The Blue Samurais have omitted senior players such as Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki from their squad for the tournament.
It was eight years ago, that an Alberto Zaccheroni-led Japan thwarted Australia’s bid for a first AFC Asian Cup triumph, by overcoming the Socceroos in a tense and closely fought final, reinstating their claim as the best on the continent. However, since the pinnacle in Qatar, the Blue Samurai have gone through contrasting periods. Japan had a miserable outing in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, finishing bottom of their group with only one point, before being ousted by a resilient United Arab Emirates in the quarterfinals of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.
Since the premature exit in the 2015 tournament, Japan have shown considerable strength and spirit, clawing their way back with impressive performances in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The team, coached by Akira Nishino managed to qualify for the Round of 16 – the only Asian team to do so – and gave tournament favourites Belgium a run for their money, before succumbing in injury-time.
The side displayed an offensive style that impressed fans and neutrals alike and was a major factor in them carving out a 2-0 lead in the Round of 16 game. Nishino stepped down after the World Cup and his assistant Hajime Moriyasu was given the reins of the team for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
As the squad gears up for the tournament under the former Sanfrecce Hiroshima midfielder, they will look to embrace the same offensive style they used during the World Cup. However, one major hurdle that they will have to overcome is the lack of experience in the squad.
The 2018 World Cup squad had seven players who had made 50 or more appearances for the national team. In comparison, the current group only has two players who have done the same, Galatasaray defender Yuto Nagatomo and captain Maya Yoshida. Both of them, along with goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda, are the only players in the current squad to have featured in the title-winning team of 2011.
With several mainstays like Makoto Hasebe and Keisuke Honda retiring after the World Cup and big names like Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki omitted due to lack of game-time for their clubs, the Blue Samurai have a huge hole in terms of maturity within their ranks.
Moriyasu’s attacking philosophy is derived from Nishino’s system used at the World Cup, with the employment of three attacking midfielders behind the striker. The former’s preferred trio of Ritsu Doan, Shoya Nakajima, and Takumi Minamino will be aiming to fill in for the likes of Takashi Inui, Genki Haraguchi and Kagawa. However, Doan, Nakajima, and Minamino have less than 20 appearances between them for Japan.
The East Asian side will need the trio to produce mature and consistent performances if they are to win their fifth Asian Cup. All three players have been impressive for their clubs and the onus will be on them to reproduce the same form in the Blue Samurai uniform. With experienced goalkeeper Kawashima and former captain and midfielder Hasebe also not in the squad, Moriyasu will expect Masaaki Higashiguchi and Gaku Shibasaki to take over the respective roles and fit in seamlessly.
So far, post-World Cup, Japan have been a force to be reckoned with, scoring 15 goals in five matches, with four wins and one draw. Minamino has been excellent in this period scoring four goals while Doan and Nakajima have netted one each.
The young Japanese side have also kept three clean-sheets during this period. However, the tournament is a different animal compared to the friendlies and Japan enter the AFC Asian Cup 2019 with a squad that has little experience when it comes to major events. But, Moriyasu will be banking on the young talent at his disposal to come good and live up to the tag of favourites.