|

Zaccheroni sticks to his guns despite surprise Okubo choice

by Andrew Mckirdy

Yoshito Okubo’s dramatic World Cup recall may have grabbed the headlines when national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni unveiled his squad for Brazil on Monday, but the Italian’s final roster was anything but impulsive.

Zaccheroni named Okubo to his 23-man squad despite having called him up only once before during his four years in charge, with the Kawasaki Frontale striker’s sole appearance coming more than two years ago in a February 2012 friendly against Iceland.

But if Okubo’s selection suggests a manager willing to discard years of careful planning in favor of something more instinctive, the reality is very different.

Zaccheroni has instead chosen a trusted, road-tested group of players whose characteristics he knows inside-out, with loyalty being rewarded and form coming second to a proven track record.

“Everyone says that Okubo being chosen was a surprise, but he was the top scorer in the J. League last year and he’s got eight goals so far this year, so it’s really no surprise at all,” wrote firebrand critic Sergio Echigo in Tuesday’s Nikkan Sports. “The real surprise should be that he has chosen (Shinji) Kagawa, who scored no goals in the Premier League, and (Yoichiro) Kakitani, who’s scored just once so far in the J. League.

“If this was a country like Brazil, Kagawa and Kakitani would not have been picked. And if they were, there would be a storm of boos.”

Zaccheroni has kept faith with captain Makoto Hasebe and defenders Atsuto Uchida and Maya Yoshida despite all three making their way back from lengthy injuries, while there was also a place for utility defender Masahiko Inoha, currently playing in the J. League second division with Jubilo Iwata.

Loyalty obviously means something to a manager who has picked up a reputation for hard-headedness with the Japanese press, but the Italian has also shown over the past year that he is open to new ideas.

A pledge to blood new players in the aftermath of last summer’s poor showing at the Confederations Cup has turned out to be more than just lip service, with no fewer than six players who made their debuts at last July’s East Asian Cup forcing their way into the World Cup squad.

Zaccheroni’s final selection also undermined the perception that he is a defensive coach, with as many as eight forwards making the cut while only four midfielders were included.

“I was considering taking an extra defensive midfielder, but if I did that I would have to drop a forward or a defender,” said Zaccheroni. “I didn’t really want to do that because I want to take an attacking team to Brazil with as many forward players as possible.”

Such an attitude may come as a surprise to a global audience expecting Japan to defend in numbers in Brazil, but Zaccheroni has been bullish all along about focusing on his team’s attacking strengths. The manager again stressed the importance of being positive when he announced his squad on Monday, and a reprise of the defensive tactics that served predecessor Takeshi Okada so well in South Africa four years ago appear to be off the menu.

“We have got results in every competition we have played in over the last four years except the Confederations Cup, and we have also beaten teams perceived to be stronger than us,” said Zaccheroni. “Now I want us to keep going and believe in the things that got us here.”

If Japan is to bow out at the World Cup this summer, at least Zaccheroni intends to go down fighting.