Japan vs. Netherlands: 6 Things We Learned
Japan and the Netherlands played out an entertaining 2-2 draw at the Cristal Arena in Genk, Belgium on Saturday afternoon.
Rafael van der Vaart opened the scoring for Louis van Gaal's side just after 12 minutes, before the Hamburg man set up Arjen Robben just under half hour later.
Yuya Osako pulled one back for Japan shortly before half-time. Then, on the hour mark, Keisuke Honda scored a well-deserved equaliser.
Both countries sealed their qualification for next summer's World Cup quite some time ago. Read on for a few takeaways from the latest step in their respective preparations.
Japan Proved Their Big-Game Reputation Is Not Unfounded
Friendly losses last month to Serbia (2-0) and Belarus (1-0) threatened to undermine Japan's burgeoning reputation as a team ready to take on big games and even bigger occasions.
The Samurai Blue made it to the Round of 16 for only the second time in their history at the 2010 World Cup. They followed that up with victory in the following year's Asia Cup, safely achieved qualification for Brazil 2014 and—despite a disappointing tournament overall—caught the eye by severely testing Italy at this past summer's Confederations Cup.
"At the moment it's more important to play well than to get results"—so said manager Alberto Zaccheroni prior to his team taking on the Netherlands, via ESPN FC. It is safe to say though, that the veteran Italian coach will be pleased by both the performance and the scoreline in Belgium.
Holland went unbeaten in their qualification group, beating second-place Romania by a comfortable nine point margin.
Despite the Dutch team's issues (more on which later), they are undoubtedly a contender for the World Cup.
The way Japan performed against them will provide a big confidence boost as they continue to prepare to try and achieve a best-ever finish at the World Cup.
Big-Name Players Give Japan Genuine Hope
Testament to Japan's growing status as a legitimate competitor on the world stage was the fact that—despite looking the inferior side—they continued to test Holland in the first half.
Up until Yuya Osako reduced the deficit, their threat mostly originated from the wings. Yuto Nagatomo consistently raced forward from left-back to attempt to cross. On the other side, the penetrating runs of attacker Shinji Okazaki certainly gave the Dutch cause for concern.
When Makoto Hasebe brilliantly turned, ran and fed in Osako to tuck it past Jasper Cillessen first time, it seemed to open up Zaccheroni's side to the possibility of finding ways through centrally too.
The spark that made Japan look so dangerous from both routes after the interval was the introduction of Yasuhito Endo and Shinji Kagawa.
Japan were not without some of their big-name players in the first half. Undoubtedly though, the arrival of this pair gave them a more comfortable, well-rounded look.
Keisuke Honda had struggled to get into the game previously, but clearly responded to having players around him more in tune to his wavelength.
He found Kagawa with a superbly-lofted ball over the Dutch defence on 50 minutes, the Manchester United player just running out of space after he had brought it down with his chest. Soon after, Kagowa and Endo combined to tee up Honda whose long-range shot came off the outside of the woodwork.
The greater fluency of Japan's attack was shown by their superb second goal.
Instigated by Atsuto Uchida, a rapid exchange of passes culminated in the full-back feeding Osako centrally in the box. The forward teed it up first time for Honda to convert.
They will need plenty of help besides, but when the likes of Kagawa and Honda are on-song, Japan are a genuinely exciting football team.
Dutch Attacking Quality Makes Up for Missing Forwards
Louis van Gaal was without several established strikers through injury for this game. Though the Netherlands manager had confirmed to ESPN FC that Robin van Persie would likely have been rested anyway, he was also without Klaas Jan-Huntelaar, Dirk Kuyt and Ricky van Wolfswinkel.
The versatile Siem De Jong started upfront instead. While the Ajax man offers considerable goal threat himself, he was undoubtedly the beneficiary of the wonderful talent around him.
In full-flow the Dutch attack is an overwhelming force, as shown by an Arjen Robben shot on 34 minutes that was the result of a swift-passing move that had involved several midfielders and attackers.
Within more specific combinations there was an understanding of how to support the lone striker De Jong, and make the most of the space around him.
