Japan’s national team will be facing a generation change in the time between next year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia and the following edition in 2022 hosted by Qatar.
While the Samurai Blue have become a respected opponent for many other teams, one of Japan’s biggest challenges is scoring goals. That is where the team’s focus will lie for major tournaments in the next few years. With Shinji Okazaki, Shinji Kagawa, and Keisuke Honda, Japan’s national coach Vahid Halilhodzic has had many options for the attack to choose from up until now, and those three have almost every time delivered good results for the Japanese side.
But what if those players retire in the near future or are unable to play for a longer period of time? Which players could fill the gap and become the future of the Japanese offensive line?
There are three potential candidates: One player who already is part of Halilhodzic’s team and has the potential to become the national team’s number one go-to guy in the attack is Yuya Osako. The 27-year-old striker, who currently plays for 1. FC Koeln, would be the option for the position of the lone striker or the ‘shadow.’ Osako’s strength lies in keeping the ball and initiating attacks that he himself often finishes.
The former Kashima Antlers player had his best season with Koln this year, scoring seven goals and providing eight assists. Osako belongs to the rare species of striker who can read the game and move into free space within a blink of an eye. Combined with his physique and nice finishing touch, he will be a great weapon for Japan in the years to come.
Yoshinori Muto is another player who could be a capable successor. The Mainz 05 striker has already made his mark in the Bundesliga, arguably filling the absence created by Shinji Okazaki’s Premier League move two seasons ago. He scored a total 12 goals and offered six assists in his first two seasons with Mainz, demonstrating that he can be a good finisher in his 39 appearances.
Unfortunately, Muto has also repeatedly been sidelined by injuries and had trouble maintaining his rhythm last season. Despite only being 1.79 meters tall, the ex-FC Tokyo star has excellent heading skills and can finish with either foot. He can be used on top of the formation or as an attacking winger, making him incredibly valuable for his team.
Muto is still waiting for his big national team breakthrough, as he has only scored twice in 19 games. But at 24 years old, he still has a lot of time to step up these numbers and his play.
Last but far from least is Yuya Kubo, the current rising star of the Japanese national team. The young lefty already seems poised to steal the starting role from from Keisuke Honda, who watched from the bench as his rival started against Syria. Kubo has performed pretty well in his first few games for Japan, showing his qualities on the right wing by hitting the back of the net twice and creating three assists in World Cup qualifying.
The 23-year-old, who scored 11 goals in just half a season with Gent, not only likes to score with his left foot, but also knows how to find his teammates.
But while these three players show promise, they have yet to show leadership. Kagawa and especially Honda can push their teammates to the limit, especially in important games; this kind of leadership is especially important when other leaders such as longtime captain Makoto Hasebe are sidelined. Therefore, we must see if one or more of these players can live up to the expectations, or if perhaps the new Kagawa or Honda will be another player yet to appear in the spotlight.
As Kagawa and Honda will probably still play at a high level for a few more years, there is still plenty of time left to find their proper replacement. By the time the national team loses two of its most important players, others like 16-year-old talent Takefusa Kubo may already have taken a big role for Japan, making the departure of those Japanese football icons somewhat less painful.
Kim Daempfling is a writer and editor for Kicker, Germany’s most-respected football news site. He has previously served as a German-Japanese interpreter for several Bundesliga clubs.