Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu earns a reprieve after win over Socceroos

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Tuesday’s dramatic win over Australia was seemingly enough to save Samurai Blue head coach Hajime Moriyasu’s job.

Whether that salvation is deserved is another question, with the result still leaving Japan with two wins and two losses after four games — its worst start to the final group phase of World Cup qualifying since 1998.

Following defeats to Oman and Saudi Arabia and a lukewarm win over China, speculation was rife among local media that failure to beat the Socceroos would have forced the hand of Japan Football Association Chairman Kozo Tashima, who has steadfastly backed Moriyasu despite the senior team’s struggles and a frustrating Olympic campaign that ended without a podium finish.

“We have to keep giving Moriyasu and the players our full support,” Tashima told reporters on Wednesday morning. “After a win like last night’s, it’s not the right time for us to be considering such a change.”

With his tactics and selections increasingly coming under fire after Thursday’s loss to the Saudis in Jeddah, Moriyasu couldn’t have hoped for a better series of developments to shift the narrative.

Japan’s first home game at Saitama Stadium in two years, in front of its biggest home crowd since the start of the pandemic? Check.

An early goal from a little-used younger player — in this case Fortuna Dusseldorf’s Ao Tanaka, making his first competitive senior appearance — to get the crowd pumped? Check.

Chances galore, suggesting a second goal was never far away and that Japan’s recent finishing struggles would soon be a thing of the past? Check.

All of it was indicative of tactics showing that Moriyasu, who has often been accused of playing not to lose in this qualifying round, was finally in it to win it.

“In training I talked about how I wanted us to defend aggressively, push toward the opponents’ goal and play positively,” Moriyasu said. “We were in difficult circumstances and under pressure, and personally I wanted to go for the win instead of playing it safe.”

But the second goal didn’t come, and Japan’s hopes were plunged into uncertainty when Australia’s Ajdin Hrustic equalized in the 70th minute via a mesmerizing free kick from the edge of the penalty area.

After an agonizing 15 minutes came the kind of moment that so often threatens to overwhelm analysis with emotion, with Takuma Asano’s chip shot over Socceroo goalkeeper Mat Ryan deflecting off the far post into Australia defender Aziz Behich and over the line for an own goal.

The riotous celebrations made for great television, with Asano’s teammates piling on top of him on the sideline and fans breaking out in song despite anti-coronavirus protocols banning cheering still in effect. A joyous Moriyasu was all too happy to take in the moment, greeting supporters in the home end after the game.

Moriyasu greets Japan supporters after Tuesday's win. | KYODO
Moriyasu greets Japan supporters after Tuesday’s win. | KYODO

“Today’s game was difficult, but we were able to play so courageously because we had the fans behind us and I wanted to thank them,” Moriyasu said of the exchange. “I told them that we still have a tough campaign ahead of us to qualify for the World Cup and that I want them to keep fighting together with us.”

It’s hardly the first time that Moriyasu, who was also quizzed after the game about his tears during Japan’s national anthem, has relied on appeals to emotion.

Following Japan’s Aug. 6 loss to Mexico with a Tokyo 2020 bronze medal on the line, the former Sanfrecce Hiroshima player and manager spent most of his postgame news conference discussing not the tactical aspects of the 3-1 defeat, but instead the anniversary of the city’s atomic bombing that fell on the same day.

While Moriyasu did take on more questions about his tactics on Tuesday, the dramatic nature of the victory — against the country’s top rival in a game it couldn’t afford to lose — seems fated to do little more than paper over the multitude of cracks that have surfaced since he took over the program after the 2018 World Cup.

Entrusted with the task of shepherding a new generation of players into the national team as the stars of the previous three cycles begin to age out, Moriyasu has often squandered Japan’s strongest-ever player pool, instead sticking with familiar Europe-based names who have struggled at their clubs.

His reliance on Leganes midfielder Gaku Shibasaki, who started in Japan’s first three Group B games after failing to make the squad earlier this year, has become a particular point of frustration for fans and pundits.

“From a defender’s point of view Shibasaki isn’t a threat,” former Japan international Rui Ramos wrote for Chunichi Sports on Friday after an error by the 29-year-old led to Saudi Arabia’s game-winner. “What’s most baffling is that nobody on the Japan bench was upset with him, no matter how many times he lost the ball.

“That goal was symbolic of how half-hearted Japan was playing, and you can’t forgive that as a professional.”

Only with his back against the wall on Tuesday did Moriyasu make use of some of the younger talent at his disposal, with Ao Tanaka and Hidemasa Morita shining in midfield in place of Shibasaki and Daichi Hayashi.

Yet a bit more bravery — for example replacing starting striker Yuya Osako, a technical wizard who against the Socceroos was incapable of hitting the side of a barn, with Celtic standout Kyogo Furuhashi — might have resulted in a second and maybe even third goal before halftime.

Samurai Blue players greet supporters after their win over Australia on Tuesday at Saitama Stadium. | KYODO
Samurai Blue players greet supporters after their win over Australia on Tuesday at Saitama Stadium. | KYODO

Going forward, the question will be how Moriyasu treats Tuesday’s result. Was it a Band-Aid that did just enough to stop the bleeding, allowing him to revert to the risk-averse tactics the team showed in its first three games?

Or was it exploratory surgery that showed the patient — Japan’s ambitions of a seventh straight World Cup appearance and progression to the quarterfinals and beyond — is in need of more aggressive treatment if it’s to survive?

That answer won’t become clear until November, when the Samurai Blue travel to play last-place Vietnam as well as Oman, who will be feeling confident after their shock Sept. 2 win at Panasonic Stadium Suita. Anything less than six points will be a major blow to Japan’s hopes of earning an automatic berth to Qatar, raising the likelihood of having to qualify via next summer’s intercontinental playoff.

If Moriyasu can show that he believes in Japan’s new generation of players and give them the freedom to play up to their potential, it’s likely that he and Samurai Blue supporters across the country will be rewarded.

But if he reverts to form and sticks to his established squads and conservative formations, the JFA may find themselves preparing to watch the World Cup from the comfort of their living rooms, wishing they had the resolve to change the team’s course when there was still opportunity to do so.

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