Saitama – Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu has frequently used “two categories, one team” to describe his approach to the current international soccer cycle as he has looked to build an under-24 team capable of Olympic success and integrate that generation into the senior Samurai Blue squad.
But, as has often been the case at international tournaments over the last decade and beyond, it is usually a case of “one team, two Japans.”
The first Japan is indecisive and hesitant, unable to capitalize on chances and reluctant to seize the initiative — even against inferior opposition.
The other is a confident world-beater, capable of creating amazing displays of artistry on the pitch and inspiring breathless comparisons to the “Captain Tsubasa” manga series from foreign viewers.
The appearance of the former in Thursday’s grindy 1-0 win over South Africa raised concerns as to whether this Japan side was truly capable of surpassing the team’s fourth-place finish at the London Games and capturing the country’s first men’s soccer medal since 1968’s bronze in Mexico City.
Then came Sunday’s encounter at Saitama Stadium, where attacking midfielders Takefusa Kubo and Ritsu Doan lit up the Mexican defense and built Japan a jaw-dropping two-goal lead just 11 minutes after the opening whistle. Moriyasu’s side held on for a 2-1 win that one reporter suggested was a “historic result” for the team.
In comparison to a Mexican starting lineup that featured just one player based outside the country’s domestic Liga MX, seven of Japan’s 11 currently belong to European clubs — a clear indication of how quickly Japanese talents are now flocking to the world’s top leagues and flourishing.
“We created chances, and even though we couldn’t score that third goal we played very cleverly,” Moriyasu said on Sunday night. “In that sense when we play against big countries, we’re able to play in a way that frustrates our opponents and plays to our strengths.
“Today we saw their technical skills and mobility, these are the strengths Japanese players have. The training they’re doing day-to-day with their clubs is helping them here.”
Perhaps no player best represents this generation’s potential than Kubo, who flourished in Barcelona’s academy system before returning to Japan to spend his teenage years with FC Tokyo and Yokohama F. Marinos. The 20-year-old playmaker, who signed with Real Madrid shortly after his 18th birthday, scored Japan’s lone goal against South Africa before delivering a blistering left-footed strike past Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa on Sunday.
“Ochoa is a good goalkeeper, but I play against good keepers in Spain,” a confident Kubo said after the match. “But in the end it’s not about how good the opponent is — if you’re feeling good the ball will go in and I’m glad I was able to focus on that.”
While Kubo has yet to play for Real Madrid after two seasons on loan at other Spanish clubs, he has long been hyped as the future of Japan’s senior team and arrived at these Olympics as the squad’s most well-known player internationally, highly regarded for composure and maturity as much as for his head-turning technique.
“He’s made definitive performances and contributed significantly to our results,” Moriyasu said of Kubo. “His attacks stand out but he’s also a very good team player.
“He’s been running and defending in addition to attacking, and because he’s able to approach these games from an international perspective, he’s been able to help lead the team on this front.”
That Japan held Mexico to just one goal was even more impressive considering that the team has been without Samurai Blue center back and reported Tottenham target Takehiro Tomiyasu, whose ankle injury shortly before the tournament has kept him off the bench for both games so far.
Sunday presented another example of Japan’s emerging international depth at all positions, with Ko Itakura, fresh off his second full season at Groningen on loan from Manchester City, slotting in next to overage captain Maya Yoshida to marshal the back line.
“It’s the same for me and for the players who didn’t come on today, but we’re all preparing every day in order to play,” Itakura said. “I wasn’t aiming to make any big plays, I was just looking to use what I’ve been practicing in training to help the team.
“Everyone’s putting a lot of effort into their preparations, and whoever appears can contribute to our game because they’re putting in the effort.”
A podium finish for this Japan side would cement its reputation as the strongest the country has ever fielded at the Olympics, but it’s not just other Tokyo 2020 participants who will have to be wary of the host nation.
Japan’s ability to field an all-Europe-based squad for recent World Cup qualifiers, combined with the performances shown by these under-24s, should serve notice of the country’s potential to be a force to be reckoned with in the next five years of international tournaments — especially at the 2022 and 2026 World Cups, in Qatar and North America, respectively.
While it’s the country’s women’s teams who are best known for bringing home winner’s trophies, it could soon be the mens’ turn to move the 1968 medal to the side to make room — so long as the Japan we saw on Sunday is the one that fans continue to see.
“We’re always scouting about 50-60 players who are based overseas, and I think this has contributed to our ability to have a mindset for the world stage,” Moriyasu said of Japan’s ever-deepening talent pool. “I’m not saying it’s essential to have players who are overseas, but it’s important to be able to have that perspective and experience. The standard of our players is reaching an international standard and I think you saw that today.”
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