Japan Soccer Program Looks to Experience


The curtain came down on this summer’s World Cup in Brazil after Germany claimed its fourth World Cup title. It was the nation’s first such triumph in 24 years, and indeed the first since the unification of the East and West German football teams following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. (West Germany’s victory at the 1990 tournament in Italy came mere months before the official reunification of Germany was concluded.) This year’s tournament also marked the first time for a team from Europe to claim football’s biggest prize in a World Cup held in South America.

In stark contrast to such glory was the performance of Japan’s national team, which crashed out after the group stage with two losses and a draw under outgoing coach Alberto Zaccheroni. Mexican Javier Aguirre has since been named as the Italian’s successor, but what does this appointment mean for the future of Japanese soccer?

German Efficiency: Short, Sharp Counterattacks

The Germans sealed their place in the final with a hugely impressive 7–1 semifinal demolition of host nation and traditional soccer powerhouse Brazil. The team known as Die Mannschaft went on to dispatch an Argentina side starring tournament MVP Lionel Messi, with substitute Mario Götze scoring the game’s only goal just before the end of extra time in a final match that had seemed to be heading for penalties. Germany’s success this year can be regarded as the fruit of a revolution in German soccer that was sparked by the national soul-searching following the team’s own group-stage exits at the European Championships in both 2000 and 2004. The German academy system underwent a complete overhaul. Overseeing the development of the talented young stars that the new system unearthed was Joachim Löw, initially as assistant to former manager Jurgen Klinsmann and as head coach from 2006 onwards.

Bayern Munich midfielder Mario Götze holds the World Cup trophy aloft after Germany’s triumph in Brazil. (© Jiji Press)

Every four years, the World Cup finals present an opportunity to see the prevailing strategic trends in global soccer, and this year’s tournament was no exception. The 2010 competition in South Africa was won by a Spain team at the apogee of possession soccer. This year, though, the Spaniards failed to make it out of the group stage. Possession and passing have been superseded as the dominant tactical approach by the kind of short, incisive counterattacks of which Germany are the ultimate exponents.

The team maintains a compact overall shape and tries to win the ball in the opponent’s half through aggressive pressing high up the pitch. Then, having forced a turnover, the forwards break quickly and incisively towards the goal. This differs considerably from the traditional image of counterattacking, which involves holding a deep defensive line and launching direct attacks via speculative, long forward balls. Another contrast with the older methodology comes down to numbers: In the past, offense was typically left to just two or three forwards, but it is striking how many men tend to be committed forward during attacks by the modern counterattacking sides, which at this tournament also included Central and South American teams like Mexico and Brazil.

The prominence of this trend was, of course, not unexpected. Following the successful deployment in recent years of the same approach by several club teams in the European Champions League, FIFA analysts had predicted the widespread use of short counters even before the World Cup began.

Turning Defense into Attack

According to Nishimura Yūichi, the Japanese referee who was given the honor of officiating in the tournament’s opening match between Brazil and Croatia, the FIFA Referees Committee had also predicted the prevalence of the short counter. And with such attacks deemed especially likely to lead to scoring chances, officials were even given extra training to help them deal with the style. “Even after the tournament began, it was very noticeable how many teams were scoring goals from fast breaks compared to four years ago,” Nishimura recalls.

Switching quickly from defense to attack and bearing down on the opponents’ goal in as few passes as possible often leads to goals. Something else that stood out this year was the number of teams using highly defensive three- or five-man backlines, although the matches were no less enjoyable for this trend.

But something else that became clear this year was how difficult it is to achieve success by relying on counter soccer alone. Germany and the other top teams combined this approach with the ability to break down their opponents using passing and possession.

The Importance of the Asian Cup

A number of notable soccer nations announced new coaching staff appointments following the World Cup. The Japan Football Association followed suit on July 24 with the announcement that Mexico-born coach Javier Aguirre was to take over as manager of Japan’s national team. Four years earlier, the appointment of previous head coach Alberto Zaccheroni had not been announced until the end of August. The alacrity this time suggests that the JFA was keen to conclude its search as quickly as possible.

Some raised questions about the way the JFA seemed to have made such an important decision so hastily following the nation’s World Cup exit. But with the AFC Asian Cup set to start in Australia in January 2015, it is clear that there was no time to waste.

The bare minimum target for Japan at the Asian Cup will be the top-three finish that would qualify the team automatically for the next tournament in 2019. And ideally, Samurai Blue will go one step better and emerge victorious in Australia to guarantee a much-wanted place in the Confederations Cup, set to be held in Russia in summer 2017. With the stock of Asian football having dropped severely following a World Cup in which the region’s four representatives (Japan, Korea, Iran, and Australia) failed to muster even a single victory among them, Japan will be eager to secure the prestigious mantle of “Asian Champion.” In order to ensure the best possible preparation, the JFA will be seeking to secure quality opposition for Japan’s friendly matches over the next few years. A victorious Asian Cup campaign next January would serve to make the side much more attractive to prospective opponents.  

