Copa América 2019 Tactical Preview: Japan

Copa America 2019 Tactical Analysis Preview: Japan
Artwork by @Chapluana

Japan enters it’s second major international tournament in six months as they take part in this years Copa América. Referring to the disappointment of the Asian Cup where Japan fell in the final to fellow Copa América participants in Qatar 3-1. Now Japan will be on the plane to Brazil in search of causing a stir in the premier South American tournament. The face a tricky group with Chile, Ecuador and, Uruguay with progression looming as an unlikely prospect. This tactical preview of Japan will look at the squad selected by manager Hajime Moriyasu, tactics deployed and players to keep an eye on


Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Strasbourg), Ryosuke Kojima (Oita Trinita), Kesuike Osako (Sanfrecce Hiroshima)

Defenders: Takehiro Tomiyasu (Sint-Truiden), Naomichi Ueda (Cercle Brugge), Teruki Hara (Sagan Tosu), Ko Itakura (Groningen), Daiki Suga (Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo), Daiki Sugioka (Shonan Bellmare), Yugo Tatsuta (Shimizu S-Pulse)

Midfielders: Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), Shoya Nakajima (Al-Duhail), Takefusa Kubo (FC Tokyo), Hiroki Abe (Kashima Antlers), Tatsuya Ito (Hamburger SV), Taishi Matsumoto (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Koji Miyoshi (Yokohama F. Marinos) Yuta Nakayama (PEC Zwolle), Kota Watanabe (Tokyo Verdy)

Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City), Daizen Maeda (Matsumoto Yamaga) Ayase Ueda (Hosei University)

This Japanese squad is very much one for the future with an eye on the Olympics next year. Moriyasu has selected a plethora of players under 25 with Kawashima, Shibasaki, and Okazaki the only three who have considerable experience. From the squad of 23, only seven are capped. It would be fair to say that the Japanese squad is experimental at best as they blood the future stars of football in Japan.

Potential formation outlook

Traditionally, Moriyasu has favoured a conventional 4-2-3-1 formation which had been proven to be successful prior to becoming national team coach. His Sanfrecce Hiroshima sides were very strong defensively and very rarely did they concede. However, in Japan’s last two friendlies against El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago Moriyasu has reverted to a back three.

In the 3-4-3, Japan will have at least one ball playing midfielder with the two wing backs being both right midfielders. In the 2-0 win of El Salvador, Moriyasu opted for Genki Haraguchi and Junyu Ito. Both known as conventional wide midfielders who are strong going forward. Could be something we with the likes of Hiroki Abe and Tatsuya Ito as the wing backs pressing forward. Whoever plays in the wing back slots must have a strong symmetry with the attacking wingers when in possession. Overlaps and utilising the offensive overloads will be key in Japan’s identity going forward.

Attacking Style of Play

Width, that is something we will see Japan try to exploit and utilise throughout the Copa América. Whilst it isn’t for some, Japan will play down the channels and with the formation of choice, they’ll look to force overlaps if possible. As mentioned before, the chemistry between the wing backs and the attacking wingers will be very important. If an option down one channel isn’t open, expect ball retention and swinging the ball to the other flank. Let’s look at Japan using the wide areas to create.

In this scenario, the centre-half has pushed up into the attack and is on the ball, closest to the touchline is Ito with Ryan Doan the closest centrally. Doan has dropped deeper allowing Ito to overlap into an advanced area of the pitch. Ito will receive possession which sees Doan come towards to collect.

Copa America 2019 Tactical Analysis Preview: JapanCopa America 2019 Tactical Analysis Preview: Japan

When Doan receives possession, Ito’s first instinct is to attack the box. As the defence collapses on the ball carrier Ito makes his move. He is goal side on his opponent and with the vacated space in the box, this move can continue. The basis of the triangle and using the tight spaces to their advantages. Japan will favour playing out wide compared to up the middle trusting their pace and quickness with the ball at feet to be a difference maker.

