Observing the Enemy: Japan (part 2)

In part 1 of OtE, we took a look at Japan’s three Confederation Cup matches (against Brazil, Italy, and Mexico). In this part, we’ll examine Japan’s strengths and weaknesses in more detail, compare to how Korea uses their strengths and weaknesses, and see if there are any lessons that can be taken.

Japanese Strengths – Fullbacks

Let’s start with the fullbacks. Japan usually starts with Atsuto Uchida on the right and Yuto Nagatomo on the left. Uchida is 25 years old and plays for Schalke in the Bundesliga where he starts regularly. Nagatomo is 26 years old and plays for Inter Milan in Serie A. Nagatomo was a part-time starter for Inter as then head coach Andrea Stramaccioni was switching Inter’s defense from a back four (where Nagatomo was used) to a back three (where he was not).

Uchida is a fairly typical right back who likes to overlap a midfielder in front of him. Nagatomo is a bit more unusual in that he is right footed, and prefers to cut inside to get the ball onto his right. Nagatomo’s use as a fullback and not as a wingback was slightly unusual in that Nagatomo tends to fit the wingback bill a bit more. He is very attack-minded and has lots of energy. It is likely due to his occasional defensive lapses that he was not utilized in that way by Inter.

In Japan’s system both fullbacks are expected to provide the width for the team, since Kagawa, who often starts on the left, prefers to drift more centrally, as does Okazaki who has started on the right more. When it works, like against Italy, the fullbacks are both potentially very dangerous from the wings, with both capable of playing in good crosses.

Japanese Strengths – Central Midfield

In the center of the park, Japan has two quality midfielders in Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo. Hasebe is a defensive midfielder who plays for Wolfsburg, and Endo is a central deep-lying playmaker for Gamba Osaka. Both players are highly experienced, with Endo being Japan’s most capped player with 133 caps (Hasebe has 70 caps). Together they form a solid partnership that complements each other well with Hasebe doing the defensive work and Endo spreading the play.

Japanese Strengths – Shinji Kagawa

The other Asian player of the year, after a brilliant season with Borussia Dortmund, Kagawa moved to Manchester United were he had a decent first season as Sir Alex Ferguson tried to find where he could fit him in. Similarly, Zaccheroni has tried to find the best place for the playmaker in the Japanese side.

Kagawa, while having goal scoring capability, is best as a pure number 10 (a similar “bigger name” player would be someone like Mesut Ozil). A player who operates between the lines (between the midfield and defense) and looks to play decisive balls to the forward or wide attacking midfielders. Which makes how he’s been used for Japan lately an interesting look. Japan’s front attacking four usually consists of Kagawa, plus Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki, and one of Ryoichi Maeda or Hiroshi Kiyotake. Okazaki and Maeda are forwards, Honda is a support striker, and Kiyotake is an attacking midfielder.

The way Japan has usually lined up, Okazaki has dropped to the right midfield with Maeda up top. That leaves the left midfield and center midfield position for Kagawa, Honda, and Kiyotake. Kiyotake, being the younger and less experienced of the three, is often the one left out (although he is a more natural wide player than say, Okazaki). Leaving the question of who to put centrally and who to play wide. The decision seems to be one where Zaccheroni is hoping that putting Honda in his preferred spot is enough to overcome having Kagawa in a less desirable position. It also may be due to the fact that Honda is quite ineffective when used wide.

But putting Kagawa on the wing has produced mixed results in the Confederations Cup. Against Brazil and Mexico, who featured strong wing play, Kagawa was a marginal player. Often needing to drop back to help defend, which didn’t allow him to play those deadly through balls. That in contrast to the Italy game where he was regularly allowed time and space to get forward and play those passes. Certainly it seems like Zac needs to start thinking about how to get more from Kagawa on a regular basis.

Japanese Weaknesses – No Plan B

Japan’s biggest problem seems to be that they are not capable of imposing their will on stronger teams that don’t play into their hands. On paper, Brazil and Italy are stronger than Japan while Mexico is about equal. Yet it was hard to really distinguish any real tactical changes between the three matches with the exception of where Japan pressed (deep against Brazil, high against Italy, mixed against Mexico). Aside from that the general shape and ball movement was essentially the same. Which would seem to indicate that either Japan is quite confident in their ability to successfully execute against any opposition or they quite simply don’t have the players to play a different way. I suspect it’s the latter. If this is the case than Japanese opponents would be well-advised to seek play down the wings as it appears to nullify all three Japanese strengths.

Japanese Weaknesses – Goals From the Striker?

