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04.06.2014 World Cup

World Cup 2014: Japan tactics and key questions – the expert's view

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This article is part of the Guardian's  World Cup 2014  Experts' Network, a co-operation between 32 of the best media organisations from the countries who have qualified for the finals in Brazil. is running previews from four countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 12 June.

The underlying theme for Alberto Zaccheroni during his four-year reign in charge of the  Samurai Blue  has been to prepare a side capable of embracing the global stage on their own terms.

After the previous manager Takeshi Okada sealed qualification for the last  World Cup  in South Africa in June 2009, he discovered that opponents of a higher standard than those faced in the Asian preliminaries had little problem exploiting the vast space that opened up between  Japan 's creative midfield and their capable but slow centre-backs.

Embarrassing capitulations in friendlies against Holland, Serbia, and South Korea prompted an emergency tactical reshuffle on the eve of the World Cup, with Yuki Abe brought in as an extra defensive midfielder and Keisuke Honda deployed as a false nine with no genuine forwards. The move was a great success as Japan reached the knockout stages on foreign soil for the first time, though the sense was that Paraguay were there for the taking in the last 16 if only Okada's men  had approached the game more positively before going out on penalties .

Installing an Italian as his successor, however, was not an indication that Japan were to persist with a conservative approach. Zaccheroni immediately dispensed with a number of the old guard, reinstated the 4-2-3-1 formation, and sought to mould an exciting new team around the younger attacking midfielders and full-backs beginning to make waves in European club football. Argentina were sensationally  beaten in his debut match  at the helm, while his first competitive action at the 2011 Asian Cup saw Japan steadily grow in prowess as the tournament progressed to seal outright victory. Encouragingly, from a long-term perspective, 'Zac Japan' have always saved their most effective performances for higher-level opponents; even if they do sometimes struggle to break down weaker continental teams content to park the bus.

The 24th man in 2010, Shinji Kagawa instantly became a key player for Zaccheroni as he did for Jürgen Klopp, but despite earning the No10 shirt for his national team, the Manchester United man is seldom deployed in the centre. The hub of the side, instead, is Honda, whose demanding attitude, composure, and consistency - at least in a Japan shirt - makes him the ideal orchestrator for their fast, fluid attacking play.

Increasingly, over the past couple of years, Honda adopts a slightly withdrawn starting position to link more effectively with the two  volante  - Japanese imports its word for deep-lying or defensive midfielders from Brazil - while Kagawa and the third attacking midfielder move inside to offer short, triangular passes. This allows Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida to bomb forward from full-back, with Honda then arriving late into the penalty area and providing a potent additional goal threat.

Perhaps ironically, Japan's obvious weakness is now in defence, and particularly at centre-back. At last year's Confederations Cup, the Samurai Blue  dominated Italy high up the pitch for 70 minutes  but conceded four times in the other 20 to lose 4-3 , while suffering miserable defeats to Brazil and Mexico in games where their attacking players failed to shine.

This prompted rather haughty cries of naivete in the international press, but the fact is that Japan depend upon their high line; they function best both attackingly and defensively when the front players press high and the  volante  gain time on the ball around or beyond the halfway line. It is when they sit back, or allow themselves to be pushed back, that they start to crumble. Ideally, Maya Yoshida would have enjoyed more playing time at Southampton this season, and a young J-League centre-back would have broken through to take the place of the utility man Yasuyuki Konno - who doesn't even get picked in defence for a notoriously porous Gamba Osaka. But that hasn't happened, so Japan are better off going for it and playing to their strengths.

The biggest criticism of Zaccheroni has been his reluctance to try new things - barring an ineffective experiment with his old 3-4-3 as a Plan B - or new personnel. However, the East Asian Cup in July 2013 required the former Milan and Juventus manager to select a squad of domestic-based players, which has seemed to refresh his thinking a little. No fewer than six of his list of 23 for Brazil made their international debuts in that tournament, including the 26-year-old FC Tokyo defender Masato Morishige, as well as the forwards Yoichiro Kakitani and Yuya Osako. Kakitani scored in Japan's 3-2 victory away to Belgium last November, but it was Osako, now of 1860 Munich, who really caught the eye with a goal and an assist for Honda during an impressive 2-2 draw away to the Netherlands four days earlier.

That said, arguably the most significant new arrival is the midfield dynamo Hotaru Yamaguchi of Cerezo Osaka, a member of the Japan under-23 team that finished fourth at the London 2012 Olympics. During the senior side's autumn tour in Europe, his work-rate and ball-winning ability imparted greater cohesion and made life much easier for either his captain Makoto Hasebe or the 141-cap Yasuhito Endo alongside him. It may well be that Japan's two veteran  volante  are now playing for one spot next to Yamaguchi, who celebrated his World Cup call-up by abandoning his trademark peroxide coiffure and re-dying it black.

Hiroshi Kiyotake of Nürnberg has often been favoured for the right-midfield position, but Shinji Okazaki has sparkled - albeit in a more advanced role - since joining Mainz at the beginning of this season and looks the favourite to start in Brazil. The Standard Liège goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima is prone to the odd moment of madness but will likely edge out Shusaku Nishikawa of Urawa Reds.

Who is the player who is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?

Japan may still lack a top-class goalscorer, but they don't necessarily need one as long as the striker facilitates those just behind him. As he showed against Holland, Yuya Osako can be that man. The 23-year-old sometimes flattered to deceive during his first four years at Kashima Antlers and was dropped from the Japan squad for the London Olympics. But 19 J-League goals in 2013 earned him a chance at the East Asian Cup, before that excellent performance against Holland where he combined so well with Honda, Kagawa, and Okazaki. A January move to the Bundesliga second tier appeared risky six months ahead of the World Cup, but Osako has been a regular performer for mid-table 1860 Munich, top scoring with six goals in just 15 appearances.

Who is the player who is going to disappoint the most?

The clear issue is in defence, but since expectations there are so low as a result, it probably would not count as a disappointment if the back line imploded. As a colleague at JSports recently pointed out, Honda may be the absolute central player to whom injury would be most devastating, but because he is such a consistent performer, Japan's fortunes actually depend more on the form of  Shinji Kagawa . It is vital for the side's attacking fluency that the former Borussia Dortmund star is confident and on his game. There is little point in Honda pulling all the strings in midfield if Kagawa is moping about his difficult season at Old Trafford and cannot exert similar levels of influence.

What is the realistic aim for your team at the World Cup and why?

To go one step better than South Africa 2010 and reach the quarter-finals. Under Zaccheroni, Japan no longer have to compromise their attacking capabilities as they did four years ago, and as they have shown over the past 12 months against Italy, Holland, and Belgium - as well as Argentina and France earlier in Zac's reign - on their day they are capable of troubling and beating the very best sides in international football. However, when forced backwards their defence can capitulate to almost any opponent, so it will be vital for Japan to seize their attacking rhythm early on in matches and remain on the front foot. There are by no means any guarantees of escaping a very challenging, evenly-matched group with Ivory Coast, Greece and Colombia, but doing so would give them plenty of confidence ahead of a potential clash with England or rematch against Italy in the last 16.

Ben Mabley is an Osaka-based football writer and television pundit for JSports

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