Recently, the Japanese soccer team has been on the rise. They’ve recovered from the recent criticisms arising from their poor performance in the Confederations Cup. In their most recent matches, the Japanese national team has stood toe-to-toe with both the Netherlands and Belgium.
In the match versus the Netherlands, Japan was not fazed at all by the goals of Van der Vaart and Arjen Robben. They played their style of football known as “Sushitaka” and came back from a 0-2 deficit by goals from Yuya Osako and Keisuke Honda. Even though the match ended up on a 2-2 draw, the general consensus was that Japan outplayed the Netherlands. To add on to their hot streak, Japan surprised the world by beating the dark horse of the 2014 Brazil World Cup, Belgium, 3-2 in a friendly match.
The recent success of the Japanese national team can be attributed to the midfielder Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka).
Endo is a veteran player who has played in 139 matches for Japan since the 2002 World Cup. He has won a spot on the J-league Best Eleven from 2003~2012 and in addition won several other accolades such as 2008 Asian Champions League MVP, and the 2009 AFC Player of the Year. He is known as the Xavi Hernandez of the Japanese football team. However, over the years, Endo’s health has deteriorated to a condition where he can’t play the whole 90 minutes like his old self. Due to this, the so called “Endo Time” was born.
The manager of the Japanese national team, Alberto Zaccheroni, started out by looking for Endo’s replacement. He tried out several players during the East Asian Cup and found his answer in Hotaru Yamaguchi, a 23 year old defensive midfielder. However, Yamaguchi couldn’t perfectly fill up Endo’s shoes. You can’t just replace a player like Endo, similar to how you can’t just replace Zidane, Pirlo, or Xavi. So what Zaccheroni came up with was a plan to use both Yamaguchi and Endo: Yamaguchi during the first 45 and Endo in the last 45.
This plan worked to perfection as Endo came alive when he was put on the pitch. In the match versus Netherlands, when Endo came on the pitch the Japanese were able to score two goals to tie the match at 2. Even Arjen Robben said it felt like a defeat in the second half.
Saving up his energy allowed Endo to play even better than before and as a result, when he came on the pitch during the game against Belgium, he was able to assist a Keisuke Honda goal with a beautiful pass. But it wasn’t as if Endo was the super hero of the match, who saved the Japanese from a terrible defeat. Japan suffocated Belgium in their home ground (the match was held at Baudouin Stadium in Bruxelles). After Mirallas scored the opener on an error committed by Sakai, Japan pulled up their four-back line. Considering the fact that the match was held in Belgium and with opposing players as talented as Hazard and Lukaku, Japan could have easily played a defense-minded game. However, Alberto Zaccheroni decided to meet fire with fire.
After conceding a goal, the Japanese players started to pressure the ball more often as Belgium swung the ball from side to side. As the Belgians retreated back into their side of the pitch, Hazard also had to come down more to receive the ball. From here started the “seal off Hazard” plan. As soon as Hazard got the ball, 2-3 Japanese players stuck to him like glue and forced Hazard from turning and accelerating. This bought time for the Japanese defense to get set before Hazard could turn to counter. This plan held on when Fellaini came on the second half. Also by forcing Mertens and Mirallas out of the danger zone, the Japanese forced the Belgians to pass towards the backs or to the side, something that you don’t really want to do in soccer. Then with players like Hasebe and Endo, Japan was able to shake of the pressure of the Belgian defense. With the creativity of Honda added in Japan was able to score and beat the Belgians in their home ground.
I’d hate to say this but Japan has improved tremendously over the past few years and is considered the “alpha dog” among the Asian countries. Whenever I see Japan and South Korea play, I can really grasp that South Korea is of no match for the Japanese. Also, along with the arise of “Endo Time,” Japan has found the answer to their prayers of a lack of strikers in Yoichiro Kakitani, who scored the wonderful header against Belgium, and Yuya Osako, who scored against Holland. With the help of the new comers and the veterans Hasebe, Honda, and Kagawa, Japan is looking to surprise the world in the 2014 Brazil World Cup.