National team manager Takeshi Okada has reassured Shunsuke Nakamura that he will form the cornerstone of Japan’s 2010 World Cup challenge despite failing to make an impact at Espanyol.
Nakamura has seen limited playing time since moving to Spain in the summer, watching on as an unused substitute as his struggling side lost last weekend’s derby match against Barcelona at the Nou Camp.
Espanyol manager Mauricio Pochettino admitted on Wednesday that Nakamura is struggling to adapt at the club, just days after former Japan boss Philippe Troussier called on Okada to drop the midfielder from the national team.
But Okada has backed Nakamura’s decision to leave Celtic for the tougher environment of La Liga, and insists his star player has no need to worry about his losing his place in South Africa next summer.
“He made a decision to go to Spain just before the World Cup, and certainly there was a risk involved in that,” Okada told an audience at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Thursday. “That’s an example of the kind of person he is, that he will never take the easy option and never shy away from a challenge. I admire him for that.
“Right now he’s struggling and he isn’t able to play as many games as he would like, but he remains an essential player for the national team.”
Nakamura’s slump has coincided with the rise of VVV-Venlo’s Keisuke Honda, sparking debate over whether the young midfielder should supplant Nakamura in the first-team lineup.
But Okada believes the issue is not so cut-and-dried, saying the two are not necessarily competing for one spot.
“I understand that in the mind of fans it is a straight choice of either Nakamura or Honda, but I don’t think of it that way,” he said. “I think of all of the members separately and I want to have the strongest possible squad.
“I want to have Nakamura in the squad and I want to have Honda in the squad. If Nakamura gets injured then it’s not certain that Honda would automatically replace him. It’s not something I’ve already decided.”
The World Cup door appears closed for Kashima Antlers captain Mitsuo Ogasawara, however, with Okada wary of disrupting dressing-room harmony by adding another heavyweight voice to the mix.
“Ogasawara is a very important part of Kashima’s team, and as an individual player of course he is outstanding,” Okada said of the newly crowned J. League player of the year, who has just led his club to an unprecedented third straight championship. “He is a player who is always on our minds, but we don’t just look at a player’s individual abilities. We have to think about the entire squad — the balance and how they work together.
“It may be that eventually we will need someone with Ogasawara’s qualities, but right now we don’t. His stature is such that we can’t call him up and then not use him. If we did something like that we would never be able to call him up again.”
Okada also dismissed suggestions his team will be too lightweight to cope with first-round opponents the Netherlands, Cameroon and Denmark, and has no plans to supplement his technique-heavy midfield with a specialist tackler.
“In the past there has been a tendency to put an emphasis on the defensive side of the midfield, but I think we have begun to change our tactics,” he said. “I don’t think we need to be held back by what other teams in the world do. We have to pursue our own way of doing things.
“We have to focus on the entire team, not just on defense or attack. We have to be able to keep the ball moving and under our control, and we need everyone to help out. In Europe strikers don’t do any work in defense, but that’s not necessarily the best way for us to go.”
Next year’s World Cup will be Okada’s second after being thrown in at the deep end when predecessor Shu Kamo was fired during qualifying for the 1998 tournament. The manager, however, is far more relaxed this time round.”
“The 1998 World Cup was an enormous step for me because I had never actually managed a team before,” he said. “Straight away I was at the World Cup, so I really didn’t have time to think about what I could learn from the experience. I was just desperately trying to get through each day.
“That was over 10 years ago, but I don’t think the World Cup is so different from any other kind of football competition. I don’t think we have to take any kind of special approach just because it’s the World Cup.
“Basically it is just another tournament, and I don’t think there will be anything dramatically different in our approach.”