Given the empty rhetoric that has come to characterize his reign as national team manager, it was no surprise to hear Takeshi Okada attempting to put a positive spin on Japan’s dismal 0-0 draw with China last weekend.
Having watched his team limp to a second scoreless draw inside the space of a week against a country that has failed to reach this summer’s World Cup, Okada praised his side’s “improvement” and focused on chances created rather than chances ultimately spurned.
But the crowd at Ajinomoto Stadium saw things differently. A chorus of boos met the team at both halftime and fulltime, and Okada was forced to explain his upbeat comments at a tetchy post-match news conference.
The manager admitted the performance had been far from perfect, but nonetheless reiterated his view that the team is on an inexorable upward curve. Evidence on the pitch, however, clearly suggests otherwise.
Okada’s starting 11 against China was — the unavailable Shunsuke Nakamura and Makoto Hasebe apart — his first-choice lineup. Yet time and again Japan’s attacks floundered at the decisive moment and the defense allowed a limited opponent space to threaten Seigo Narazaki’s goal.
If that all sounds familiar it is because the same scenario has played out consistently throughout Okada’s two-year stewardship.
Okada’s philosophy is based around drills and routine, repeating the same movements and selecting the same players in the belief that eventually everything will click into place. Four months before the World Cup starts, we are yet to see that happen.
Yoshito Okubo and Keiji Tamada have looked far short of international caliber for quite some time, yet the manager persists in starting them whenever available. The two strikers are unlikely to suddenly turn into world-beaters in South Africa, but then Okada’s target of reaching the semifinals shows he makes his calls more on aspiration than hard evidence.
That unstinting optimism leaves little room for cold-eyed analysis, which is what Japan badly needs right now. Okada’s decision to call up Mitsuo Ogasawara suggested a tacit admission that his team needs a new direction, but it remains to be seen how far he is willing to go.
The no-nonsense manner with which he cut Shinzo Koroki and Takashi Inui last week showed Okada has not lost the ruthless streak that ended Kazu Miura’s World Cup dreams back in 1998. But he will need to ax more than just fringe members to reverse the growing feeling that Japan is heading toward humiliation in South Africa.
It will certainly not have escaped Okada’s attention that fellow World Cup qualifier Nigeria fired manager Shaibu Amodu on Saturday. Following suit would be a massive gamble for the Japan Football Association, and track record all but rules out the possibility.
But that does not mean Okada should rest easy. Instead he must move swiftly and decisively to clear out the dead wood and make sure the game against China represents another of the “turning points” he is so fond of discussing.
This time, however, his actions must speak louder than his words.