BOTHROYD: Japan’s mindset, not talent, will be key to success or failure for Samurai Blue at World Cup 2022

By | November 18, 2022

Since coming back to England, I always get asked the question: “What’s the standard like in Japan?” 

I always say the same thing: It’s fantastic, these players are technicians. They can keep the ball against anyone. But the problem is the Japanese national team has always lacked belief. They’re just happy to turn up and be there. That’s what frustrated me in my time in the country. 

I want to see Japan do really well at this World Cup, and beyond. I spent six years of my life there, so I would love to see these players that I played with and against go and do things that would make me proud of them.

In the J.League, it sometimes felt to me that losing a game was acceptable, because there’s always another one next week. That’s a mindset I don’t like, and I think a lot of the players have it. But it’s not just football, it’s a cultural thing. 

In Japan, you have the culture of the salaryman, who gets a job after graduating and becomes comfortable staying with the same company their whole career. That’s an entirely different end of the spectrum to a footballer, but the mindset is the same. You’ll protect something rather than go at something.

There was an element of that in the dramatic 3-2 defeat to Belgium in the 2018 World Cup. At 2-0 up, Japan should have just kept playing the same way they were. They tried to protect their lead, and you can’t do that against those sorts of nations like Belgium. 

Qualification for the World Cup is easy for Japan — the teams they are qualifying against aren’t good enough; they’re nowhere near as good as Japanese players. The analogy that I would use is that you don’t say ‘congratulations’ for sending your son to school, he just goes to school. You’re getting excited about something when you should be doing it anyway.
Despite how tough their group is in Qatar, with European heavyweights Spain and Germany included in there, Japan can progress in this tournament. They’ve got the quality, with Takefusa Kubo, Kaoru Mitoma, Takumi Minamino and Daichi Kamada. They can go and do it. They need the manager, Hajime Moriyasu, to encourage it.

Look at the Dutch team at this World Cup — the Netherlands have a better history, but in terms of man-for-man talent, Japan are very similar. I need to see them go into that first game against Germany with no fear.

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If we’re being honest, the defence is the weakest part of the Japanese national team, but Takehiro Tomiyasu is a fantastic player. I watch him all the time for Arsenal and he’s a really, really good defender. He’s very consistent, strong and good going forward. He can play right-back and left-back, as well as at centre-back in a three. 

Tomiyasu is the player I would look towards to educate the rest of the defenders. I want to see him controlling that line, because he’s the best Japan has. If they play with a back four, you probably want one of the full-backs tucking in, which is something Tomiyasu is used to doing at Arsenal. 

Then I’d say to the attackers, “Go and play, go and affect the game, go and show us what you’re all about.” 

Mitoma is having a great season in the Premier League and Kamada has been fantastic in the Bundesliga. Go and show me in the national team now what you can do, because there’s no bigger stage than the World Cup.

Group E is probably the hardest of any in the tournament; Germany, Spain and Costa Rica are all respected nations. In the opening match, Germany could dominate Japan physically, but you can’t say the same about Spain. Compared to Costa Rica, player-for-player, Japan are better, and the manager should be targeting them in the second game.

MORE: Breakdown of Japan’s Group E at Qatar 2022

If you get four points in your group, you’re probably going to go through. That’s the target Moriyasu needs to set, and he has consistently said that Japan should be aiming to reach the quarterfinals at least. 

You need to show ambition by saying, “This is what we expect, and anything less than this is a failure”.