OPINION: Samurai Blue dilemma over Keisuke Honda’s role at tipping point

For a generation of fans near and far who have come to admire the Samurai Blue, Keisuke Honda is Japan. That shock of blonde hair has become so synonymous with Japan over the last decade that it’s almost hard to imagine the Samurai Blue without him.

But after a disappointing 18 months for club and country, which has seen him become a peripheral figure at AC Milan and be dropped from the first XI for Japan’s last FIFA World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia, it appeared as though Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic would remain true to his word and drop 30-year-old entirely from the Japanese squad.

“I need Honda to play more on a regular basis,” Halilhodzic warned at the turn of the year.

“The national team needs Honda. He is our best goal scorer and best passer. But if he doesn’t play enough, I think the message I have sent is clear. I’ve explained to Honda that if he wants to keep playing for the national team, he has to play more.”

The mere prospect of it got people talking, and that it was considered a very real prospect highlights how far his star has fallen in recent times. Since that warning from Halilhodzic he hasn’t played a single minute for Milan.

In the end, Halilhodzic backtracked and Honda was named in Japan’s final squad for matches against the UAE and Thailand.

“Even if Honda isn’t playing for his club, the national team needs him,” Halilhodzic said when announcing the call-ups.

“He is our top striker. Obviously, I would like him to be playing more at Milan but he is always very hungry to play for Japan and his presence is required. Whether he plays and how many minutes he plays for is a different question.”

There is no doubt Honda is one of, if not the most talented player in Japan’s squad. That much is not in question, but what does Honda’s selection represent, and should Halilhodzic have followed through on his threat to axe him from the squad?

[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”Vahid Halilhodzic” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Even if Honda isn’t playing for his club, the national team needs him”[/perfectpullquote]

It’s a scenario which fans around the world are familiar with: a stalwart of the national team, a national icon, selected not because of their form, but because of their experience and what they bring to the dressing room.

In essence that is what Halilhodzic has done here, admitting as much when he said Japan “needed” Honda. The attacking midfielder, with 82 caps to his name, is unique in Japan, where conformity is the norm and individuals dare not break from the mould. Honda has no issues being an individual; he revels in it, often daring his teammates to be as bold and brash as he is.

His status as one of the veterans in the team, in a country where hierarchy is important, is an important factor in this discussion. His leadership and status in the dressing room undoubtedly make him an important asset, especially around the more inexperienced players.

Being too conservative in selection has been a criticism of Japanese coaches in the past, particularly Alberto Zaccheroni, relying too heavily on the same core of players irrespective of form, with very little experimentation which many believe lead to the stagnation of the national team, which manifested itself in Brazil in what was a bitterly disappointing tournament for the Samurai Blue.

Halilhodzic has shown he is a coach who is not afraid to upset the apple cart and say some uncomfortable home truths. But he has to make sure his bark isn’t bigger than his bite, otherwise his words will lose their impact.

As Halilhodzic says, however, just because Honda is in the squad doesn’t mean he will actually play.

The Bosnian coach showed he has the backbone required to make the big calls when he benched Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, three Samurai Blue stalwarts, for their last qualifier against Saudi Arabia. Japan’s form up until then had been rusty to say the least and a circuit breaker was needed.

Instead Yuya Osako, Yuya Kubo and Genki Haraguchi were the preferred attacking trio, and Japan turned in a performance with more attacking verve than they’d shown in their four previous qualifiers.

There are others waiting in the wings. 22-year-old Takumi Minamino, highly rated when coming through at Cerezo Osaka, has been banging in the goals for Red Bull Salzburg in the Austrian Bundesliga, with 22 goals in 59 matches since joining in January 2015. This season alone he’s scored nine times in 13 matches.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]As Halilhodzic says, however, just because Honda is in the squad doesn’t mean he will actually play.[/perfectpullquote]

Japan needs regular goal scorers; it’s been their one glaring weakness over the years. While they have a bevy of attacking talent, they have often struggled to convert their dominance into goals.

This is the conundrum that faces Halilhodzic. Minamino’s form warrants a call-up, but he has Osako, Kubo and Haraguchi ahead of him in the pecking order, as well as Okazaki and the exciting Takuma Asano.

Which leaves Honda.

Does his experience, irrespective of his poor form, count for more than Minamino’s compelling form? Given those ahead of him it may be unlikely that Minamino will see substantial, if any, game time. The same applies for Honda. So is it more worthwhile to have Honda’s experience and competitiveness in the squad?

This is the fine line Halilhodzic needs to tread. Honda is an asset, but how long does he continue down this path before Honda becomes a liability, keeping out a promising young attacker who is fit and firing?

If his club situation doesn’t improve by the end of the season ahead of June’s crucial qualifiers, Halilhodzic will have to bite the bullet.

As tempting as it may be to keep relying on the veterans, many now-former national team coaches know only too well the danger that path holds. In the short and long term, it may not be a risk Japan can afford to take.

Paul Williams’s writing on Asian football can be read in The World Game, FourFourTwo Singapore, Al Jazeera English, Soccerphile, and many other publications. He can be found on Twitter at @PaulWilliams_85