They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. While I do not think that Alberto Zaccheroni deserves to be called "insane," I am surely not the only one who now has questions about his ability to handle pressure,and make intelligent coaching decisions in the heat of a critical match.
It will be very interesting to watch the reaction in Japan to the Samurai Blue's 0-0 draw with 10-man Greece and see whether the mainstream press finally starts to discuss the shortcomings that have been obvious in the team since last summer, if not earlier.
Following the synopsis I posted after Japan's 2-1 loss to Ivory Coast, some readers commented on the self-indulgent remarks made about the accuracy of my prematch prediction. However, this is something that really needs to be put into perspective, if you hope to understand why I take such personal offense at the Samurai Blue's insipid performance this summer. Though this stint as a blogger for the World Cup constitutes my first contribution to ESPN FC, I have been covering the Japan national team since the late 1990s. The problems the team had against Greece and Ivory Coast -- due to a lack of energy, mobility and attacking intensity -- have been evident since at least the end of 2011.
A careful analysis of every match in the Zaccheroni reign makes it quite clear that these problems stem from the use of certain players who no longer have the fitness and pace to play at a world-class level. Japan do have some very good players and can look impressive on occasion (as they did in the clash with Italy in the 2013 Confederations Cup). But the presence of slow, immobile and increasingly ineffective players in the center of the formation disrupt the flow, posing a greater risk factor on defence and slowing down the transition to attack.
In October 2013, having observed the complete collapse at that summer's Confederations Cup, I published an article in which, among other things, I made a very specific prediction: "Unless Coach Zaccheroni stops calling up [Yasushito Endo and Yasuyuki Konno], who he has relied on for the past three years, and replaces them with younger, more capable personnel, it is an absolute certainty that Japan will be knocked out of the World Cup in the pool round. Indeed, the Samurai Blue will be very lucky to even get a single point." At a time when any true fan of the Samurai Blue is shedding tears of heartbreak and shame (and perhaps a few tears of boredom), I hope readers will understand why I console myself by discussing the uncanny accuracy of that prediction. Once you saw the starting lineup, you just knew that this contest was not going to end favourably.
The strangest thing about this is that Zaccheroni did make some changes after repeated bouts of disappointment in midfield. At the end of last year, he dropped Endo and Konno from the starting lineup for three matches -- against the Netherlands, Belgium and New Zealand. The results of those three contests had many people (myself included) convinced that this reflected a change in the coach's thinking. Clearly, with Masato Morishige and Hotaru Yamaguchi in the lineup, the Samurai Blue were more competitive. Even in the warm-up matches before the World Cup, in which the two aging Gamba Osaka players made short-term appearances, it was quite clear the team performed better when Morishige and Yamaguchi were manning the positions in Japan's defensive left channel.
This is why Zac's personnel choices in this World Cup are very hard to understand. Against Greece, Konno played for the full 90 minutes -- the first time he has done so since a 2-0 loss to Serbia in October 2013. By the final few minutes, his presence in the back line was no longer relevant, with Greece hunkered down inside their own penalty box like the Spartans at Thermopylae. As the clock wound down, a roar of noise rose up into the air across the entire Japanese archipelago -- millions of voices shouting furiously at their TV screens or massive outdoor PDP displays. "Bring on Manabu Saito!" Surely, it made sense to sub out Konno for a player selected specifically for his ability to penetrate stacked defences with his dribbling skills. The echo of their voices resounded like a restless wind inside a letter box and tumbled blindly as it made its way across the Twitterverse. And yet the Italian gaffer simply looked on in despair, as if he had forgotten he is allowed to make three substitutions in each match.
Coach Zaccheroni's wayward personnel decisions throughout the past two years of his tenure as Japan national team coach have fully earned him the wave of criticism that stands poised to break over his head, like the looming image of disaster from some Hiroshige woodcut. Yet, at this point, the bulk of the criticism should actually be directed not at Zaccheroni, but at the JFA administrators and the sports-media mavens who have refused to see the tidal wave of doom rising up so clearly in front of them. For two years, the mainstream media and the JFA have been building up the hopes of Samurai Blue fans while dismissing any dissent or criticism. This despite the fact that the problems that have derailed Japan in this World Cup are plain to see.
Now, the pretence has been shattered, and there is nobody to blame except ourselves. I still firmly believe this World Cup generation has (had?) the talent and the team spirit to go far into the competition -- perhaps to the quarterfinal stage or beyond. But that was only going to happen if Japan had fielded their best players and played a style of football that suits their strengths as well as their weaknesses.
It didn't happen.
Now, I guess I'll just go down to the local izakaya and cry into my beer.