossroads? Are we seeing a different future, a different destiny for these two players? They’ve been among the best that J1 could offer and now they’re struggling in their own squads. At this point, we just must hope their careers will somehow turn around, let alone their national team times.

In an alternative timeline, Akira Nishino has been hired in March 2018 to lead the Nippon Daihyo to the World Cup. He made a courageous choice by leaving some senators home and bringing in fresh new blood. Among them, there’s Kosuke Nakamura, who shone again with Kashiwa Reysol and took the no. 1 spot: Eiji Kawashima served in a position like the one covered by Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi in 2010 World Cup, like a mentor.

At the same, not totally convinced by Osako’s season in Bundesliga, Nishino brought Mu Kanazaki in the 23 for Russia 2018. He started as a bench-warmer, but in the last friendly game against Paraguay, he scored the winning-goal and started against Colombia. Surprisingly, both moves worked: Japan concluded two out of three games with a clean sheet, taking five points and not losing a single match.

To take home points against Senegal and Poland, Kanazaki has been instrumental. He scored as a sub against the African side to rescue a point, then he put his mark on the third game with a wonderful action. Unfortunately, Japan went out in the Round of 16, but now Nakamura is the sure starter of Japan national team and he’s looking towards the Asian Cup, where he’ll be the best keeper around.

While the Kashiwa Reysol goalkeeper is also preparing a move to Europe (Gent, Celtic and Lille have asked infos), Mu Kanazaki has won again a spot in the Best XI of 2018 J1 League and he’s also considering a move outside of Japan. Not to Europe, though: he has been contacted by MLS-side Los Angeles FC, who just sold Diego Rossi to Valencia and they would love to integrate Carlos Vela with a player from Asia.

Both look really comfortable in their new shoes: who knows what future will hold for them.

2 thoughts on “The tides have turned

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