Keisuke Honda should seriously consider leaving AC Milan or risk losing his place on the Japan squad, according to national coach Vahid Halilhodzic.
“I need Honda to play more on a regular basis,” Halilhodzic said in an end-of-year interview with members of the Tokyo Sportswriters’ Club. “The national team needs Honda. He is our best goalscorer and best passer.
“But if he doesn’t play enough, I think the message I have sent is clear. I’ve explained to Honda that if he wants to keep playing for the national team, he has to play more.
“I told him the team belongs to everyone, that the team is not his own private team. I would like to see Keisuke starting for his club but if he can’t, he should consider going elsewhere.”
With his back against the wall for the World Cup qualifier at home to Group B leader Saudi Arabia in November, Halilhodzic opted for fitness over past contributions, dropping Honda, Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa from the lineup. Japan went on to win 2-1, and moved level on points with Saudi Arabia in its final game of the year.
Halilhodzic’s men open their 2017 season on March 23 at the United Arab Emirates, which beat Japan in Saitama in September to start the final qualifying round. While Japan has managed to revive its campaign following the crippling Sept. 1 defeat to UAE, Honda’s outlook at Milan remains dim.
This season, Honda has appeared in only five of Milan’s 17 league games, making just one start. With manager Vincenzo Montella clearly rebuilding for the future, the 30-year-old Honda — whose contract expires this summer — has become surplus goods.
Halilhodzic admits that September and October, when his job was on the line following the UAE loss, were some of the most trying times of his career, and the Bosnian is not willing to go through anything like that again from March onward.
He revels in the fact that Japan has averaged three goals a game in his 20 matches in charge, from which it has 15 wins, three draws and two defeats. Under Halilhodzic, Japan is conceding just 0.5 goals per game.
Yet for the remaining five qualifiers — and ultimately for the World Cup in Russia — the former Algeria boss said he needs to find or develop a dependable goalscorer who can carry the team like Honda has since the 2010 World Cup.
As much as Halilhodzic respects Honda, if he cannot find a way to increase his playing time, the manager will have no choice but to turn to others, be it Genki Haraguchi, Yuya Osako or someone else.
“Right now, we’re getting goals from various positions, from center-back, from midfield, from the forwards. It’s a good thing, but what I want is a pure, out-and-out goalscorer. Someone who can take the one or two chances he may or may not have in a game,” Halilhodzic said.
“I must find this type of player — or develop one, somehow. Every good team has one, a player who finds a way to score not just when he is on a roll, but also when the tide is against him.”
“It’s possible to develop good strikers and good goalkeepers, and it’s critical that you do. All the best countries have good players at these important positions. If you don’t, you cannot expect results. It’s the same at club level. Bayern, Barcelona, Real, Chelsea, Manchester United — they all have them. And we need to conduct our search.
“We’re averaging 22 shots a game, which is a lot. In the J. League Championship, how many did Urawa and Kashima have combined (16 in the first leg, 20 in the second)? So we’re creating many opportunities. But the problem is only 42 percent of our shots are on target. We need to get it up over 50 percent.”
Since succeeding Javier Aguirre in March 2015, Halilhodzic has often struggled to cope with the gap between the European game and the Japanese version, stemming largely from cultural differences.
The one aspect which continues to gnaw at him most — and probably will until he leaves Japan — is the lack of aggressiveness in J. League matches. “Duel” is the French word Halilhodzic has repeatedly used to describe what is missing in Japanese soccer, and a concept he will keep trying to pound into his team.
“There’s a difference between Europe and Japan with regards to fighting spirit, just a sheer lack in the number of challenges in Japan,” he said. “Real and Barcelona, they only have a split second on the ball. They have to react even before they have possession.
“But in Japan? You have a lot of time. You have so much time you could drink champagne and sake. You could even eat because you have so much time on the ball.”
In qualifying, Japan has caught up with the Saudis on points, but still has three difficult trips to the Middle East left — to UAE, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
For those games, Halilhodzic will remind his players to be wary of opponents’ diving and playacting, and to not take the bait.
“It’s cinema, it’s acting — very obvious acting, which is frustrating,” he said. “The referee has to punish them for that. The Arabs overdo it. Their ‘keepers go down a lot. But it’s their style. You don’t see it in Japan, but it’s their way of doing things.
“The real battle begins from here. But as long as we find the time to prepare, we can play well whether it’s at home or away.”