What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Smarter

A sloppy central attempt. Two well-addressed kicks on the right. A soft effort to displace Livaković. Takumi Minamino, Kaoru Mitoma, Maya Yoshida, and Takuma Asano were the chosen ones to face the penalties against Croatia in the Round of 16. An appendix that saw Japan exiting again before the quarterfinals, right at the time when everything seemed possible… for once.

Is it like the past? No. In the three previous occasions, you knew your opponents were stronger. In 2002, Japan faced their first Round of 16 matches, losing to Turkey 1-0: they would have reached third place. The same happened in 2018 against Belgium, although the Red Devils were at the peak of their performance and Japan squandered a 2-0 lead.

In the end, 2010 felt like the most painful, losing at PKs to Paraguay after a tense match and with Yuichi Komano hitting the crossbar with an audacious effort. Even if the loss hit hard, the Rojiblanca made Spain sweat in the quarterfinals and reached the Copa América final the next year. In hindsight, it seemed that Japan were lacking the final step. This time was different.

In the first half, Japan risked sometimes, but took the lead and probably faced a type of match that they never thought of: mastering the game from 1-0 up (something that Japan faltered many times). They conceded a naive equalizer – yesterday wasn’t the best match of Tomiyasu’s national career, but he knows it – and then the match died once up front we had Minamino, Ito, and Asano. Only Mitoma created something in the extra time.

The captain: “It’s very tough to accept this moment, but I enjoyed this tournament”.

In the end, when the referee sealed the 120 minutes-mark, we knew what was going to happen. Japan’s history at penalties isn’t so bad if you consider all competitions, but it’s been dreadful in the last decade. Minamino was lacking motivation, Yoshida had 130 minutes on his feet and he’s not a PK-taker. Different decisions could have been taken, but… we’ll never know. And it doesn’t change the final outcome.

Just like we wrote after losing to Qatar in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup final, it’s time for a new phase. And Japan – mostly the JFA – must be avoiding further mistakes towards 2026.

Don’t Forget the Past

It would be stupid to judge whatever happened in these 20 days without thinking at the four years before. Hajime Moriyasu was chosen after the 2018 FIFA World Cup to nurture and grow a certain generation of talents, who have done a lot in the last four years. If you think about it, in the Summer of 2018, Tomiyasu was a rookie in Belgium. Itakura was in Sendai. Mitoma was still in university, and Junya Ito just moved to Genk.

Nevertheless, Japan had tough moments. Yes, they reached the final, but football was unconvincing even in that tournament, minus the great semifinal played and won against Iran 3-0. Qatar won deservedly in that final, showing a Moriyasu-esque approach and turning it against him. Then COVID intervened, but other slips have been forgotten throughout these days.

You must remember how Japan were knocked out at the 2020 AFC U-23 Championship back in January 2020. Back at the time, Moriyasu guided the team, a squad where you could find Keisuke Osako, Daiki Suga, Ao Tanaka, Tsukasa Morishima, Yuki Soma, Ayase Ueda, and Reo Hatate. A team that lost against Syria and Saudi Arabia, in the end got just one point against Qatar.

If Japan didn’t host those Olympic Games, they would have missed the football tournament for the first time since 1992. And that’s something that Japan – with the goal of developing youngsters – can not afford. It’s not an accident if, without Moriyasu, Japan easily reached third place at the 2022 AFC U-23 Championship, losing against Uzbekistan and then beating Australia: at the helm, there was Go Oiwa, who’s doing a decent job.

Furthermore, AFC qualifiers were a bit shaky – without winning against Australia in Japan in the first leg, who knows. Maybe we would have played the playoffs against UAE and Peru in place of Australia. Something that Japan cannot afford either. The Samurai Blue are one of the powerhouses of the AFC: surely, it’ll get easier with eight spots for 2026, but coming into the Top 4 is mandatory.

Tokyo 2020 as well was a bit disappointing. After a solid Group Stage – we defeated France 4-0, a superb achievement –, Japan struggled to get past New Zealand, in a kind of game that reminded us of the one against Costa Rica at this World Cup. And then two defeats came: if the one against Spain is more than understandable, losing against Mexico – after beating them in the Group Stage – seemed odd.

From Agony to Miracle, Twice

It was normal to have low expectations, especially after the draw in April: Japan drew Germany and Spain. And although it seemed there was some little chance against Germany in a one-and-done match, we didn’t see it coming. But Moriyasu was brave – the changes in both games have done the difference –, Japan were organized, and there was an element of luck you need at this level.

Probably the highest moment of Japanese football since winning at the Stade de France in 2012 in a friendly game, with Yasuyuki Konno being Diego Armando Maradona.

For the first time since 2002, Japan closed the group as the winner. But the game against Costa Rica – lost 1-0 despite the Ticos producing 0.17 xG – showed the real problems of the whole Moriyasu reign and, in hindsight, where Japan need to improve. It didn’t matter that Costa Rica sit tight in the back. Yes, they were lucky in scoring, but the game could have gone on for two days and the Samurai Blue wouldn’t have probably scored anyway.

These two games showed why the match against Croatia will represent a unique opportunity that will never come back. Yes, the defending vice-champions are stronger than Japan at the moment, but even during the Group Stage, you could see how they’re at the end of their run. Take the match against Morocco: an organized, energetic, courageous side nailed them to a draw, and it could have been a win. Japan had to learn.

