Your Biggest Enemy is…

You have to love to score.

You have to love to score.

After seeing Shinji Kagawa wasted too many chances (many he created perfectly) in the Champions League match against Real Sociedad, I tweeted that he experienced the classic Japanese problem of passing, not shooting. A Dutchman didn’t take this well and reminded me of Shunsuke Nakamura and Keisuke Honda.

Of course, the Kings of Asia don’t become the best of Asia (now still are, with Australia in decline, but well Australia won their last friendly, unlike Japan) by passing and winning penalty shootouts. By the time Kagawa scored almost 20 goals for Dortmund (2011-12) and Honda scored 9 goals for CSKA  (2012-13), I thought we had been through that.

Honda’s shortcomings are evident when playing with Japan this year, as he becomes the designated central attacking midfielder behind the striker (pushing Kagawa to the left flank). Still, in this position he has scored six times for Japan this year, but he should have scored more – against Australia, Mexico, Uruguay, and of course in the last dreadful friendlies against Serbia and Belarus. Even it seems that he has past his prime in CSKA, although that also has to do with his decision to move next year (he made the assist in the infamous CSKA 1 Manchester City 2 match).

As for Nakamura, I forgot that he was also a terrible shooter for Japan – the right midfielder, and one of best free kick takers in the world in the last decade, had not scored more than 3 goals in every major competitions since 2003 (meaning he scored 3 goals in 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup, and scored 1-2 goals in every Confed Cup, Asian Cup, and World Cup since then).

Lionel Messi, Oscar, and Neymar prove that body mass is not a big factor in being a deadly attacker. Even Japan have got its dream mecha in the form of Mike Havenaar, but he regularly becomes a substitute that comes in the last three minutes for Japan. Last semester he had to wait for Maeda, this semester for Kakitani.

I got the clue on what’s going on when reading on Li Na’s preparation for the WTA Championship final against Serena Williams. Li’s coach Carlos Rodriguez said that she needs to have more confidence, and Li said that’s been her career-long problem, lack of self-confidence.

There you have it. She can be the first Asian Grand Slam champion of our time and constantly participates in the WTA Tour Championship, but permanently takes herself as the underdog. She’s not alone, and most Asian athletes experience the same problem. The global media, of course, take the Asian athletes as the underdogs. The Asian athletes take themselves as the underdogs not only because of lack of self-confidence, but because they were raised and trained differently to their African and Latin counterparts. The group think, the suppression of individuality, and the overemphasis on team identity.

The Korean national team presents an interesting case – not long after Ki Sung-yueng was booed by fans and suspended for complaining against coach Choi Kang-hee (some fans demanded worse punishment), the coach himself and new star Son Heung-min talked trash to Iran, and humiliated themselves during the match. The trash talking itself was pretty out of character – but well, it was a case of sanctioned group think, as opposed to Ki’s personal statement.

So I think the reason that Kagawa was reluctant to shoot was because he was so aware of his role as a left midfielder. He wanted to provide assists to Rooney, and even seemed to have some last thoughts that affected his power and decisiveness. When he scores, he wants it to be as a result of team effort and according to his role – that’s why he was comfortable to become a second line attacker in Dortmund. This is a man who scored a beautiful volley against Italy in the Confed Cup, and at that time he had the conviction that the team work phase had been completed.

And the myriad of Japanese strikers who failed to make it big? Maybe their skills were not that good compared to the midfielders (same goes to the Australians, while Korea are supposed to have better forwards…but yeah, they have bad mentalities). Maybe they have become victims of the public and JFA’s pressures to find the suitable striker and cannot hold on their position for more than six months. Certainly Japan need to ditch the lone forward formation and put in two. Just make sure that they do not end up passing the ball to each other*.

 

*good thing Okazaki and Havenaar scored for their teams last weekend, with Okazaki scored his first brace in Germany.

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Keep Calm and Freak On

For the team, put in a goalkeeper who has the safest pair of hands in Belgium, a versatile side defender who delivers mean crosses in Serie A, a pair of above average attacking midfielder – one who has journalists and Manchester United supporters behind him in his feud against David Moyes, and another who stays on with chilly Moscow for at least three seasons. For the forward – a young talent who tore down Manchester United defense in an exhibition and was certainly the most hated Japanese in Korea (after Prime Minister Abe) last July.

And what do you have? A team who cannot score. The best team in the continent who are on their seventh loss this year.  Against a decent European side who do not qualify to Brazil 14.

It was just not Japan’s night. At least they were not Australia or Hungary. They lost to the same score to Korea the next night.

But well, alright, maybe after all I am among those who overrate Japan. If they were in Europe (Kazakhstan and Israel do), they will not qualify to World Cup either, just like Serbia. Actually they are as strong as Serbia according to this month’s FIFA ranking, so there. Otherwise, they are still comparable to other losers of the European qualification – Norway, Czech Republic, and well…Romania…who still have a slim chance to qualify.

So, what do we make of the prominence of Japanese players in European clubs? Individually, some of them are exceptional – Kagawa, Honda, and Nagatomo. Below them, Kawashima, Uchida, Kiyotake, and probably Havenaar.

Now comparing with Serbia: the defense play in top tier English clubs. Some of them play together with the Samurai – Subotic with Kagawa (this is a past and future statement), Tosic with Honda, and Kuzmanovic with Nagatomo. Serbia’s strongest point lie in its defense, while Japan’s is in its attacking midfielder.

So what’s the difference? Serbian players, apart from the defense, do not play in European giants themselves. Tadic and Jojic, the goal scorers, played for Twente and Partizan respectively. But Japanese players beside Kagawa and Nagatomo, are essentially demoted. From Wolfsburg to Nuremberg. Stuttgart to Mainz. Southampton to Tokyo.

Secondly, the dreadful 4-2-3-1. Which forces Kagawa and Okazaki to play in sides, while Japan can certainly do better with Okazaki and Kakitani up front with Honda and Kagawa behind them. It can certainly could have helped them dealing with Ivanovic and Nastatic better. Eleven years on, and I still cannot understand why Japan think they can win with single striker.

So, Japan’s next international match is again Belarus, the bottom of Group I in this World Cup qualification. Which they have to win – big. Sometimes I get sleepless nights thinking about Japan meeting Belgium in Brazil.

Now, what about Korea?  Well, nothing much you can do with Brazil enforced by Neymar and Oscar. Apart from the shunned Park Chu-young, Korea have got everyone, including Ki Sung-yong. With 4-4-1-1, it’s arguable that they have employed two forwards. What they need to do now is to defeat Mali next Tuesday. This year they only have won three times out of twelve matches. They simply have no one in the caliber of Kagawa and Honda – Son Heung-min’s father preferred him to spend more time with clubs than with the Devils. Actually I might have to be worried about Korea more than Japan – I might be standing up for them on Guardian Football Fans’ Network next year, and again I want and need to perform better than Japan.

Actually this is an interesting situation: Japan have better players but Korea have better clubs. Hm, at least the situation isn’t as hard (and painful) as Australia’s.