In the case of the former, on 20 minutes Robben headed just over from Jeremain Lens' cross having ran in from his ring-wing berth to give his fellow winger a secondary target.
Robben's goal exemplified Holland's ability to take advantage of defenders marking nothing but space.
Rafael van der Vaart pinged a terrific volley passed out wide to Robben who drifted inside past several defenders before coolly placing his shot beyond the reach of Shusaku Nishikawa. Japan would make it harder for him to take them on later (particularly Nagamoto), but in this instance the Bayern Munich star gleefully strolled past the previously unoccupied defenders.
The Netherlands are better for having the prolific van Persie around. Van Gaal will, though, be grateful for having options beside his star striker.
Netherlands Midfield Might Struggle Against the World's Very Best
Bossing the game's opening 40 minutes, the Netherlands midfield looked unperturbed by anything Japan offered against them.
Rafael van der Vaart was at his sprightly best, up for a tussle and influentially bringing others into the game. Nigel De Jong was solid in front of his defence while Kevin Strootman ably floated between duties.
Going forward, Holland's midfield trio was the ideal support for the front three. Defensively they were far more suspect.
Osako's goal—in particular the brilliant work done by Hasebe—demonstrated the joy nimble and skillful midfielders can have operating in and around their Dutch counterparts.
Substituted at half-time, De Jong was missed as Endo, Honda and company began to hold sway.
On one occasion, Van der Vaart nearly found Siem De Jong with an audacious through ball. Almost immediately Japan were able to launch an attack of their own, culminating in an unmarked Kagawa receiving the ball, running at a back-pedaling defence and forcing a low save from Cillessen.
Holland eventually began to slow the frequency of Japanese attacks but were still susceptible. Yoichiro Kakitani should have given his team the lead after Kagawa yet again found a way through.
Van Gaal has time to work on his midfield. But seeing as how Japan's skillful and technically-gifted players were able to cause them problems, he will be seriously concerned at how they will deal with a legitimately world class midfield such as that possessed by Germany or Spain.
As a team, making the most of their natural attacking instincts while not overlooking their defensive responsibilities will be a priority for the Dutch heading into the World Cup.
Netherlands Are at an Interesting Crossroads Age-Wise
Louis van Gaal used this friendly as an opportunity to test several young, or emerging new candidates for consideration for the national team.
Jasper Cillessen was steady in goal. In front of him, Stefan de Vrij, Daley Blind and Jetro Willems found things a little more difficult as Japan upped the pressure in the second half, but did not look out of their depth.
The wonderfully named Memphis Depay showed glimpses of his ability to find a way past players after he replaced Siem De Jong in attack.
Some of these will be part of Holland's World Cup squad next summer, joined by other relative newcomers like the winger Lens and full-back Daryl Janmaat.
It is clear for the time being, though, that the pivotal players in this side remain the stars in and around the age of 30.
Van der Vaart was typically alert to take advantage of Maya Yoshida's slip and score his team's opener. As noted on the previous page, his influence extended to some great work creating for the team as a whole.
Robben was highly involved and van Persie will give any international defence a run for its money when he is fit.
What remains to be seen is, if the young players coming through do not quite have enough about them to seriously compete come next summer (at least not in every game), will the squad's experienced players be able to carry this team further?
You would not rule them out doing so. Nor the ability of a knowledgeable, successful coach like van Gaal to find the right ways to bring such performances out of them.
International Games Played Away from Home Continue to Make Little Sense
Whatever the reason for Japan-Netherlands taking place in Belgium, it was disappointing to see such a good game of football played in front of just 18,000 at the Cristal Arena.
This was a fair share of the ground's capacity, and the fans in attendance did make for an admirably atmospheric occasion.
Nonetheless, it is a shame to see another international meeting take place away from the home country of either side.
Money plays its part in this. In truth, even at home fans will not always respond to seeing their side play a match with nothing at stake.
However, this is a part of the modern game that does little for the health of international football.
Half-empty stadiums will hardly inspire players the calibre of Robben and Kagawa to want to represent their country if they feel like nobody cares anyway.