Japan begins a new era on Friday night as manager Javier Aguirre leads the team out for the first time, and if first impressions of the Mexican are anything to go by, the next four years should be an interesting journey.
Japan takes on Uruguay in a friendly at Sapporo Dome before facing Venezuela in Yokohama four days later, with Aguirre running the rule over his new side after taking over from Italian Alberto Zaccheroni in the wake of a disappointing first-round exit from the World Cup this summer.
Having never previously worked in Japan and having arrived in the country less than a month ago, Aguirre comes to the job with a clean slate. The 55-year-old will be learning about his players as he goes along, and with five debut call-ups in an experimental first squad, Japanese fans and commentators will be just as unfamiliar with some of the new faces.
“We are starting from zero,” Aguirre said as he announced his 23-man squad last week, and his selections certainly backed up those words. Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker Yusuke Minagawa was included despite having only made his professional debut on July 19, while Sagan Tosu’s Tatsuya Sakai has marginally more experience with 21 career J. League games under his belt.
Aguirre stressed that his choices were made without taking past achievements into consideration, and such an approach is guaranteed to yield both successes and failures. After the somewhat narrow field of vision that came to characterize Zaccheroni’s tenure, however, Aguirre’s early willingness to go out on a limb is laudable.
“I’m in my 30s, and it would be a problem if there wasn’t a new generation gunning for my place in the team,” World Cup captain Makoto Hasebe told reporters as he arrived in Japan earlier this week. “That’s something that helps me to improve.
“With the new players coming in, there’s a fresh feel about the squad.”
In such an atmosphere, where reputations count for nothing and talent is rewarded regardless of experience, the J. League cannot help but be invigorated. Aguirre has reportedly handed the JFA a list of 70 to 80 players who have caught his eye so far, and the entire league now knows the door is open.
But while Aguirre still has almost four years to build his team for the 2018 World Cup, that does not mean he has the luxury of experimenting at his leisure. The Mexican will be expected to make a respectable fist of defending Japan’s Asian Cup title in Australia in January, and with only six friendlies to prepare, he will need to come to some swift decisions.
That, however, does not mean that Aguirre will be judged on his short-term results, and those hoping for a revolution after the World Cup debacle are likely to be disappointed.
“I’ve never met Aguirre personally, but I think the reason the JFA chose him to succeed me is that our philosophies are similar,” Zaccheroni told Monday’s Sports Nippon in his first exclusive Japanese interview since leaving the job.
“In Japan, if you play a high defensive line people say you are an attacking coach, but the way I see it is a balance between attacking and defending. I think Aguirre sees it the same way.”
Steady evolution, then, is likely to be the way of things, but Aguirre has already shown that he is his own man and will approach the job in the manner he sees fit.
Friday night will offer the first glimpse of that future.