Following United at the World Cup – Japan

Arguably, no Manchester United player has polarised supporter opinion in recent times more than Shinji Kagawa. Kagawa has all the talent in the world, Twitter riots started at the start of David Moyes’ ill-fated era when Kagawa was not in favour. The #FreeKagawa hashtag was just as cringeworthy as the dour football enforced by the Scot.

That said, for all his natural gift, Kagawa has not showcased this talent enough in the red shirt, so he will be looking to thrive under the intense expectation he carries for his country, and have a prosperous World Cup to give him confidence on the field, and give Louis Van Gaal the confidence that he can trust and maximise Kagawa’s ability.

Stretty News got the thoughts of World Football Weekly’s Japanese expert Chris Collins. Kagawa and Japan’s prospects in general are on the agenda in this edition of Following United at the World Cup.

What do you make of Japans group and realistically how far do you see them going in the tournament?

They have a tough group with Colombia, Ivory Coast and Greece but there are no elite nations who are overwhelming favourites to progress. All four will fancy their chances of making the last 16. It could be very tight and it would be no surprise if each nation went into the final game tied on points.

At their very best Alberto Zaccheroni’s team are a wonderful representation of the sport of football and he has selected a squad brimming with skill, technique and endeavour. Their one touch passing, one-two’s and neat little triangles are terrific to watch and I expect neutrals will enjoy their performances. However there have been serious misgivings about their defence for some time. When opponents put them under pressure, especially aerially, they seem to play with the fear of death in their boots but their collapses often have no identifiable trigger – they just happen. The last twelve months have exposed their vulnerability at set pieces and individual errors are commonplace as well.

Their recent friendly matches illustrate the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the team. Last autumn, victory over Belgium (3-2) and a draw with the Netherlands (2-2), were tangible signs of progress, yet the four goals conceded were characterised by lapses in concentration. Only this week they defeated Zambia (4-3) and Costa Rica (3-1) in warm up matches. It’s frightening how good Japan might be if they could eradicate the bad defensive habits of a generation.

Conventional wisdom suggests the last 16 is the best they can hope for if they can overcome the physical disadvantage against their group stage opponents. However, in life and in football I tend to be a naive, romantic purist so I’ll maintain my prediction that if Japan can put it all together in Brazil, their brand of fast, possession football can genuinely threaten the global footballing order.

How much pressure is on Kagawa’s shoulders? He must be idolised back home?

I think there is a huge sense of anticipation in Japan and obviously, Kagawa is central to their hopes and aspirations. I’m not based in Japan so I have to defer to the local experts on this one, many of whom believe the expectation levels to be out of proportion, as I alluded to earlier. My sense from what I read and hear is that the Japanese public expect to go deep into the tournament so yes, the pressure on the whole squad will be enormous.

Kagawa is one of the pre-eminent players and he’ll have to perform well if Japan are to enjoy a successful tournament. Their other talisman, Keisuke Honda of Milan, (often accused – unfairly in my opinion – of being more interested in self advancement than the good of the team) operates in tandem with Kagawa behind the main striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation. With the right service, this creative duo can light up the competition so while the burden of expectation may be heavy, I don’t think it is too unreasonable given the talent in the squad.

On a lighter note, the Samurai Blue are hugely popular with the youthful, female demographic in Japan and stars such as Kakitani, Kagawa and Uchida are like One Direction in the UK. So while the pressure to perform will be huge, the expectation will be that they have to look good doing it as well!

What does the future hold for Kagawa? Does he have a point to prove to Louis Van Gaal at tge World Cup? What do United have to do to get the best out of him?

I still think Kagawa can become a very influential player at Old Trafford but season 14/15 will be a critical one for him at United. It’s inconceivable to many observers in Europe and Japan that a player of his balance, awareness and intelligence has yet to fully establish himself. Quite simply he has to play more in order to cement his future. From the outside looking in, Moyes seemed to select formations that didn’t allow the creative players to prosper, but Van Gaal is a committed proponent of 4-3-3 and attacking, possession based football, an approach which will suit Kagawa if he can find a regular spot in the team ahead of Mata, or dare I say it Wayne Rooney.

Despite his age, Kagawa is hugely experienced and has the temperament to succeed in the big games. If you watch the way he dominates the ball at international level, you do wonder why he doesn’t impose himself similarly in the EPL but perhaps under Van Gaal this can change.

