[Image from FIFA.com]
In this post, I am going to frankly write about my opinions regarding the Japan-UAE match that just finished.
1. Starting CM Ohshima
Giving Ohshima his debut as a member of the starting 11 was a huge risk on Manager Halilhodžić’s part, and I am afraid that his gamble failed. Ohshima did not have a terrible game, but if I had to rate him on a scale of 1-10, I give him a 4.0. The majority of Ohshima’s passes were simple and did not travel more than 10 meters. He did not keep good spacing between other players, he was indecisive about where to go on the pitch, and these things are extremely important for a deep lying playmaker, which is the role he had to fill. I do not blame Ohshima for his performance because I do believe he did his best to contribute to the team. The responsibility falls on the shoulders of Manager Halilhodžić, as I mentioned earlier.
2. Player Selection – Attackers
In a previous post where I previewed tonight’s match, I posted my starting 11. Here it is for reference.
My Starting 11
Except for Kiyotake playing in the LW position instead of the CAM position, Kagawa playing CAM instead of RW, Honda play RW instead of CM, and Ohshima in CM, my starting eleven is quite similar to Manager Halilhodžić’s starting eleven. However, it is only similar ON PAPER. When you go into the details about tactics and player chemistry, it is quite different.
Before being substituted in the 2nd half, I thought that Kiyotake was one of Japan’s best players on the pitch (I will touch upon this later in this post). He assisted Honda’s goal from a very accurate free kick and his touches and passes were dangerous. Imagine if he were in the CAM position and keeping close control of the ball and combining with other attackers from the middle of the park. Japan would have had at least 5 more scoring chances, and this is not an understatement.
Usami came on for Kiyotake in the 2nd half, which was bitter sweet. I would rather see these two players play together. Usami’s play in the 2nd half is exactly what I would expect to see from him. He was very aggressive going forward towards goal, but he was also able to combine well with his fellow attackers. He has something that few players on the national team can do: take defenders on one-v-one. This is something that Japan needed more of against a team that forms a block to defend. If one attacker is able to beat a defender one-v-one, this means another defender will have to shift over to put pressure on this attack, and this means that another attacker will be open. This hardly happened until Usami came on the pitch.
Utterly disappointing. He is a shadow of his past self. He could not combine with his teammates, he could not create opportunities, he had no field presence. This is why he should not play CAM for the national team. He is not the type of player to bring others into the game UNLESS he is surrounded by talented players (like he is at Dortmund).
Besides his goal, his play was mediocre. Like I mentioned in a previous post, Honda does not have the speed necessary to play out on the flank. He gets isolated too much; so, he has a tendency to drift into the center of the pitch too early. If he played next to Hasebe in a deeper position, Japan would have had much more stability, which is something they needed especially after they fell behind. Not only this, but if Honda plays deeper in midfield, it gives him acres of more space to work his magic because he is a good player.
Not much to say about Okazaki. He did not have any service so he could not do anything. As usual, he gave 100%. He would press, press, and press, but movement from other players were not fast enough or they were not in the right position; so, all of Okazaki’s efforts went to waste.
3. Player Ratings: (1-10)
GK: 12 Shusaku Nishikawa 6.0
RB: 19 Hiroki Sakai 6.5
CB: 22 Maya Yoshida 5.5
CB: 6 Masato Morishige 6.0
LB: 21 Gotoku Sakai 7.5
CM: 7 Ryota Ohshima 4.0 ➡︎ 5.0 
CM: 17 Makoto Hasebe (Captain) 5.5 ➡︎ 5.0 
RW: 4 Keisuke Honda 6.0
CAM: 10 Shinji Kagawa 5.0
LW: 13 Hiroshi Kiyotake 6.5
FW: 9 Shinji Okazaki 5.5
FW 11 Takashi Usami 6.0
FW 18 Takuma Asano 6.0
FW 8 Genki Haraguchi 6.0
4. Gotoku Sakai
Gotoku Sakai was an absolute beast tonight. He was Japan’s best player tonight. He was solid on defense and he was dangerous on the attack. Honestly, he is a better all-around left back than Nagatomo is. One big reason I say this is because Gotoku Sakai has better crossing and dribbling skills than Nagatomo. These attributes are important because Japan implements attacking wing backs.
5. Formation After Substitutions
After putting in 3 forwards in the 2nd half, Manager Halilhodžić did not change his formation, which I think is a huge mistake that did not get the best out of his players. This is what I would have done after adding Usami, Asano, and Haraguchi to the match:
I would have gone to a 4-3-3 formation with Hasebe playing a CDM, Kagawa and Honda at CM/CAM, Haraguchi at RF, Usami at LF, and Asano at FW. I would have RB Hiroki Sakai and LB Gotoku Sakai play the same way they were playing all game: own the flanks.
Instead of having his players play in their natural positions Manager Halilhodžić straight-swapped Haraguchi in for Ohshima and Haraguchi, a natural FW, in at CM.
6. Asano’s ghost goal
In the 77th minute, RB Hiroki Sakai sent a cross toward the far post in the penalty area where Keisuke Honda was. Honda headed the ball back across the face of goal where Asano was, and Asano hit the ball on a volley and, in live-action, it looked to be a goal. After watching goal-line replays, the ball did cross the line, but the referees did not make the call. Bad luck on Japan’s side.
Tonight’s lost was a culmination of multiple things I mentioned above.
Here’s another interesting fact.
Teams who lost their opening match of this qualifying round in Asia, HAVE NEVER QUALIFIED FOR THE WORLD CUP. Can Japan rewrite the history books?
Anyway, Japan does not have time to dwell on this loss. They will be traveling to Thailand to play their next match.