Alberto Zaccheroni has enjoyed an exceptionally smooth first three years as national team manager, but after coming in for widespread criticism in the wake of Japan’s early exit from the Confederations Cup, the Italian can expect a bumpy ride before the World Cup begins next summer.
Japan returned from Brazil earlier this week after suffering three defeats from three first-round games against the host country, Italy and Mexico, conceding nine goals and scoring four in an overall performance that earned the manager a string of negative reviews.
“Zaccheroni’s limit,” said the headline of Monday’s Nikkan Sports, while inside, critic Sergio Echigo took the 60-year-old to task for leaving his star players on the field despite their failure to make an impact.
“I don’t understand the substitutions at this tournament,” said Echigo. “If he has no other plan than to use (Keisuke) Honda and (Shinji) Kagawa for the whole game even when they are off-form, I don’t see a bright future for the national team.”
Echigo’s comments formed part of a wider chorus criticizing Zaccheroni for a perceived lack of imagination in his team selection, tactics and substitutions. The manager has stuck largely to the same group of players since taking over in September 2010, and responded to a question asking why he had made only three changes to his starting lineup to face Mexico — despite blaming tiredness for the 2-1 defeat — by saying he did not want to lose the “identity” of his team.
Zaccheroni has already pledged to use mainly J. League players for next month’s East Asian Cup in South Korea, and insists that competition for World Cup squad places can begin now that the Confederations Cup is over. Yet the suspicion remains that the manager is too rigid to look beyond his tried-and-trusted favorites, with strength in depth suffering as a result.
“Against Mexico, squad players (Hiroki) Sakai, (Yuzo) Kurihara and (Hajime) Hosogai all started, but the gap between them and the regulars was obvious,” wrote Daisuke Sugaya in Nikkan Sports. “You could say that this is the consequence of Zaccheroni being so set on his starting lineup. It’s the manager’s job to make sure the whole squad is ready to step in and perform when required.”
Zaccheroni’s tactics were widely dismissed as staid and uninspiring, while his organization of a defense that shipped a series of soft goals also came under fire.
“If set pieces are our weakness, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to bring back players that are strong in the air like (Marcus) Tulio (Tanaka) or (Yuji) Nakazawa,” wrote Kohei Nishiumi in Sports Nippon. “Maybe they wouldn’t suit Zaccheroni’s tactic of keeping a high defensive line, but the current defense just doesn’t have that authority in the air.”
Three defeats from three games does not tell the full story of Japan’s Confederations Cup campaign, but it is undeniable that much of the criticism coming Zaccheroni’s way is justified. The Italian has enjoyed an unprecedented run of good credit since taking over, but now the ground appears to have shifted.
Zaccheroni was rightly lauded for winning the Asian Cup shortly after taking over and safely guiding the team to World Cup qualification, but the brickbats aimed at former manager Zico toward the end of his four years in charge proves that Japan is not afraid to slaughter its sacred cows.
Suddenly, the year ahead looks a lot more complicated for the man currently occupying the hot seat.