Japan National Team

Every four years, national pride and footie artistry reach peak levels in a global dance of no small magnitude, the World Cup is here again. This summer, all eyes will be focused on Russia as the time to crown a champion draws ever near. With the sport’s best and brightest from 32 lucky nations on display, it’s time to take a look at what each squad brings to the table. We will dive deep beyond the usual team sheets, we’ll scratch beyond the player names, and get you ready to be the smartest on the couch/bar stool for Russia 2018.

Qualifying Record (W-D-L) 13-3-2
Current FIFA World Ranking (May 2018) – 60th
World Cup 2014 Finish – 1st round exit
Russia 2018 Group H (Poland, Senegal, Colombia, JAPAN)
Formation – 3-4-2-1 (variable)
Strengths – Experience, midfield fluidity
Weaknesses – Depth, Defense
Major Threat – Maya Yoshida, Shinji Kagawa

Japan has always been a bit of an enigma on the world stage. Possessing talented players and always being one of the top teams in their qualifying group, Japan enters into the Russian World Cup with so many questions that it’s difficult to see the Samurai Blue making much of a splash. A brand new coach who has only been hired in the last few months, several players who were not used extensively in qualifying now called in to play big roles in Russia, and Japan hasn’t beaten a team ranked over 40th in the world since 2013. It’s not exactly the sunniest outlook for Japan. However, there’s always a player from Japan who seems to announce himself on the biggest stage and become a big player for a big club moving forward.

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Federation Goal for RUSSIA 2018:

If Japan can catch Poland or Colombia struggling for points to exit the group, Japan could actually sneak into the knockout stages. History is on Japan’s side, as every World Cup campaign since 1998 has rotated between a Group Stage exit and a Round of 16 exit and 2014 saw Japan not escaping the group so all we’re saying is it may be time to advance again. The JFA know that this is a tough group and will take solace in any kind of respectable showing.


The first choice between the sticks for Japan has to be Eiji Kawashima who has been the first choice for most of qualifying and the build-up. Japan’s other keepers on the way to Russia only have 7 total caps between them. Even if scorelines don’t go Japan’s way, it would be a bit shocking to see Kawashima not getting the nod. Not only is the Metz keeper the most experienced, but this will be his last World Cup for Japan.

The back-line that is used by Japan is meant to anchor the 4-3-3 that we expect to see from Japan in Russia but it’s really hard to tell what the formation will be since Coach Akira Nishino took charge of the team. We will assume that a back 4 will be the continued formation. The central defenders will want to stay deep and try to keep from letting teams stretch them out, but the wide defenders will want to help a team that will be looking to build success on the counter attack. Look for Tomoaki Makino and Maya Yoshida to get the nod in the middle of the defense. Yoshida actually represents one of Japan’s greatest goal threats as he has the fourth highest goal total of the entirety of this Japan squad. Look for every free-kick and corner to see a ball lofted straight towards Yoshida as he looks to head in the goal or knock down the ball for other Japanese players.

We’d look for Hiroki Sakai or Gotoku Sakai to get the starting chance while there’s no doubt that Yuto Nagatomo will get the nod on the opposite wing. Nagatomo’s experience will be vital in shutting down Colombian wing play, and keep an eye as Nagatomo bombs forward during any and every attack.

Japan might attempt to see what Naomichi Ueda and Gen Shoji can do together as central defenders as they play together during their club season. However, they’ve only ever played a total of 14 times for the national team (total), but this pair currently represents the future central defender pairing for the Blue Samurai. If Japan is looking to bring in an extra central defender late in a game or is looking to shift from Yoshia or Makino in the starting line-up, the oldest defender in Japan’s squad (Tomoaki Makino) could show up for a shift.


The subject of much debate in Japan had been how stars Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa were seen as players who didn’t fit the starting philosophy under the last coach. Japan has shifted their philosophy over the last few years from a slow-building possession team into a team that likes to hit teams on the counter attack. However, with the recent management change, it all means that Kagawa and Honda will probably be back in the good graces once Japan starts their campaign in Russia. We won’t know exactly what their preferred midfield and attack will look like until Japan lines up in Russia, but that won’t stop us from taking a decent guess.

