As he narrows down his squad for the 2020 Tokyo Games, men’s head coach Hajime Moriyasu says he is looking for players with “mental and physical toughness” to help Japan win its first-ever Olympic soccer gold medal.
In a recent interview with Kyodo News, the 51-year-old manager said the prospective squad was making strong progress toward the games, where men’s soccer will be contested by under-23 teams containing a limited number of overage players.
After losing 2-0 to Colombia in November with a team headlined by Samurai Blue regulars, Japan’s under-22 squad gave a more positive showing against Jamaica on Saturday, winning 9-0 using a side drawn mostly from the J-League.
“Of course, it hasn’t been perfect, but we have definitely been making good progress. Given the overall improvement of the entire age cohort, I think we will reach the Olympic tournament in strong form,” Moriyasu said.
The former Sanfrecce Hiroshima boss, who concurrently manages the Olympic and senior national men’s teams, said his goal in the remaining period until the Olympics is to craft a competitive squad capable of balancing creativity and discipline on the pitch.
“I want to make sure the players can fully express themselves within the team concept, connecting with each other and showing strong organization,” he said.
“I want to create an environment that allows them to work together with a sense of unity. If they apply themselves to the task in front of them, the results will follow.”
He will have a talented crop of U-23 players at his disposal including PSV Eindhoven attacker Ritsu Doan and midfielder Takefusa Kubo, currently on loan from Real Madrid to Mallorca.
“I want players who have that special something and can handle multiple positions. They must be willing to make sacrifices for the good of their teammates,” he said.
While there is a precedent of host nations winning Olympic men’s soccer gold, Moriyasu said his team faces a mammoth task made tougher by Tokyo’s extreme heat and humidity in July and August.
“We need to win a difficult schedule of six games in the heat of midsummer. For that, we need players with mental and physical toughness,” he said.
With each team allowed to field up to three overage players in the Olympic tournament, Moriyasu can select from a number of stars accustomed to playing alongside the likes of Doan and Kubo in the senior national team.
Porto winger Shoya Nakajima and new Liverpool signing Takumi Minamino are among the leading candidates.
“(The overage players) must give their all, right from practice, and exert a strong influence on the pitch. They need to be players who can set an example for their younger teammates, but not just with their words,” Moriyasu said.
Asked whether his dual workload with the Olympic and senior national teams created an excessive burden, Moriyasu, who took the reins of the Samurai Blue after last year’s World Cup, said the arrangement made his job easier.
“I don’t think there are any disadvantages. When it comes to a group with an overlap (between senior national team and Olympic players), managing both teams concurrently makes things smoother.”
Japan’s prospective Olympic squad will continue its preparations at the 2020 AFC U-23 Championship this month in Thailand, where three other Asian countries will book their tickets to the Tokyo Games.