They partially did. Daizen Maeda was the best in the first half, beyond the goal. The work done to disturb passing lines towards Modric and Kovacic was masterful. Hidemasa Morita played a game to remember until the very end. Junya Ito and Wataru Endo did well too. Shogo Taniguchi was surprisingly reliable in a three-CBs line-up. But when it came to seal the game after Perisic’s equalizer, Japan didn’t have the right tools to do so.

The absence of Takefusa Kubo was a shame because this was his game. Once Takumi Minamino came in, he reminded everyone why 2022 hasn’t been his year. Besides his miracle against Germany, the World Cup of Takuma Asano has been forgettable, especially after this game. And Junya Ito – with 120+ minutes on his shoulders – wasn’t in the right form to leave any mark. The penalties were just an appendix of something already written.

Final note from our end: having both Ueda and Machino collect together just 45 minutes in this World Cup… probably one of the choices to regret.

What’s Next?

Now it’s time for the future. And it’s not just a matter of what’s on the pitch, but… let’s start from there. There are clear closures that must be done. Yuto Nagatomo played 14 World Cup games and his record will stay for a while. We hope yesterday’s match was the last for Maya Yoshida. Same for Takuma Asano and Takumi Minamino, who – for different reasons – should not wear a Samurai Blue anymore in their careers.

Shogo Taniguchi, Hiroki Sakai, Gaku Shibasaki, Yuki Soma will probably fade away because of age and/or depth in certain positions. Miki Yamane has failed the manager in the only game where he could have been useful. Shuto Machino remained one of the only two players to never see the pitch in Qatar. The three keepers probably won’t be around in 2026, so it’s better to start fresh. So… what’s next?

First: the new captain. Wataru Endo has been phenomenal at this World Cup, especially against Germany. With Takehiro Tomiyasu as his deputy, Japan’s future looks good in terms of leadership. Ko Itakura, Hiroki Ito, Hidemasa Morita, Takefusa Kubo, Ritsu Doan, Daizen Maeda, Daichi Kamada (his WC was disappointing, at best), Ayase Ueda will all be around in 2026.

To this core, Japan need to add another bunch of talent: Kyoto Furuhashi and Reo Hatate, but also Yukinari Sugawara – who’s been ignored by Moriyasu without a proper explanation. Yuta Nakayama isn’t our best choice for left-back, but with him, we would have had further ductility to implement. Tomoki Iwata won MVP in this year’s J.League and he can play many positions. Tsukasa Morishima, Joel Chima Fujita, Ryotaro Araki, and Makoto Mitsuta are up for evaluation (without forgetting Kuryu Matsuki).

Tough to understand why Moriyasu overlooked him.

Then the JFA needs to fix three critical positions: goalkeeper, full-backs/wingbacks, and the no. 9 role. This last one has already two options to be solved, with Furuhashi being called up and Ueda being more involved. The FBs/WBs problem has partial solutions in Nakayama and Sugawara, but there’s no doubt Japan need new protagonists in that position (e.g. Reon Yamahara with a three-CBs line-up could really work).

About the goalkeeper issue, it’s a long-standing matter. Gonda did a decent World Cup, but he’s not the answer to our prayers. Kawashima will soon retire, and Daniel Schmidt is just a fancy option to have a safe word. Keisuke Osako, Zion Suzuki, and Kosei Tani will be tested. Furthermore, we still like the idea of Park Iru-gyu giving a shot to the Japan’s national team as the only sweeper-keeper available.

To grow more, four points will be fundamental:

  • Paris 2024 is coming. Japan have to be there and aim for their first gold medal, because European teams – minus France, who will be hosting (and we can see Mbappé being there to win another accolade) – are not taking it seriously and South American teams are getting weaker and weaker.
  • JFA must step up its game in the continental geopolitical world. Qatar got the World Cup and now assured themselves another AFC Asian Cup, forcing everyone to move another tournament from July 2023 to January 2024 (a particularly stupid decision, given that Korea was in the run for it and Son Heung-min is currently one of the strongest players in the world).
    Furthermore, India just retired from their 2027 bid and Saudi Arabia will win 99% for that edition. This means that East Asia – the strongest part of the continent, remember – will host another AFC Asian Cup 24 years later after the last one (sorry Australia, I can’t consider 2015 as an “Asian Cup hosted in East Asia”).

Unfortunately, to make the ultimate step, Hajime Moriyasu must step down. Don’t get us wrong: his tactical decisions were clever, and they were appreciated by a larger European audience. But Japan can’t be any more just a defensive team, because… it might happen that you’ll need to actually play football instead of just waiting on others. Especially if you’re the favorite for the 2024 AFC Asian Cup and the 2026 FIFA World Cup will see 48 teams, most of which might play like Japan did against Germany and Spain.

Instead, it appears that the JFA offered him a 2-year renewal, with the option of two more years. But can we really afford Kaoru Mitoma from the bench for the next 24 months? Can we afford to go to the Olympics with such fear, even if Oiwa will probably manage the team? Can we squander all the potential that’s looking good toward 2026? What doesn’t kill you shouldn’t make you stronger, but at least smarter.

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