Outgoing manager Zaccheroni successfully captured the Asian cup only three months after taking charge of his first game against Argentina in October 2010. But there is no guarantee that things will always run so smoothly. This, along with proposed changes in the format of the Asian qualifying tournament for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, are likely to have been prime considerations behind the JFA’s swifter-than-expected decision to appoint Aguirre.

Variety is the Spice of Soccer

55-year old Mexican Javier Aguirre certainly has an impressive pedigree, particularly when it comes to the World Cup. As coach, he guided his country’s national team to the last 16 places at both the 2002 tournament in Japan and Korea and the 2010 tournament in South Africa. Before that, he represented the host nation as a player at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. This experience on the world stage stands in clear contrast to Zaccheroni, who had never coached a national team before accepting the job with Japan.

Following the 2010 World Cup, Aguirre returned to European club football, becoming manager of top-flight Spanish team Real Zaragoza. And in November 2012 he moved to Barcelona-based club Espanyol, managing to successfully rebuild a team that at the time of his appointment was struggling at the foot of La Liga. Aguirre remained in charge at Espanyol until May 2014, when he announced his departure after helping the club, with only limited financial resources, to a fourteenth-place finish, thereby avoiding relegation from the top tier.

JFA general secretary Hara Hiromi, who personally conducted direct negotiations with Aguirre, commented: “In good form, when everything falls into place, it is quite possible for Japan to reach the last sixteen at the World Cup. But if things remain as they are, we don’t have what it takes to reach the quarterfinals or the semifinals on a regular basis. In Brazil, we lacked the tactical flexibility to adapt when things were not going our way.” When asked about Aguirre, Hara talked up his man by declaring: “He is a manager with a broad strategic repertoire, who can help the Japanese players to display their strengths. I really think Aguirre is the best man for the job at the present time, and I hope he can instill a winning mentality.”

There were no calls, however, for Japan to revert to the defensive style that helped the team to a first-ever last 16 place on foreign soil in South Africa four years ago. The results this summer may have been poor by comparison, but the tournament also marked an important turning point toward a more proactive style, based on technique, quick thinking, and ball retention.

What can be asked of Aguirre is to brush up the national team’s existing strengths and build a side with the flexibility and resourcefulness to respond to any situation. If I could make one further request, it would be for him to pay close attention not just to Japan’s overseas-based stars, but also to the players of the J. League. I look forward with great interest to the six friendly matches scheduled for the remainder of 2014.

Profile: Javier Aguirre Onaindia

Born in 1958 in Mexico City. Began professional playing career in 1979 with hometown team Club America. Played as a defensive midfielder for the Mexican national team that reached the quarterfinals of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Retired as a player in 1993. Entered club management in 1995 and built experience with several Mexican clubs before becoming manager of the national team in 2001, going on to achieve a last-16 place at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea. Subsequently managed Spanish clubs Osasuna and Athletico Madrid before returning as national team head coach in 2009, again reaching the last 16 at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Returned to Spain to manage Real Zaragoza (2010–11) and Espanyol (2012–14). Appointed head coach of the Japan national team in 2014.

Record of Japan National Team Managers Since Inception of J. League

Period Manager & Record Asian Cup Record World Cup Record
May ’92–Oct ’93 Hans Ooft
W17 L4 D6
’92 Champion ’94 Final qualifying round
May ’94–Oct ’94 Falcão
W3 L2 D4
’92 Quarterfinalist  
Jan ’95–Oct ’97 Kamo Shū
W24 L14 D8
’96 Quarterfinalist ’98 Qualified*
Oct ’97–June ’98 Okada Takeshi
W5 L6 D4
  ’98 Group stage
Oct ’98–June ’02 Philippe Troussier
W23 L12 D15
’00 Champion ’02 Last 16
Oct ’02–June ’06 Zico
W38 L18 D15
’04 Champion ’06 Group stage
Aug ’06–Oct ’07 Ivica Osim
(Bosnia & Herzegovina)
W13 L5 D2
’07 Fourth place  
Jan ’08–June ’10 Okada Takeshi
W26 L11 D12
  ’10 Last 16
Oct ’10–June ’14 Alberto Zaccheroni
W30 L13 D12
’11 Champion ’14 Group stage

* Kamo guided the team to the final qualifying playoff, but was replaced as manager by Okada prior to the match following disappointing results in the final two matches of the second qualifying stage. Under Okada, Japan defeated Iran in the playoff, thereby confirming qualification for the 1998 World Cup.

Japan National Team, Upcoming Fixtures

2014 September 5 Uruguay Kirin Challenge Cup
September 9 Venezuela Kirin Challenge Cup
October 10 Jamaica Kirin Challenge Cup
October 14 Brazil International Friendly Match
November 14 TBA International Friendly Match
November 18 TBA International Friendly Match
2015 January 12 Palestine 2015 AFC Asian Cup (Australia)
January 16 Iraq 2015 AFC Asian Cup (Australia)
January 20 Jordan 2015 AFC Asian Cup (Australia)


(Originally written in Japanese on July 29, 2014. Banner photo: Javier Aguirre, newly appointed manager of the Japan national soccer team. © Aflo.)

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