The four-time tournament winners go into another Asian Cup as favourites.
That’s despite a poor performance at the 2014 World Cup, where Japan were considered a serious contender for a deep run into the knock-out stages. Instead, Albert Zaccheroni’s side came away with a single point, finishing bottom of what had been a relatively even group.
This Asian Cup, then, has become about redemption: a chance for Japan to re-establish themselves as the continent’s top team (having won four of the last six tournaments), but also an opportunity for new coach Javier Aguirre to show he can take the side in a winning direction. Aguirre has extensive experience in La Liga and previously coached at the international level with Mexico in the 2010 World Cup, but doubts remain about his ability to take the side forward, especially after a recent match-fixing scandal lead to suggestions he might be sacked.
He’s still in charge, though, and hasn’t changed much from the World Cup side despite of spending much of his first six months in charge naming experimental squads drawn heavily from the J-League.
Japan’s strength lies in their European core, however. There’s a host of players in Germany’s Bundesliga, while the star of the side, Keisuke Honda, has been impressive since moving to AC Milan.
This is a technically excellent side, and they control possession reliably. They work it forward through midfield calmly and get their exciting attacking players on the ball in advanced, narrow positions – this creates space for the full-backs to bomb on, and Japan are most thrilling when both get forward at the same time to create width on both sides. However, they normally take it in turns.
Yuto Nagatomo will play his usual, energetic left-back role – he’s very good at carrying the ball at high speed, and sends in dangerous crosses.
On the opposite side, there’s normally Atsuto Uchia, but the Schalke right-back is sadly injured. Naomichi Ueda has been called up as a replacement, but Gotoku Sakai will take the vacant spot in the starting XI. Another mobile, nippy full-back capable of playing on either side, Sakai has had a good season at Stuttgart, making explosive runs forward. Defensively, though, Sakai’s quite weak, and opponents might look to try and target the space in behind him.
That’s Japan’s biggest problem – they’re simply not very good defenders. The centre-backs, Maya Yoshida (of Southampton) and Masato Morishige (of F.C Tokyo) are decent players, but are very weak in the air and regularly overcommit in 1v1s. Things have improved in this department since Aguirre took over, but Japan remain unconvincing at the back. Eiji Kawashima in goal exacerbates rather than fixes the problem: a good shot-stopper, but uncomfortable coming off his line to claim crosses.
In midfield, Aguirre has made a slight tweak away from 4-2-3-1, to a 4-3-3. This has seen Makoto Hasebe move into a slightly deeper position, where he holds his ground and distributes the ball forward calmly. His long-range diagonals are particularly dangerous, capable of picking out attackers running in behind a high line.
To his left is the veteran Yasuhito Endo, another deep-lying playmaker whose intelligent, prompting passes make Japan so creative in possession. There are question marks about Endo’s legs and he might not last all three games in nine days. To this end, Aguirre has experimented with using centre-back Yasuyuki Konno in midfield.
Completing the midfield triangle is Shinji Kagawa, normally used as a #10 but plays slightly deeper in this formation. Kagawa possesses a sensational change of pace and is excellent at leading counter-attacks. He’s had a rough few years at Manchester United and now Borussia Dortmund, but remains one of the stars of this side.
Aguirre is flexible with this midfield unit, so it’s entirely possible Kagawa plays further forward, with two holding midfielders behind him in the usual 4-2-3-1.
On the right is Honda. He comes short towards the play and then drives towards goal, and is more of a dribbler than Kagawa. He plays quite narrow on the right and obviously prefers a central position, and there’s question marks about whether this 4-3-3 gets the best out of him. Still, he’ll pick up goals and assists, and takes the free-kicks and penalties (which are probably more memorable than they are effective).
On the left is a new addition to the side, the exciting Yoshinori Muto. A quick, direct wide forward, he’ll cut inside from a wide position and is capable of scoring goals, with 13 in 33 appearances this season for F.C Tokyo.
Muto’s ability to score goals has partly alleviated a long-standing concern about Japan’s lack of a genuine number 9. In that position, they now have Shinji Okazaki, who has recently been moved from wide right to upfront. He’s a cool finisher that sprints in behind the opposition defence, and links play nicely. Takashi Inui is another option – a lightning fast dribbler who’s been in fine form for Eintracht Frankfurt this season.
Japan have a strong starting XI, good chemistry and the best depth of any side in this tournament. Weaknesses exist, but they are deservingly the clear favourites.