Despite a narrow defeat to one of the tournament favourites, the Netherlands,
Going into the World Cup, most had written off the Blue Samurai before the tournament had even begun after a disastrous build up, scoring just once in their six warm up encounters. Coach Takeshi Okada conceded his striking options were limited to say the least; therefore taking a different approach for the tournament. Okada moved midfield talisman Keisuke Honda into attack as a makeshift striker and packed the midfield in what was a defensive formation. Japan played a much disciplined game in their opening two fixtures, closing the opposition down at every chance. Although critics have dubbed it negative football, it has seen Japan on the cusp of an historic progression to the second round. In Japan’s first two group games, their defensive tactics denied both Cameroon and the Netherlands too many clear cut chances at goal.
Looking ahead to their decisive game against Denmark, the Japan camp claimed that rather than play defensively, they will take the game to the Danes. Okada assured that Japan will look to play positive football: “We will play as we usually do,” he said. “We will go for a win from the outset. Attack is the best form of defence. The game will be tough if we don’t pressure the opposition on the offensive.” The Blue Samurai captain Makato Hasebe also vowed that his Japan team would play attacking football: “We are getting better and better as a team and the players are feeling it. We are going to play with a positive attitude.” Even though the Blue Samurai’s negative football has been criticised by some pundits, it has been effective in seeing them win their first ever World Cup match away from Japan and lose by just one goal to the Dutch, despite being expected to be heavily beaten. So can Japan risk playing attacking football rather than play to their strengths defensively, with just a point required?
Against the Dutch, Japan packed the midfield and denied the Oranje the chance to get the ball to their central stars, such as Wesley Sneijder, which muted them as they failed to offer any alternative. However, Denmark possess a different threat with width from former Charlton Athletic midfielder Dennis Rommedahl on the wing, who set up Denmark’s first goal against Cameroon for Nicklas Bendtner. The impressive Rommedahl took advantage of the space left by an open Cameroon defence, making it vital that Japan retain the disciplined defensive display that has seen them concede just one goal in the tournament so far, an unfortunate one to concede at that.
However, it’s unlikely that Okada’s main concern will be defence. Although the Blue Samurai have conceded just one goal in the tournament thus far, they have also scored just the one. Were Denmark to beat the miserly Japan defence, Okada’s men would struggle to find a response. A lack of creativity going forward and ability to keep possession has seen the Blue Samurai create very few chances, and the rare opportunities at goal they do create are more often than not wasted. Makeshift striker Honda has been feeding off scraps so far, and has suffered from a lack of service, meaning that despite his quality and work-rate, he is struggling to make a real impact on a game. Although, Honda may well be better used as a creative midfielder, he is a victim of his own versatility and with no better alternative it is expected Okada will have to retain him up front.
Okada could potentially look to some experienced heads such as Junichi Inamoto or Shunsuke Nakamura for such a crucial match, but it is expected that despite all the positive talk from the Coach, the same formation and defensive tactics will be used against Denmark on Thursday.