KAZAN, RUSSIA – Dubbed “Old Man Japan” by fans and media, the country’s oldest-ever World Cup squad is finally exhibiting a brand of soccer it was unable to play at the previous tournament, veteran Keisuke Honda said Tuesday.
The Samurai Blue went to Brazil in 2014 with high expectations but came away disappointed after finishing bottom of their group, their only point coming from a 0-0 draw with 10-man Greece.
The Alberto Zaccheroni-coached side crashed out of the tournament with a heartbreaking 4-1 loss to Colombia in its final group game.
Four years later, the team has already outperformed predictions, sitting joint top of Group H after two matches, the most recent a 2-2 draw with Senegal in which it largely contained the African side’s dangerous attack while pressuring with ball retention and quick passing.
“I think we prepared ourselves to come back to the World Cup one more time after 2014 and try to deliver results, and results haven’t been bad in our last two games,” said the 32-year-old Honda, now appearing in his third World Cup.
“I get the impression that (coach Akira) Nishino just happens to have us playing the kind of football we wanted to play (in Brazil) in 2014.
“I think the way we battled in particular against Senegal was what we had aimed to do in 2014. We expressed ourselves with what I had long described as ‘our football.’ “
Despite avenging its painful 2014 loss to Colombia with a 2-1 win in their first match in Russia, Honda said Japan was “not good” at Mordovia Area, where the South Americans played 87 minutes with only 10 men.
Against Senegal, however, Nishino’s men were able to adjust their game plan according to their opponents’ defensive scheme, setting playmaker Shinji Kagawa deeper and pulling Takashi Inui in from the left wing to create space and cause confusion.
Honda said a key to Japan’s success at the tournament so far was fixating less on sticking to a certain playing style while at the same time putting greater emphasis on nullifying the opponents’ game plan.
“Maybe the way we think about the essence of football and our values have changed,” the midfielder for Mexican side Pachuca said.
The Samurai Blue will be hoping to continue their strong showing in Thursday’s final group-stage match against Poland in Volgograd.
Japan needs a point from the match to progress to the knockout stage, while Poland is only playing for pride, having already been eliminated following losses to Senegal and Colombia.