National team manager Takeshi Okada was hoping to use Japan’s final two World Cup qualifiers to learn more about the fringe members of his squad. But the first of those games, last Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Qatar, will have told him more about a player who will not take part in either.
Yasuhito Endo has been ruled out with a hamstring injury, and if Japan’s apparent strength in depth suggested the midfield could cope with his absence last week in Yokohama, the performance proved otherwise.
Hideo Hashimoto and Yuki Abe filled the gap left by Endo and the suspended Makoto Hasebe in central midfield, but their inability to start moves and spark the attack in motion only served to highlight how important Endo is to Okada’s side.
The Gamba Osaka man is the fulcrum of the team, picking up the ball in deep positions and using his exceptional vision and distribution to conduct the flow of the game like an NFL quarterback.
Center back Marcus Tulio Tanaka attempted to take up the slack in his absence, but without Endo to provide the touch and imagination, Japan looked desperately short of creative ideas.
That said, the fact that Endo was so badly missed could prove to be a headache when the action gets under way for real in South Africa. While Endo can do things that no other player at Okada’s disposal can match, he also has idiosyncrasies that must be tolerated in order to make the most of his talent.
Endo has been so successful in the Asian qualifying zone because against inferior teams the priority for Japan is to unpick the lock rather than bolt the door.
That will certainly not be the case at the World Cup, and there remains some doubt that a central pairing of Endo and Hasebe will have the defensive bite to cope with the powerful opponents they will have to face.
Hasebe has proven himself to be a fine all-rounder, able to attack and defend with equal distinction, but Endo is a far more specialist player.
At Gamba he has Hashimoto and Tomokazu Myojin on his shoulder to ensure he is not burdened too much by defensive duties, and although he can certainly tackle and work hard in Asian competition, the World Cup is a different matter altogether.
The modern game places emphasis on power and speed, and it is true that Endo’s languid grace and unhurried demeanor can give him the appearance of a throwback to a bygone era.
There will be times when Okada may need to bulk up his midfield in South Africa, but Wednesday’s insipid draw should be evidence enough that Endo must not be the one to be sacrificed.
For better or for worse, Japan’s strength is its passing. Other teams are faster, bigger and more direct, but Okada’s team has gotten to where it is now thanks to superior technique and a commitment to attacking principles.
The limitations of this approach have been exposed by teams of a less aesthetic nature, but it would be foolish to change course now.
If more brawn is necessary at the World Cup, it must not come at the cost of Endo’s brain.
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