Becoming Japanese: Zaccheroni’s Shift to Attacking Soccer


AC Milan’s Honda Keisuke stabs home his second goal of the night during a World Cup warm-up against Zambia (© Jiji Press).

Having closed the curtain on a last-minute training camp in Florida, the Japan men’s national soccer team is now in Brazil gearing up for a fifth consecutive appearance in the FIFA World Cup finals. In their final warm up to the tournament on June 6, the squad pulled off a dramatic 4–3 come-from-behind win against 2012 African Cup of Nations winner Zambia, making it five consecutive wins for “Zack Japan,” as the national team is affectionately known.

Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni, the “Zack” in the nickname, is making his World Cup debut at the Brazil tournament. The nation is anxious to see how the Italian has molded the team since taking the reins in the fall of 2010.

Uncertain Results

In a similar fashion to the 3–1 win against Costa Rica earlier in the camp, Japan struggled against Zambia and had to play catchup after allowing two first-half goals, the first of which was conceded only nine minutes into the match. Goals from key players Honda Keisuke, Kagawa Shinji, and surprise call-up Ōkubo Yoshito allowed Zaccheroni’s men to salvage a win, but the result leaves little to cheer about as Japan fell behind early and failed to keep Zambia from repeatedly finding the back of the net.

Zaccheroni took his squad’s performance in stride, showing neither overt satisfaction nor disappointment. “We can’t defend like that,” he said. “We’ll have to make adjustments before the World Cup.” Talking about the team’s overall performance, Zaccheroni commented, “The team has a logic and the players weren’t able to play today according to that logic. Even though we won, I’m not satisfied. Each match is its own story, though, and that was the story for today.”

Change in Focus

Zaccheroni receives flowers in a ceremony prior to leaving the team’s camp in Florida for Brazil. (© Jiji Press.)

In soccer, the term “logic,” or similarly “discipline,” is often used by coaches in reference to the application of a team’s playing strategy. Zaccheroni hasn’t focused on pushing a specific strategy per se, but has chosen a style that focuses on the individual talents of players. His use of the term “logic” shows his understanding of the course his players are on. 

Under Zaccheroni, Japan has developed a style where sustained pressure is applied in the midfield to force turnovers. Then, with a focus on maintaining possession, players use precision passing to move the ball toward the opposition’s goal. While certainly dynamic, such an attacking style places extra pressure on the defense and is employed, as was shown in the match against Zambia, at the expense of clean sheets. It is curious that Zaccheroni, a native of the country that forged the catenaccio style of defense, would so willingly accept such a steep defensive risk.

Talking Things Out

Zaccheroni began his coaching career in 1982 at the tender age of 29, after illness forced him to relinquish his dreams of a professional career. He proved himself an able manager and quickly worked his way up the ranks of the Italian leagues. He debuted in Serie A in 1995 at the helm of Udinese, where his application of a strong zone defense and use of fleet-footed players like German striker Oliver Bierhoff earned him the first of two Golden Bench Awards as manager of the year. In 1998, he took over AC Milan, winning the Scudetto the same year. After that, he wandered among various clubs in Serie A until being offered the position as Japan manager.

Zaccheroni is greeted by the press upon his arrival in Brazil (© Jiji Press).

One would have expected that Zaccheroni, upon arriving in Japan, would apply his time-proven strategies from a quarter-century in the Italian leagues. But surprisingly, he has shown no such desire. Taking the helm in 2010, though, Zaccheroni said coaching the national team was “a new challenge” and that as manager he had to understand the Japanese style of play, insisting that “as manager, I have to become Japanese in spirit.”

This shift away from the familiar could not have come easily for someone who had always maintained a strong emphasis on defense. Over the past four years, Zaccheroni has continually been reminded of the gap between his ideas as a manager and the thinking and understanding of his players. 

Despite such challenges, Zaccheroni has refrained from forcing his ideas on the team. He has instead worked to develop the squad through open communication and continually made efforts to talk face to face with players.

Japanese-Born Attacking Style

Players like the strong-willed Honda have embraced Zaccheroni. According to Honda: “The last four years with the manager have been free of compromise. For example, in the beginning it was difficult for him to understand how the players were moving the ball. For the last three years I’ve continued to express my desire to play an attacking style. We worked together, and now the style is set.”

Normally, the manager’s word is law, but Zaccheroni has waived a strict top-down approach in favor of one that takes into account his players’ ideas.

Zaccheroni’s commitment to attacking soccer was apparent when the World Cup squad was announced on May 12. According to Zaccheroni, the hardest decision was in choosing midfielders. “I fluctuated between going with four or five players, and in the end I went with four.”

This decision opened the way for the unusual move of choosing eight forwards for the squad, with the manager explaining that he took into consideration the characteristics of his Japanese players and wanted to “send a clear message that we intend to attack hard and win.” He has not, of course, disregarded defense entirely, but by focusing on offense Zaccheroni has made good on his word to “become Japanese.” It will be interesting to see how his efforts will pan out at the World Cup.

(Originally written in Japanese on June 8, 2014.)




soccer football World Cup sports Brazil Zaccheroni Japan National Team