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Friday, Sept. 5, 2008
Utilizing strong midfield key to success for Japan
With Japan still struggling for firepower with the final World Cup qualification round getting under way against Bahrain on Saturday night, a new wind blowing around Europe could help lighten the load.
A chronic shortage of top-class strikers has long been Japan's Achilles heel, and performances since qualification for South Africa began back in February have not inspired much confidence that the problem will go away soon.
Manager Takeshi Okada has tried various personnel in attack — with varying levels of success — but has largely stuck with the basic formation of two strikers leading the line.
The overwhelming evidence from June's European Championship, however, suggests Okada is being left behind by the trends of modern soccer.
Almost every team in Austria and Switzerland played with just one striker up front, but packed their midfields with technical players capable of launching dynamic and incisive attacks.
At its most fluent, the Netherlands demonstrated that such a system would not leave frontman Ruud van Nistelrooy isolated, as midfielders Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and Dirk Kuijt swept forward at every opportunity to share the goal scoring burden.
Germany was far more effective when manager Joachim Loew ditched the misfiring Mario Gomez in favor of an extra midfielder, allowing Michael Ballack more freedom to roam behind main striker Miroslav Klose.
Spain, one of the few teams that did play with two strikers, did so because its wealth of attacking options meant Fernando Torres and David Villa were just too good to be left out.
The formation delivered Spain its first title for 44 years, but applying the same logic to Japan's strikers as to Torres and Villa is not going to get Okada anywhere.
Following in Europe's tactical footsteps would, however, appear to make sense not just because of Japan's shortcomings in attack, but also because of its strength in midfield.
Of the squad Okada has taken to Bahrain, Shunsuke Nakamura, Daisuke Matsui, Yasuhito Endo and Kengo Nakamura are all skilled technicians capable of unlocking defenses, and Yasuyuki Konno, Makoto Hasebe and Junichi Inamoto offer athleticism and defensive solidity.
Yuki Abe plays better in midfield than he does in his usual defensive position, and absent national team regulars Keita Suzuki and Koji Yamase are excellent options in the center of the park.
A good crop of young midfielders is also knocking on the door of the senior squad, and to top it off, Mitsuo Ogasawara, arguably the best midfielder in the J. League, has been out of the international picture since the last World Cup despite pulling the strings for reigning champion Kashima Antlers.
With so much talent in one department, Okada's squad carries a decidedly lopsided feel, but packing the midfield need not stifle the team's attacking instinct.
Indeed, with the responsibility of scoring heaped onto the midfielders' shoulders, it may even force them to take more shots on goal rather than constantly look to make one more pass to a player stationed further forward.
The success of such a formation depends on the personnel available, but Japan has midfielders such as Konno, Inamoto and, when fit, Suzuki, who are capable of providing a safe platform for their teammates to be more adventurous.
Seiichiro Maki has many faults as a striker, and a header attempt that actually ended up going away from the opposition goal rather than toward it in Japan's last match against Bahrain serves as a cruel but telling example.
Nonetheless, the JEF United man is excellent at holding up the ball and working hard for his teammates, and if midfielders are streaming forward in support, Maki could well prove a better choice as a lone target man than the more fragile Hisato Sato, Keiji Tamada, Masashi Oguro or Tatsuya Tanaka.
With vital World Cup points at stake against Bahrain in Manama on Saturday, Okada might consider it unwise to implement major changes at such a delicate stage.
But much has been made of Japan's dearth of international-class attackers, and the manager himself has chided his frontmen for lacking the killer instinct in front of goal.
So if the root of Japan's problems lies with the strikers, maybe the easiest answer would be to play to the team's strengths and simply not bother using them at all.