Look for Japan to sit Makoto Hasebe deep (he’s the captain of the Japan squad) and perhaps add a secondary defensive midfielder in Hotaru Yamaguchi. It all depends on how closely Japan sticks with the line-up of the last regime. These players aren’t known for their creative abilities, and will be employed to slow down attacks and allow the attacking players a bit more freedom to be ready for the counter.

Gaku Shibasaki will come off the bench for the two defensive midfielders in order to give a bit more attacking craft in the middle of the field. Ryota Oshima is also an option here, but it’s unlikely that this player with only four caps to his name gets a chance during a World Cup where player experience will be utilized to overcome the recent managerial change.

Every other midfielder that Japan is bringing along loves to play as a winger or play off the strikers. While Honda and Kagawa would be the easy choice for fans of the two players, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Takashi Inui and Takashi Usami also getting a chance at aiding the attack. Genki Haraguchi also has an impressive goal return, and could be employed behind the attack. However, all three of these players will need to somehow jump in front of Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa in order to get the starting nod. If we were choosing the 11, there’s no doubt that Honda would sit with the midfield three, Kagawa would be a part of the front three playing off the striker, and then Inui or Usami would play the second part of the front three.


Japan is only taking three out-and-out strikers to the World Cup, and this spot on the field might also be anybody’s guess as this group’s best goal tally (Shinji Okazaki with 50 goals in 112 caps) was not the preferred starting choice over the last few months. Yoshinori Muto has had a fairly good season in the Bundesliga and is the Japanese striker coming off of the best scoring season for their club, and he’s also the youngest striker traveling with the squad. Muto would be an easy choice if you’re trying to go on form and look towards the future for Japan, and we’d be willing to sit Okazaki in favor of Muto trying to make himself known on the biggest stage.

However, despite Muto being the easy choice if we were simply playing FIFA, we can’t overstate how important Okazaki’s experience will be with a squad adapting to a new style of managing throughout their time in Russia. We’d be quite surprised if Okazaki isn’t in the starting 11, but Muto would be a great option to come off the bench a bit after halftime to try and get Japan some more attacking prowess. Yuya Osako hasn’t had the best season with Werder Bremen, and we wouldn’t expect to see him play unless Japan is attempting to throw everything they possibly can onto the pitch.

GAME by GAME (v Colombia, v Senegal, v Poland)

*Keys to Colombia Game: The Colombian team that will show Japan exactly what counter attacking speed can look like at its most lethal, it might end up being a case of being unable to stifle such a potent attack. However, this game is where Japan could exploit their free-kick talents allowing Honda or Yoshida to extend their international scoring. Still, it won’t be enough to catch up as every Japanese substitution to add attacking potency severely alters the strength of this group’s defense and compactness.
Prediction: Colombia makes their statement in this game, 4-1 and all three points to Los Cafeteros.

*Keys to Senegal Game: Easily Japan’s best chance at three points and a game that will be absolutely necessary if Japan is wanting to exit the group. If this game ends in anything other than a Japan victory, you might as well go ahead and pack their bags. Japan’s counter attack will create chances against Senegal, and Senegal is exactly the type of team that Japan usually succeeds against.
Prediction: Japan wins 2-1

*Keys to Poland Game: Out of Colombia and Poland, Poland seems to be the team that Japan’s counter attack could find the most success. Poland defends strongly, but pace isn’t exactly Poland’s defensive calling card. Still, if there’s going to be a group that Robert Lewandowski sees as susceptible to his talents, it will be a defense with only one player clocking in at over six feet tall. Poland will have the height and power to shut down any free-kick advantage Japan might typically feel they possess.
Prediction: Our heart says Japan, but our head says Poland wins a 3-2 goalfest.

Here’s the Japanese Roster for Russia 2018

GOALKEEPERS (3): Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Masaaki Igashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), and Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol)

DEFENDERS (8): Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers), Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers), Yuto Nagatomo (Galatasaray), Wataru Endo (Urawa Red Diamonds), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Red Diamonds), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg), and Maya Yoshida (Southampton)

MIDFIELDERS (9): Keisuke Honda (Pachuca), Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), Genki Haraguchi (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Takashi Usami (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Takashi Inui (Betis), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), and Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale)

STRIKERS (3): Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City), Yoshinori Muto (Mainz 05), and Yuya Osako (Werder Bremen)

Piece by Andrew McCole, frequent Center Circle writer, boot prince, and never walking alone at Liverpool FC.


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