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HOME > SAMURAI BLUE > NEWS > New Year Special Interview with Vahid HALILHODZIC – more changes in 2016 to bring improvement to team


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New Year Special Interview with Vahid HALILHODZIC – more changes in 2016 to bring improvement to team

02 January 2016

New Year Special Interview with Vahid HALILHODZIC – more changes in 2016 to bring improvement to team

It has been nine months since Vahid HALILHODZIC took charge of the SAMURAI BLUE. The coach has been finding new faces to strengthen the foundation of the team, while communicating his opinions constantly to the players throughout the second Asian qualifier for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia since last June. The Japan National Team is currently topping group E in the second-round group in the Asian qualifiers with five wins and one draw, having earned 16 points. They have scored 17 goals in total, and conceded none. The team will play in the final Asian qualifying round in September, if they get through the second round qualifiers with the two remaining matches – one against Afghanistan on 24 March and the other against Syria on 29 March. 

Vahid Halilhodzic led Algeria to the final 16 in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. The team played extra time against the champions Germany 2-1 in the Round of 16, impressing the world with their performance despite the defeat. What does he think of SAMURAI BLUE’s 2015 and how does he see 2016 going? This article introduces the interview with Halilhodzic.

Q. How do you evaluate your first year with SAMURAI BLUE since March?

It’s been good so far. I started by preparing the national team coach room in the Japan Football Association office after taking over the role as coach, trying to “differentiate from the previous team”. As I come to the office everyday, my team staff have to join me as well. By trying different routines with a new ambition together, I wanted to show that we would recover from the defeat in the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.

After I was assigned, the first two games in March were essential – the wins against Tunisia 2-0 and against Uzbekistan 5-1. The players proved that they could physically win with a strong spirit in these friendlies in the KIRIN CHALLENGE CUP 2015 and the JAL CHALLENGE CUP 2015. We struck goals properly, which was a good start for us. Through the 11 games from June to November, we won six, lost one and drew four.

However, the home game against Singapore in June was really frustrating. As the team performed well in the previous match, beating Iraq 4-0, I expected a lot from them. The players may have felt too relaxed. I was not satisfied at all. I even felt angry and startled at the result. I still remember the strong looks from the supporters after the final whistle. We refreshed ourselves and practiced even harder after receiving their silent messages. That match made our aim clear. We decided to aim to win all the matches without conceding a goal in the Asian second qualifier for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which we have achieved.

Q. How about the improvement in performance?

I think we hugely improved our defence. The defence for free kicks is well organised as well. Having said that, in attack, despite big goal-scoring opportunities in every game, we need to improve our shooting. As we’re not aggressive enough in the last 30 metres before the goal, we aren’t provoking the opponent’s fouls. We haven’t got enough players in necessary positions for free kicks, either. The team have changed so far under my instruction, but we need to keep changing to improve even more.

In terms of mentality, I think we express our identity well, but we still need more aggression. Japanese tend to respect the opponent too much in sport. I expect the players to have the mentality to “beat a stronger opponent”. If you can’t imagine beating Messi, it will never happen on the pitch. So it’s vital to change the way they think first. 

Although we have scored three goals on average in each game, I’d like to increase this number. We need a proper goal scorer to win games. We’ll only have one or two goal-scoring opportunity in the World Cup. So we need to find a player, who can score from limited opportunities, and give an advantage to the team. As Japanese players tend not to have a good sense of when the ball will be played into the centre, I think the timing for entering the penalty area is not quite right.

Youth development is one of the most important tasks for nurturing individuals, who can score, while we need to improve coaches, who can instruct goal scorers with a good sense. The key is whether a player can perform internationally, not just in Japan. As I gave a lecture at a training course for Class S instructors, support and devotion from every resource is essential to improve a player’s ability. Japan, as a whole country, has to deal with it. 

Q. You seem to be keen on using young players so far?

I called up 43 players in total for the national team. The reason I included younger players was to give them opportunities to build their experience. I expect all the players to remain ambitious to stay in the national team and to start a match. No one has reserved a place yet. 

When I was 22 years old, I used to start a game in the national team. However, the young generation doesn’t seem to be considered as reliable in Japan. Most of the players in the national team for the Olympics led by TEGURAMORI, for example, are not starting players in the J.League. I think people should question this situation of a domestic league. We need to trust young players on the pitch to improve them even more, so that the team will stay as strong when the forward HONDA Keisuke (AC Milan), the midfielder KAGAWA Shinji (Borussia Dortmund) or the midfielder HASEBE Makoto (Eintracht Frankfurt) cannot play for the team. 

Q. What is your resolution for 2016?

I’d like to boost the level of the team compared to last year. Although I believe we succeeded in 2015, it was only the first step of our plan. We’d like to stay in the lead in the group for the remaining two matches of the second Asian qualifying round in March. The Kirin Cup in June will be the second stage. We’ll play the final qualifiers in September. The third stage of our plan will be the World Cup.

I’d like to build a team that displays a Japanese identity with each player’s strength. The discipline of the players during training sessions is excellent. I aim to show off Japanese diligence and culture through the team. To do so, I expect the players to respect not only the opponents but also their abilities. Japan has a strong work culture, but we want Japan to have a victory culture. Looking at Japan’s excellent performance in the rugby World Cup, it is possible for the Japanese to improve their physicality. Then we can improve in every department – tactically, technically and physically. 

Q. Is there any specific aim? 

I’d like to improve Japan’s FIFA World Ranking. If I think of international football as a league, the 1st to the 20th team are in the 1st Division, the 20th to 40th in the 2nd Division, while the following twenty countries are in the 3rd Division. As Japan currently rank 53rd, we are in the 3rd Division. So first, we need to be promoted to the 2nd Division. Japan is economically strong in the world. They should become as strong in football. I have upgraded Algeria’s ranking from 53rd to 16th. I’d like to put my ideas into Japan’s national team.

Our short-term aim is to book a place in the World Cup. We need to win through games in Asia. Although many Asian teams have improved themselves recently, not many see themselves as stronger teams than Japan. Iran, Australia, Korea Republic, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are becoming, or have already become stronger than Japan. It’s how to deal with it. Currently, we are considering each element – tactics or physicality – and how to improve our team by analysing the statistics of our performances. The recovery quality of the players, who play internationally, is also vital. So I do hope the medical staff will find more effective recovery methods. I’m planning to visit the players based abroad in February to discuss what to do in the second stage of our plan. Since practice time for the national team is limited, the way each individual player spends his time is crucial. I’d like to make 2016 a great year.

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