Defensive structure

With the 3-4-3 system that Japan uses and the reliance on attacking through the wings, the defensive structure requires plenty of hard running from the wingbacks. Whoever fills the void in the Copa América, must ensure they don’t void their defensive responsibilities otherwise opponents will have a field day as the centre-backs are stretched trying to cover. We have two situations within the analysis which showcases the formation defensively as well mild presses towards half way.

Copa America 2019 Tactical Analysis Preview: Japan

Delving into the formation at a still ball scenario as Japan reveal their form. The system reverts to a 5-4-1 with the striker isolated, the attacking wingers tucking in tight and the wing backs creating a back five. The attacking wingers remain tight to help cover the central midfielders.

If the opponent goes wide the wing backs will spread wide as the defence shifts to create potential overloads. The system can create counter-attacking opportunities when possession is won back. Initial movements for the wing backs will be to go and attack alongside the wingers.

Copa America 2019 Tactical Analysis Preview: Japan

Here is a situation without the ball as El Salvador try to play it around the back. As mentioned, the importance of the wide players working together is key in this system. Ito is coming up to press the midfielder on the ball and Doan is looking to cut off the supply back to the defender. If the pass is successful Doan can press the ball carrier and Japan can move their defensive line forward. The press will be mild but still has a strong possibility of winning the ball back and countering.

Key player: Takehiro Tomiyasu

The most experienced defender in the Japanese squad is Sint-Truiden’s Takehiro Tomiyasu. Native of Fukuoka, Tomiyasu has just the 12 caps under his belt for the national team with all of those under current manager Moriyasu. Prior to the rise to Belgian football, Tomiyasu is a product of home town club Avispa Fukuoka. At 16, the defender made his debut in an Emperor’s Cup defeat at Machida Zelvia. From there, Tomiyasu became a regular especially in the 2017 J2 League season where he made 35 appearances.

Towards the tail end of the 2017/18 season, Tomiyasu made the jump to Sint-Truiden where he initially struggled to make the first team. However, the adjustment to Belgium has now become seamless. Tomiyasu was a regular fixture in the Sint-Truiden side this season making 40 appearances in all competition where the 20-year old made a real impression in just his second season at the club.

Copa America 2019 Tactical Analysis Preview: Japan

Tomiyasu is a ball playing defender and showed throughout this season his worth in possession. From passes attempted in Jupiler League play, Tomiyasu completed 87.9% of those which exceeds the team average of 82.7%. As we can see from the passing maps above, Tomiyasu looks to play the ball centrally at all costs. This can be explained by his positioning in the back three where he is one of the wide centre-halfs. As his side switches the play, Tomiyasu plays a key role in the build-up.

Young Player to Watch: Takefusa Kubo

Wonderkid by nature and heralded as the Japanese Messi, Takefusa Kubo will get his chance on the big stage of a major international tournament. The only player in the Japanese squad born in the 2000’s, Kubo will have all eyes on him as clubs in Europe look to solidify their thoughts on the special midfielder.

Kubo plays for FC Tokyo and his story is quite remarkable, at youth level he represented his home town club Kawasaki Frontale for a season before joining Barcelona as an 11-year-old. Four seasons at the Spanish club before returning to Japan and his current club Tokyo. At just 15, Kubo made his senior debut and floated between the first team and U23 side playing in J3 League until this season.

The now 18-year old has been a force for Tokyo in the J-League is part of the reason as to why they sit top of the standings. In 13 league appearances, Kubo has four goals and four assists which contributes to 38% of goals scored in the J-League for Tokyo. Predominantly deployed on the right of midfield, Kubo can play in a variety of attacking areas and will be someone we see regularly. Big name clubs are keeping tabs on Kubo, a strong Copa América will only aid his progression back towards the European football circle.


The expectations for Japan to progress past the group stage of the Copa América are low with the big picture at play. An inexperienced side to which has its sights firmly set on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. That said, this squad selected by Moriyasu is very exciting and one in which we hope will be able to match the more experienced sides in their group. With a lot of the players in the squad uncapped, it could be a worry if the occasion gets the better of them.

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