Samurai Blue's selection mistake
On Sunday morning, Japan time, it seemed that the entire country gathered in the morning sun to watch Japan face off against the Ivory Coast.
After a very successful four-year stint as head coach, Alberto Zaccheroni has succeeded in boosting optimism about Japan's chances at this World Cup to extremely high levels. To be completely honest, I was starting to feel a bit optimistic myself, particularly when the starting lineups of both teams were read off during the pre-game show.
However, in the match forecast that was posted here two days ago, I expressed a view that I have been repeating for roughly the past two years: Japan has the quality to achieve results against their pool round opponents this summer, but they will only be able to progress if the team fields their best players.
Zaccheroni has persisted in the use of two players despite the fact that they have been a visible source of weakness for well over a year. At last year's Confederations' Cup, the defensive liabilities created by Yasuhito Endo and Yasuyuki Konno were cruelly exposed. These two players were once extremely valuable to the Samurai Blue, but as they get older their mobility and stamina has declined steadily, to the point where they are now easily bypassed by opposing teams.
Moreover, opposing coaches are well aware of this weakness, and have begun to exploit it ever more frequently. In the match preview posted on Friday, I identified the key factor in the match as follows:
"If veterans Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe get the call, I think Japan will eventually be overrun in midfield. On the other hand, if Hotaru Yamaguchi starts alongside Hasebe, the Samurai Blue defence will be much more resilient. If Hasebe is unable to start due to lingering fitness issues, the contest could get ugly for the Samurai Blue very fast."
When the contest started, Zaccheroni did indeed go with Yamaguchi and Hasebe. This pairing did exactly what was expected of them. Yamaguchi did a very good job of keepiong Yaya Toure under wraps, while Hasebe kept the rest of the defence organized.
This duo frustrated the Elephants' offense for nearly an hour, while a strike by Keisuke Honda in the 16th minute put Japan in front. Although the run of play was closely balanced for the remainder of the first hour, the Samurai Blue continued to hold the upper hand, and even had some good chances to move further in front.
But 10 minutes into the second half, Zac took off his captain, Hasebe, and brought on Endo. This seemed to be the signal that Sabri Lamouchi was waiting for. Some might see it as coincidence, but I think the Ivorian coach was anticipating this from the very start.
The second Endo took the pitch, Didier Drogba stripped off his warm-ups and got ready to come on. Lamouchi responded by taking off midfielder Serey Die and inserting Drogba as a central striker with Gervinho and Wilfried Bony on his wings -- a move that seems calculated to exploit the space in Japan's deep midfield.
From the second Drogba set foot on the pitch, he and Yaya Toure began exploiting the space that opened up in the right channel once Endo took over for Hasebe. As predicted, "the contest could get ugly for the Samurai Blue very fast."
It took only six minutes for Ivory Coast to complete their comeback, with Bony and Gervinho providing the headers that beat Eiji Kawashima. In both cases the goals were set up by penetration through the suddenly exposed right side of Japan's defence. In truth, this result was predictable from the moment Endo came on as a substitute.
There is still time for Japan to salvage something from this year's World Cup. However, this can only happen if Zac stops trying to turn back the clock. The weaknesses created through the use of Endo (and Konno) have been apparent for almost two years. There is no point in continuing to use a strategy that failed in 2013, and has failed every time the manager has used it since last year's Confederation's Cup.
If Zaccheroni puts his faith in the players who started against Ivory Coast, and uses the younger players from his bench rather than aging has-beens, it might be possible to rebound from this setback. But if Konno and Endo continue to receive playing time, the only possible result is utter disaster.