Tighe's 2014 World Cup Tactics Board: Analysing Alberto Zaccheroni's Japan

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Tighe's 2014 World Cup Tactics Board: Analysing Alberto Zaccheroni's Japan
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Welcome to the latest edition of our World Cup tactics board, where we look at each nation that has qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

This time around, we've studied Japan, the first team (barring hosts Brazil) to qualify for the finals courtesy of a strong qualifying campaign under Alberto Zaccheroni.

 

Qualifying

Japan entered the AFC World Cup qualifiers at the third stage thanks to their 2011 FIFA World Ranking of 11th in the world.

They landed in Group C and underwhelmed to begin with, eventually qualifying for the fourth stage in second place, a remarkable six points behind Uzbekistan.

In the next stage they managed to avoid Iran, Uzbekistan and South Korea by landing in Group B, and they lost just one game (away to Jordan) and qualified rather early.

The goals were shared out pretty heavily during that final phase, with Keisuke Honda (five), Shinji Okazaki (three), Ryoichi Maeda (three), Shinji Kagawa (two) and Yuzo Kurihara (two) all hitting the back of the net.

 

Formation and Style

Japan are a pass-first, technical team and have been since the rise of Hidetoshi Nakata at the 1998 World Cup in France.

The crowd pay to see ball-on-the-deck slick passing and great first touches. Japanese players are often physically limited, and that has played a big part in carving out their de facto "style" of play.

Alberto Zaccheroni tends to favour the 4-2-3-1 formation as standard, though he has known to venture into the Christmas tree business against tougher, more centrally powerful opponents.

The attacks start with the defensive midfielders, who are comfortable with travelling laterally with the ball at their feet. They move from side to side, searching for options and opening up the pitch to allow the outlets to find space to drop into.

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The full-backs Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo are important, but the key man on the ball for the Samurai Blue is Keisuke Honda. Playing in the No. 10 role, he belies his club form for Milan and appears their most valuable and important player.

Once the ball reaches the final third, they begin moving it with lightning speed, making darting runs and playing quick one-two's and three-four's. The goal is to weave their way into the penalty box despite congestion—partly because it's how they like to play, but partly because it's the only way they can.

Defensively, they press in patches, and the 2013 Confederations Cup showed they can only manage an on-and-off high press in the humid, intimate heat of Brazil.

The midfield two of Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo drop in a well-organised, sharp fashion off the ball to shield their defensive line, then slide across fluidly as opponents try to find a way around them. They appear overly conscious of the team's weakness at centre-back.

Honda drops from the No. 10 position in to form a 2-1 in midfield as his colleagues get deeper, filling the gap and providing an outlet for the first ball out of defence. The Samurai Blue can be a real counterattacking threat, too.

 

Reasons for Hope

Japan play some lovely stuff, and opponents can submit to their will after a while, trotting around in a daze as pass after pass after pass is completed.

Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

They have the ideal make-up for tournament football, being able to control the flow of the game, dominate possession and restrict the number of chances the opposition have.

This makes any game involving Japan either a tight affair or a free-for-all in front of goal; every game is entertaining to watch, and the neutrals should tack onto them pretty quickly.

The full-back position boasts immense quality and depth, and Zaccheroni could easily field four full-backs (bringing in the Sakais) if it made for a legitimate formation. Their width is always excellent, stretching the play and pushing both Nagatomo and Uchida on as far as the opponent's box.

 

Reasons for Concern

On their day, if the attacking execution lines up from the off, Japan can beat any team in football. But their issue is similar to that of Jorge Sampaoli's Chile: They frequently failed to kill off games they're so clearly dominating.

It stems from a rich history of drab, subpar forward play, as while the Samurai Blue produce ball-playing No. 10s and flying full-backs like no tomorrow, they can't seem to find a striker to hang their hat on.

Shinji Okazaki had a great season for Mainz, becoming the highest-ever scoring Japanese player in Bundesliga history (seasonal), and was the AFC's top goalscorer during qualifying for the 2014 finals with eight goals.

Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

But he's never 100 percent convinced on the biggest of stages, and there's a chance he's moved to the right wing (for Yoichiro Kakitani) as regular qualifier Ryoichi Maeda missed the squad.

With Zaccheroni unable to bank on his strikers for goals, goalscoring No. 10s are automatically favoured as they are required to chip in. This means players like Hiroshi Kiyotake are rarely gifted a start.

Centre-back is the other worry, as when you regard a half-fit Maya Yoshida as your best bet in that position, you're in for a nervy, bumpy ride. Yasuyuki Konno provides experience, but not height.

 

Conclusion

Japan face Ivory Coast, Colombia and Greece in Group C for the finals: an eclectic mix of styles and templates; a true test of philosophy vs. philosophy over the course of 90 minutes.

The worry is that the Samurai Blue get outmuscled by CIV, held at arm's length by a superior Cafeteros side and stifled by a negative, disciplined Greek outfit.

It could all go so right, but could easily fall to pieces for Zaccheroni. We're plumping for a few victories, though, and for the Japanese to qualify second from Group C.

Prediction: Round of 16 finish

 

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