Another problem would seem to the lack of a true goalscorer. While Okazaki’s record is good (36 goals in 67 appearances), he’s not really a very effective lone forward, probably most clearly evidenced by the fact that Zaccheroni is willing to move him to the wide midfield position. Maeda’s record isn’t as good as Okazaki’s (10 in 33), but he offers a bit more at the position in terms of movement and hold up play. Japan’s third striker is Mike Havenaar. A player of Dutch heritage whose parents are naturalized Japanese citizens. In a strange connection, Havenaar’s father (Dido Havenaar) is the goalkeeping coach for Jung Sung-Ryong at Suwon. Havenaar has only made 16 appearances for the Japanese senior side, and he is a bit of a plodding, standard center forward. Tall, strong, but a bit slow.

Comparing Strengths

There are similarities between Korea’s and Japan’s strengths with one exception. That would be fullback. While Kim Chang-Soo did a passable job, it’s hard to describe him as a true international quality fullback. Left back remains open with Park Joo-Ho not making an appearance in the last qualifiers and Yoon Suk-Young disappearing from sight. It’s hard to see Kim Chi-Woo staying the starter. But for the other two strengths they are similar. Central midfield is a strong point for Korea, with the likes of Ki Sung-Yueng, Koo Ja-Cheol and Kim Bo-Kyung providing quality attacking options. We don’t have an experienced defensive midfielder like Hasebe, but between Han Kook-Young and Park Jong-Woo I feel the future is bright.

While their playing styles are quite different, both have a supremely talented player in attack. Kagawa for Japan, and Son Heung-Min for us. The main difference is that Kagawa has been better utilized for Japan than we have used Son. However, I feel that Kagawa’s skill set is easier to adapt to a team than Son’s is.

In that sense, I feel that the Kagawa-Son comparison is a microcosm of the Japan-Korea comparison in that, Japan has done a better job of playing to their strengths. Japan’s team is designed to allow Hasebe and Endo to dictate the play from central midfield, let Nagatomo and Uchida get forward to supply width, and Kagawa to play the final passes. I believe that this will be Hong Myeong-Bo’s most important task. To really find that playing identity for Korea.

Comparing Weaknesses

Again, there are similarities here between enemies. While it could be argued that Korea lacks a plan A, it certainly doesn’t have a plan B. It’s not as obvious at this point given that we haven’t played a strong, quality opponent since Croatia, but there is no plan B. It will be important for Korea to develop a way to play given that sides will mark Son tightly, and also Ki Sung-Yueng too.

The lack of a forward has been well documented. Somehow Hong will need to find out how to adjust Son to a center forward role, or hope that he can get Park Chu-Young back to something that resembles his old self (or possibly Ji Dong-Won to re-find his AFC Championship form).

Lessons to Learn

Even though Korea didn’t make the trip to Brazil this summer, there are still things to learn.

Lesson 1: Be respectful, but not too much – In their first game, Japan showed Brazil too much respect. While it’s highly possible (and likely) that Japan would have lost anyway, the huge amount of respect they showed the Brazilians (by conceding so much space and possession) didn’t give them any chance. It will be important for Korea to show respect to bigger countries’ talent, but not so much that it seems like they have no faith in their ability to get a result.

Lesson 2: Seek opponent weaknesses – This may seem like an obvious lesson, but it strikes me that most of the time Korea (and Japan) are more concerned about using their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. If the Confederations Cup showed anything, it’s that when teams look to capitalize on opponent weaknesses, they are often rewarded. See Japan’s excellent performance against a narrow Italy side. Or Italy and Brazil looking to attack Spain with purpose and pace.

Lesson 3: Put your best player in a position where he can make a difference – Japan’s most talented overall player is Shinji Kagawa without doubt. But in Brazil he had one great game, one okay game, and one poor game. I think this has a lot to do with his position. Against Italy he had space and was in an advanced position, so he had a great game. Against Brazil he had space, but wasn’t quite as advanced, so he had an okay game. Against Mexico, he had less space and wasn’t very advanced, so he had a poor game. The lesson? Don’t play Son Heung-Min on the wing. Otherwise I feel he will be very much like Kagawa. Occasionally influential, but often not.


Honestly, despite all the talk about the huge gap in quality that has opened up between Korea and Japan, I think it’s smaller than most think. Yes, if the two played tomorrow Japan would win. But in terms of pure player talent and ability, it’s quite equal. Japan’s only real advantage is at fullback. If Korea can get their discipline back, and some solid tactical instructions, I think we’re back to that semi-final match. Evenly balanced.

About Jae Chee 339 Articles
A football fan who got bit by the writing bug.

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