A successful World Cup – and we can define that as a few goals, qualification from the group, and an excellent individual performance v England, Italy or Uruguay in the last 16 – would be enough to confirm his status as one of the elite players in European football and hopefully give him the confidence to shine at Old Trafford for Louis Van Gaal.

Aside from Kagawa, who are the other names we should be keeping an eye on?

The Milan based due of Honda and Nagatomo (Inter), will be familiar to most UK based fans. Honda I’ve discussed already but Nagatomo is a very underrated full back in my opinion, not dissimilar to Philip Lahm. He has a tremendous work rate, is very tidy in possession and is a constant attacking threat. He links with Kagawa dozens if times in a game and his runs on the outside allow Shinji to drift inside and look for one-two’s in and around the box.

Shinji Ojazaki completes the attacking trident behind the frontman along with Kagawa and Honda. He could be Zaccheronis secret weapon in Brazil. He has just come off a superb season with Mainz in the Bundesliga and knows his way to goal having scored an incredible 38 goals in 79 internationals. At 28 years old, the ship to the big time has probably sailed but Okazaki will score in Brazil and perhaps even outshine his more illustrious team mates.

Six months ago I would have confidently predicted that Yoichiro Kakitani would be the breakout star of the World Cup. He was scoring all manner of outstanding goals for Cerezo Osaka and netted three times in his first five games for Japan, but since his club signed ex United frontman Diego Forlan, Kakitani appears to be playing in his shadow and the goals have dried up. He is reportedly in talks with Fiorentina and may still lead the line in Brazil. If he can recapture some confidence he is one to watch out for along with his club mate, Hotaru Yamaguchi, who is an emerging midfielder.

Japans most capped player, Yasuhito Endo continues to polarise opinion in Japan. Some fans and pundits argue that while he has been a great player, recent performances have graphically illustrated the ageing process and he should make way for younger talent to come through. Others regard him as an Asian Pirlo, whose experience, range of passing and ball retention will be invaluable in Brazil, a view I tend to agree with.

Is there an untapped market for players in Asia? Is the talent there and can you see any more imports coming to England?

English clubs, whethere at Premier or Championship level, seem strangely reluctant to scout the J-League for emerging talent. Japanese players offer tactical discipline, excellent technique and tremendous value for money, attributes that Bundesliga clubs have been quick to recognise and take advantage of. The J-League is an incredible competition with a genuine capacity to enthrall. The style of play is largely untouched by the cynicism that has infected more developed football nations, which makes for fair and sporting encounters, but means that domestic talent lacks the streetwise savvy of Europeans and South Americans on the big stage. The more Japanese players who play abroad and gain an understanding of the game intelligence required at the top level for success, the better it will be for the nations footballing development.

In the meantime, if Japanese players are to make it to England they will likely arrive via the Bundesliga or Belgium, as there appear to be very few strategic links between clubs at the moment.

Undoubtedly, the talent exists. There is a decent conveyer belt of talent in Japan and players like Yu Kobayashi of Kawasaki Frontale and Minamino of Cerezo Osaka (who scored a 25 yard screamer against United in July) can consider themselves unfortunate not to make the squad, though their time will come.

When ex United player Gordon Strachan managed Shunsuke Nakamura at Celtic, he said he was the most gifted player he had coached or played alongside, a list that includes Cantona, Dalglish and Whiteside. Japan produces tremendously accomplished technical players.

Unfortunately, physical stature and lack of top level experience often renders Japanese players exemplary technique redundant. Let me put it like this. If Japan play England in the last sixteen, I would expect Zaccheroni’s men to pass them off the park and enjoy about 65% possession, but I think England would probably win.

I’m not sure about the rest of Asia though – China seem to be leapfrogging a few decades of development by attracting South American players at the peak of their powers to play for wealthy clubs like Guanzhoy Evergrande. Whether that is a sustainable model that will allow domestic talent to develop and move abroad is another matter entirely.

That is all for the future though. At this World Cup, United fans should cast off any preconceptions of Japan and enjoy the brilliant eccentricty of their performances and the contribution of Kagawa. Expect the unexpected, but prepare to be entertained.

Stretty News would like to thank Chris for his thoughts on our Japanese playmaker and his country’s prospects.

You can follow more of Chris’ musings on his Twitter – @chriscoll10

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