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World Cup 2014 Expert Interview: Japan’s attacking ability, defensive frailty, and more

As part of our World Cup coverage, we have interviewed journalists, correspondents, experts & writers representing each of the 32 countries to give you, the readers, a better understanding of the 32 nations participating in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Here are the list of interviewees.

Japan World Cup Interview

For this interview, focusing on Japan, we spoke to Angus Macleod. He’s the founder of and a regular on Japanese football podcast, J-Talk. Follow him on twitter @japangus and his website at @japanfooty.

Japan have looked excellent going forward, with the dual forces of Kagawa and Honda doing very well in attack. But the defence seems a bit shaky. This was on show at the Confederations Cup last year. How important is it to fix this, or should Japan stick to their guns?

The issues with the defence have been a long-standing feature of Alberto Zaccheroni’s Japan, and I can’t see them performing well defensively. If you look at the centre-backs that have been selected, it’s a real worry, and frankly there isn’t a great deal of confidence that this defence will stand up to pressure.  Going forward, Japan are capable of playing some lovely football.  They might not have the most physical forward line at the tournament, but they certainly have a lot of quick-footed, skillful players in attacking positions, so don’t be surprised to see sudden counter-attacking moves reap dividends.

Japan are arguably the best Asian team, and consistent qualification for the World Cup is proof of the fact. But despite the presence of so many top players, and consistent qualification, we haven’t seen Japan go on a long run like South Korea, or Ghana recently. Why do you think this is and what needs to be done?

I think it’s better to look at Japan’s performances in isolation.  It’s very tempting to compare your performance to other nations, especially regional rivals like South Korea, but if you look at how the Japanese national team has performed in relation to the players that they had at their disposal, they haven’t really done that badly at the World Cup.  Of course there have been some disappointments, but if you look at the World Cup’s in which Japan has participated, the results have probably reflected the overall ability of the squads they have had at the time.

The Samurai Blue have been producing fantastic young talent on a consistent basis over the last few years. What’s the secret to their success? How important a part has the J-League played in this regard?

The setting up of a professional league was hugely influential.  It generated a lot of interest, as did the co-hosting of the World Cup.  In many ways, the fact that professional football does not have a long history in Japan is a huge advantage for youth coaches here, as they do not have to battle against any deeply ingrained football philosophies that are odds with what they are trying to achieve.  The JFA deserves huge credit for the investment they’ve made in youth football, but I also feel that the culture has really helped too.  Many Japanese traditional pastimes, and even the language itself, have a strong emphasis on repetition in order to obtain perfection, so it’s no real surprise to see that control and technique are among the strongest attributes of Japanese football.

Both Maya Yoshida & Makoto Hasebe have had injury troubles and may not be fully fit, Shinji Kagawa has barely got a look in at Manchester United. Taking into consideration these issues, who does Zaccheroni have lined up to replace them?

It’s likely that both Yoshida and Hasebe will feature, but you have to wonder about the latter, given that he has had two knee operations recently.  I would be surprised if he is at his best.  Recently Hotaru Yamaguchi has been gaining a lot of admirers for his performances in the midfield area, and he could be one of the real stars to emerge from this World Cup side if he is selected.  Kagawa’s lack of playing time at Old Trafford has not been an issue for Zaccheroni during the World Cup build-up, so I would expect him to be a starting member unless injured.

Speaking of Alberto Zaccheroni, the Italian obviously has years of experience which he has translated into the Japanese national team. What has his impact been on the side?

After winning the Asian Cup in 2011, confidence was at an all-time high, but his inflexibility has put a lot of people off him since.  Many fans are unhappy at his continual selection of underperforming European-based stars at the expense of in-form J.League talents, and some were even calling for him to be fired after losses to Serbia and Belarus last year.

2014 FIFA World Cup Group C

We at Outside of the Boot track the progress of youngsters under our Talent Radar feature. The current squad doesn’t have any player that qualifies for the feature. We were a bit disappointed Takumi Minamino didn’t make the final cut. Was that a fair exclusion? What could he have brought to the side?

He is a hugely exciting player, but there are a lot of options on the left flank.  Within the squad, Shinji Kagawa, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Yoichiro Kakitani and Manabu Saito are all very capable of occupying that position, and there are several other talents in the J.League that have impressed in that particular area of the field.

This World Cup contains plenty of groups of death, Japan’s too can be considered as such due to the equality in ability among the teams. Zaccheroni’s men will fancy their chances of progressions. Realistically where do you see them going till? What are expectations among supporters?

Yes, it’s going to be an interesting group to watch, with some lovely contrasting styles of football.  I think it will be very tough, but not impossible to progress.  Given they will face either Italy, England, Uruguay or Costa Rica in the Second Round, I can’t really see them getting into the Quarter-finals, but who knows?  Nobody thought Japan stood a chance of getting out of their group last time around.

Read all our World Cup Interviews here, and all other WC2014 related content here.

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