Japan Men’s Team Looking to End Soccer Medal Drought in Rio

Society

In January this year, Japan assured itself a spot at the Olympic soccer tournament in Rio by winning the AFC U-23 Championship in Doha, Qatar. This will be Japan’s sixth consecutive and tenth overall appearance at the Games. The Asian champions—which go by the nickname Teguramori Japan after U-23 head coach Teguramori Makoto—are looking to improve on their fourth-place showing in London and capture the nation’s first men’s soccer medal since taking bronze at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

A Focus on Defense

Since taking the reins in January 2014, Teguramori has focused on building a squad capable of competing at the Olympics. Along with 15 U-23 players, he has chosen Urawa Reds striker Kōroki Shinzō and defenders Shiotani Tsukasa of Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Fujiharu Hiroki of Gamba Osaka for the three overage slots allowed under FIFA rules. The lineup as a whole has a firm domestic base and features only one player from a European team: forward Minamino Takumi of Austrian side FC Red Bull Salzburg.

Coach Teguramori has keenly analyzed the competition in Rio in selecting his 18-member Olympic squad, which consists of two goalkeepers, six defenders, seven midfielders, and three forwards. Prior to their AFC triumph, Japan’s U-23s had struggled in competition, such as the 2014 Asian Games, where they bowed out in the quarterfinals. Teguramori has now switched his emphasis to defense by choosing four defending midfielders, explaining his decision by noting that his side “is not a team that wins by out-and-out dominating opponents offensively.” Japan’s tenacity certainly played a large part in its success in Doha, but heading into the Olympics it should expect more close-fought, stamina-draining encounters.

At the other end of the pitch, Teguramori has built his offense around Japan’s strength in producing small, speedy players, with not one forward or midfielder over 180 cm tall.

Full-Pitch Effort

Early on the team emphasized strength in the midfield in running 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 formations, but Teguramori generally opts for a 4-4-2 system. The squad does not focus on holding possession, and instead has stressed a total football approach with an emphasis on winning the ball then feeding it up field to forwards who make a direct challenge on goal or slip past the defensive line for a through ball.

Japan Olympic men's soccer team manager Teguramori Makoto names his squad on July 1, 2016. (© Jiji)

This switch away from a possession-centered approach has roots in the 2014 Brazilian World Cup, which saw champions Germany dominate with a counterattacking style of soccer.

Teguramori points out that even before taking over the U-23 squad he had begun moving away from the possession soccer trend that followed Spain’s successful campaign at the 2010 South African World Cup. At a press conference in August 2014 he said that during his tenure as the under-21 coach he had “looked to the Brazilian World Cup as an opportunity to find a new standard. This led to the concept of a team based around a total football approach.”

Eyes on Asano

The brightest star for Teguramori Japan at present is forward Asano Takuma, who recently transferred to Arsenal in the English Premier League from Hiroshima. The fleet-footed striker is known for turning on the speed to break through opposing teams’ defenses, a skill he used to score several crucial goals during Japan’s AFC campaign. Along with his role on the Olympic squad, he has been called up several times by senior manager Vahid Halilhodzic to play for the Japanese national team.

Striker Asano Takuma takes a shot on goal during a Kirin Challenge Cup match against South Africa on June 29, 2016. (© Jiji)

Minamino Takumi makes a pass during the AFC U-23 Championship semi-final match against Iraq in Doha, Qatar, on January 26, 2016. (© Jiji)

In addition to Asano, Teguramori is also looking to striker Minamino to produce goals in Rio. Minamino transferred to Salzburg from J2 side Cerezo Osaka in January 2015. In his first full season he helped his club win its third straight league title by posting 10 goals and 3 assists in 32 appearances.

On the defensive end, captain Endō Wataru is expected to use his prowess in reading game situations and strong one-on-one play to win balls and quickly start counterattacks with long passes upfield. His ability to see the whole field of play and make decisions on the go have been pillars of the team’s success since early on. Heading into Rio, the defender has vowed to win a medal.

Endō Wataru dribbles the ball during the final of the Kirin Cup against Bosnia and Herzegovina on June 7, 2016. (© Jiji)

Rising to Prominence in Sendai

The 48-year old Teguramori was born in Aomori Prefecture in 1967 and honed his game playing alongside his twin brother Hiroshi in high school and in the professional leagues. (It is rumored the duo were the models for the Tachibana Brothers from the hit comic Captain Tsubasa.)

Teguramori took over as manager of then J2 side Vegalta Sendai in 2008. In only his second season he captured the division championship, earning the club promotion to the top flight of the J-League where, despite limited resources, it has remained. He finished his tenure in 2013.

The largest challenge of his coaching career came in the wake of the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake. In Sendai, where the temblor reached upper-6 on the seismic intensity scale, Teguramori barely escaped with his life when shaking brought down the second-floor ceiling of the team’s clubhouse and toppled bookshelves around him.

Sendai became a symbol of recovery for the heavily damaged Tōhoku region. Following a month-long break due to the quake, the team, too, steadily climbed from fourteenth to finish the season in fourth place. The club kept up its momentum going into the next year and closed out the season in second, its best position to date.

Having come through the 3/11 disaster, Teguramori learned the value of striving for something larger than one’s personal ambitions, an idea he is certain to bring with him to Rio.

Tapping into Lower League Talent

While the U-23 side is rich in technical aptitude, players have not shown the usual intensity associated with international soccer. Early camps tended to be quiet affairs, perhaps reflecting low confidence from so few players having starting positions at their J1 clubs.

The situation, however, has been different among the squad’s J2 members. Making up around a third of the team, players like Yajima Shin’ya, who is on loan to Okayama from J1 side Urawa, have gained valuable experience in the second division, helping strengthen the team overall.

Japan faces a stiff challenge in Rio as it does battle in a group that features fierce adversaries Nigeria, Colombia, and Sweden. Winning this “group of death” would raise the prospect of the nation’s first Olympic soccer medal in 48 years and provide a shot at redemption for missing bronze at the London Games.

(Banner photo: The Japanese U-23 men's soccer team celebrates its Olympic berth after defeating South Korea to win the AFC U-23 Championship in Doha, Qatar, on January 30, 2016. © Jiji.)

Japanese national soccer team Rio Olympics Asano Takuma