In truly brutal conditions in Volgograd, there was a scene at half-time that almost went unnoticed, but perfectly summed up the new spirit inside the Japan camp.
As the players walked to the tunnel, not one of the substitutes raced off to do their usual warm-ups but rather stood around waiting for the starting XI to arrive and hugged, shook hands and encouraged each other.
It’s the kind of scene that rarely occurs in international football where each player feels perhaps they should be starting, but it’s a perfect summation of the newfound camaraderie in the side.
A togetherness under a manager who has made a series of bold moves that star midfielder Keisuke Honda told Fox Sports Asia was “amazing” and something that “he’s not seen at a World Cup before”.
— FOX Sports Asia (@FOXSportsAsia) June 28, 2018
Having reached the Round of 16 for just the third time at a FIFA World Cup, the JFA’s brazen decision to change coaches on the eve of the tournament has proved a masterstroke that deserves full recognition.
Many eyebrows were raised at the uncharacteristic axing of Vahid Halilhodzic barely two months from the start of the World Cup, but as I noted at the time, it had the potential to immediately unite a squad that clearly had become tired of the grind of previous camps together.
The JFA argued that it was done to increase, even by a small percentage, Japan’s chances of success in Russia and that’s already born fruit.
Akira Nishino has gambled in numerous fashion both prior to and during the tournament – and in the final match, a 1-0 loss to Poland, he got things spot on.
The decision to change six starters from the previous matches against Colombia and Senegal was met with confusion but having sat through the unforgiving heat inside the Volgograd Arena, it was clear there was little other choice.
— FOX Sports Asia (@FOXSportsAsia) June 29, 2018
Stepping off the underground tram that runs to the edge of the stadium and then making the walk to the venue was enough to leave you physically exhausted, parched and drenched in sweat.
To ask the same players to face these conditions – 36 degrees at kickoff – was clearly a risk to their health and would’ve seen Japan struggle to match a Polish side that had also decided to ring in the changes.
Thereafter, Nishino gambled again in opting to allow his side to play out the final 10 minutes or so by simply playing the ball across the backline – with the full compliance of a Poland team happy to bank the win – and hope that Senegal failed to score in their match with the Colombians.
That was indeed how things played out and was enough to see Japan through ahead of the Senegalese by the unusual method of a ‘fair play’ tiebreaker.
Nishino gambled in excluding many young talents in good form prior to the tournament; preferring instead the experienced and steady hands that he knew well – and it worked.
For all those complaining about the heat in Qatar they could do well to come here to Volgograd where it’s currently the third layer of hell, in a non-cooled stadium. Humid, 37 degrees and rising and no conditions at all to play such an important match in. pic.twitter.com/KhaUiZCkk9
— Scott McIntyre (@mcintinhos) June 28, 2018
He gambled at various points throughout the first two matches and it worked and he gambled twice in the final match and it worked again.
Speaking to Fox Sports Asia after the match, Honda, gave full credit to Nishino for what he termed a series of “brave decisions”.
“Yes I think this has showed that it was the correct decision to replace the coach,” he said.
“He became the manager just two months ago and we didn’t know what he wanted to do and we didn’t have time to be united as a team and of course some young players were confused.
“But finally after we won against Colombia, we got confidence and he also got confidence and he made a lot of great decisions in the last three games.
— FIFA World Cup 🏆 (@FIFAWorldCup) June 28, 2018
“Today he made a really high risk decision – I talked with him before the game why he changed six players and he had decided to take that risk because he was thinking about the next round and that’s really great, right?
“I have never seen that – this is his first World Cup and I think that’s an amazing decision what he did.”
They were thoughts echoed by defender Maya Yoshida who told Fox Sports Asia that Nishino’s decision to gamble once again was fully justified.
“Since the new manager came he said we need everybody together as a team, even the substitute players, and that’s why he trusted the substitutes to play against Paraguay in our last friendly match before the tournament even though we didn’t play well against Switzerland before that,” said Yoshida.
“Now, he still trusts the substitute players in this match and they did well again so it was a lot of risk to be honest but he won the gamble so I’m really impressed about the manager.”