Taking a look at the Japanese national team, something strange has happened. What once read like a list of local heroes coming together now looks like a mix of J-League and Bundesliga talent. Familiar names from various clubs in the Bundesliga form the new crux of the Japanese national team, and with almost half the roster plying their trade in Germany, one must wonder if this is the same Japan that went to the FIFA World Cup.
In many ways, it is. The names remain similar, with the likes of Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endō making the team, and yet, this Japan team has changed quite a bit since their last appearance on the world stage.
Starting in the backline at right fullback is Atsuto Uchida, who played 24 games in 2012 for Schalke 04. Uchida, at 25 years old, is at the prime of his career. Last season, he was instrumental in Schalke’s fourth place finish, and he has been a regular in the national team since his first call up in 2008.
Stuttgart duo Shinji Okazaki and Gōtoku Sakai are important pieces in Japan’s roster. Sakai, not to be confused with fellow defender Hiroki Sakai, was born in New York and plays as a fullback. Hiroki, who plays for Hannover 96, is also a fullback, but featured sparingly for Hannover last season. The two fullbacks both made the bench against Brazil but did not see any action.
Okazaki, in particular, plays a key role in the starting line up, linking up with Honda up top. Okazaki didn’t score many goals in the Bundesliga this season, though not for a lack of trying – one goal in 25 appearances meant the Japanese centre forward spent much of the season in a supporting role, and he often linked up well with Bosnian forward Vedad Ibišević, who scored 15 goals last season.
Then there’s captain Makoto Hasebe, who plays for VfL Wolfsburg. The central midfielder is a prime example of industry in the middle of the park and his defensive work coupled with his offensive prowess made him an important piece for Wolfsburg, where he scored twice in 23 appearances.
Meanwhile, Eintracht Frankfurt’s Takashi Inui started from the bench against Brazil, though the versatile midfielder does deserve a crack at the starting line up for the next game. With six assists last season, Inui is a creative midfielder who can play in the centre behind a forward, a position occupied by Honda. In terms of assist leaders, however, it is Hiroshi Kiyotake who creates chances for Japan.
The winger enjoyed a particularly impressive 2012 season with 1. FC Nuremberg, finishing with 11 assists, a joint-third place in the Bundesliga assist charts. For Japan, Kiyotake plays on the right wing and caused problems for Marcelo throughout the encounter, but just couldn’t connect with Okazaki up top.
Finally, there’s Hajime Hosogai, a central midfielder who was recently transferred to Hertha Berlin after spending the 2012 season at Bayer Leverkusen. He came on in the final 15 minutes against Brazil, replacing Endō in midfield. For Leverkusen, Hosogai played 23 matches last season.
Let’s not forget Shinji Kagawa, who may be a Manchester United player today but played for Borussia Dortmund for two seasons before making the switch to Old Trafford last year. Kagawa’s journey to the English Premier League came after impressing with Dortmund and earning a starting spot on the left wing, and after two solid seasons in Germany, his talent was such that Sir Alex Ferguson came knocking.
These nine players, five of whom start for Japan, all ply their trade in the German Bundesliga, and for good reason. The German game requires players to be technically savvy while having a strong sense of position and ability to overlap and make runs. This particular style of play is less physical in terms of contact, and allows for these Japanese internationals to focus on their strengths, instead of their physical weaknesses.
It is in passing and movement that Japan excels the most. It is something that Takeshi Okada, the head coach of the national team during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, embraced openly. During training sessions in South Africa, and in the months of preparation beforehand, Okada implemented a series of training regimens designed specifically to increase each player’s running stamina, speed, efficiency and movement. Okada understood that his players weren’t going to physically dominate other teams, and against the likes of Cameroon or Denmark, Japan needed to rely on their strengths.
Against Cameroon, Japan outran their opposition and picked up a 1-0 win. Against, Denmark, Japan’s movement created plenty of chances, giving them a 3-1 lead. Japan moved on to the round of 16, where an unfortunate penalty shootout against Paraguay saw them eliminated from the competition.
It was a shame, really – watching Japan’s movement during the World Cup was a treat for the neutrals and an example of how football can be played without lumbering centre-halves and centre forwards.
Three years later, Japan’s Confederations Cup spot comes as a result of a commitment to maintaining these core assets and tenants of their style of play. Against the likes of Australia and Korea, Japan picked up another Asian championship title, and find themselves amongst champions in the Confederations Cup. They can thank the Bundesliga, in part, for this achievement.
Stuttgart, Wolfsburg, Schalke and the rest of the Bundesliga give Japanese players a chance to showcase their talent without being physically dominated by massive
defenders. It also increases the level of talent across the field, with Japanese players playing alongside some of Germany’s best and brightest. Consider that in the 2010 World Cup roster, only Hasebe played in the Bundesliga, and you really see the growth of Japanese soccer. There has been an influx of Japanese talent in the Bundesliga, and the Japanese national team is all the better for it!
They take on the world now, and in 2014, with the hopes that an added level of experience and a personal milestone in growth can see them advance further and further into the biggest soccer stage on the planet.