Three weeks to the day after accepting the role, I took charge of the Japanese National Team for the first time as we kicked off our 2027 Asian Cup campaign. This was my first major international tournament since taking Uruguay to the 2030 World Cup on Football Manager 2021, and my first time ever managing an Asian nation, making four continents that I’ve now managed in at international level. 

We were heavy favourites going into the tournament, with our World Ranking of 17th being trailed by the likes of Iran (31st), Australia (35th), South Korea (=37th) and Saudi Arabia (46th). To add to this, we were also holders, having won the 2024 Asian Cup under predecessor Hajime Moriyasu. 

I talked through my squad selection process in the previous post, which you can read HERE. With no pre-tournament friendlies to experiment in I felt it would be wise to base my tactic off of the system I’ve been having success with at Tokyo Verdy, although some tweaks were made to suit the personnel available to me.

The aim is to build a 2-3-5 shape when in sustained possession, with the key being to allow the Segundo Volante to join the attack and wreak havoc from deep. We’ll aim to play matches on our terms, pressing hard and high up the pitch to deny the opposition the chance to get comfortable on the ball.

Group Stage

We were drawn into Group D with Iran, Qatar and Pakistan. Although Iran posed a considerable threat, my feeling was that anything other than top spot would have been a disappointment. The top two in each group qualify automatically for the knockouts, with the four best third-placed sides also qualifying, so one poor result wouldn’t be a tournament ender, but I was keen to put down a marker.

Click image for full match information.

Tomiyasu – Itakura – Kobayashi (Ueda 63) – Ito
Morita (Toda 79) – Endo
Kubo – Minamino (Kamada 63) – Mitoma (Doan 13)
Furuhashi (Maeda 79)

The very definition of a routine victory. We absolutely dominated the ball and created enough chances to win three or four games. Unfortunately our cutting edge let us down slightly, something to look at going forward, and to only get 7 of 23 shots on target is something we’ll have to improve on. To only allow Pakistan one shot in the entire match just showed our dominance. The biggest blow here was the early injury to Kaoru Mitoma, who would now miss up to three weeks and the majority of the tournament.

Click image for full match information.

Tomiyasu (Sugiwara 63) – Itakura – Kobayashi – Ito (Anzai 79)
Morita (Tanaka 63) – Endo (Toda 79)
Kubo – Minamino (Furuhashi 63) – Doan

Another comprehensive performance. Qatar are no minnows, they won the Asian Cup themselves back in 2019, but we held them at arm’s length and with a more clinical look going forward managed to make them look very average. Maeda came in up front and looked deadly with two goals from 0.8 xG, and Doan was also impressive replacing Mitoma.

Click image for full match information.

Tomiyasu – Itakura (Ueda 69) – Kobayashi (Sugawara 82) – Ito
Morita (Hatate 69) – Endo
Doan – Minamino (Kamada 59) – Kubo

With the benefit of hindsight, the scheduling of our group games was very kind to us. Beating Pakistan and Qatar meant qualification was already secure by the time we faced Iran. If we had faltered at any point and this game was all or nothing though, it could have been a much more nervy affair. Both sides had won their two opening games and this was a straight shootout for top spot. I was keen to secure this and hopefully give us a more favourable draw in the next round, so rotation was at a minimum. 

We were excellent in possession once again, but what I particularly enjoyed in this game was our defensive performance. We highlighted Mehdi Taremi as their major threat, and worked to shut him out of the game as best we could. By marking him tightly and pushing our line up to compress the space for him to work in, we managed to restrict him to just 0.2 xG and a 6.2 match rating.

We navigated the group stage with all of the dominance and professionalism I wanted to see. We may not have scored bucket loads of goals but I was confident that if we could remain defensively secure we would create enough chances to go all the way.

Second Round

With top spot secured and four third placed teams getting knockout places I was hopeful of getting a relatively routine draw for the second round… 

We got South Korea.

They inexplicably finished third in their group, behind Thailand and Uzbekistan, and were fortunate not to be eliminated. Despite this South Korea were going to be more than capable of beating us with some of the incredible players they have, most notably the trio of Heung-Min Son, Kim Min-Jae and Kang-In Lee.

Click image for full match information.

Tomiyasu (Toda 83) – Itakura – Kobayashi – Ito
Morita – Endo (Hatate 76)
Kubo – Doan – Kamada
Furuhashi (Maeda 63)

We went behind for the first time in the tournament after just two minutes, but showed great character to turn it around. Despite dominating the ball once again, to more of a degree than I’d actually expected against high quality opposition, the chance creation in the game was fairly even. Ours were of a far higher quality though, and in the end that told as Kubo and Doan secured our passage.

Quarter Final

After dispatching one of the major threats at the tournament, next up were the United Arab Emirates. They also qualified as a best third place finisher, before knocking Jordan out in the Second Round. I was wary of the threat they posed, as despite a world ranking of 71st they had added quality in their ranks in the form of eight squad members who had declared for the nation rather than their nations of birth.

Click image for full match information.

Tomiyasu (Anzai 108) – Itakura – Kobayashi – Ito (Toda 63)
Morita (Sugawara 83) – Endo (Tanaka 77)
Doan – Kubo (Hatate 77) – Mitoma
Furuhashi (Maeda 63)

In a complete reverse of the South Korea game, we were reliant on the quantity of chances rather than quality to score our goals, and despite going ahead twice I actually felt we were quite lucky not to lose in normal time. UAE were banging on the door and deserved their equaliser, only for us to go ahead again in extra-time but almost immediately get pegged back. 

Penalties were needed to decide the tie, and two incredible saves from Kosuke Nakamura plus clinical finishes from Mitoma, Sugiwara, Doan and Maeda saw us progress.

Semi Final

Next up were Iraq, who after finishing second in their group had beaten Palestine and Kuwait to get to the Semis. I wasn’t overly familiar with their players outside of Zidane Iqbal, but they had scored plenty of goals in the tournament so far and I knew we’d have to be aware of the threat they carried.

Click image for full match information.

Tomiyasu (Sugawara 71) – Itakura (Ueda 71) – Kobayashi – Ito
Morita – Endo (Tanaka 85)
Doan (Furuhashi 65) – Minamino – Mitoma (Maeda 85)

We were back to our dominant but wasteful best in this one. To create 4.34 xG and three clear cut chances but only score one open play goal is a disappointment, as is the fact that we switched off for a while after Iqbal’s red card and let them back into the game. However, in tournament football the only important thing is the result, and we’re through to the final.


In a full circle moment, our Asian Cup Final opponents would be none other than our Group D companions, Iran. Iran had reached the final courtesy of wins over Thailand, Syria and Saudi Arabia, with key man Mehdi Taremi scoring in two of those three games. Again, I felt keeping him quiet was the key to victory, but we’d also need to be far more effective in attack than against Iraq.

Click image for full match information.

Tomiyasu – Itakura (Seko 81) – Kobiyashi – Ito (Sugawara 73)
Morita (Tanaka 73) – Endo (Toda 65)
Doan – Minamino – Mitoma (Furuhashi 81)

We weren’t able to keep Taremi as quiet this time around, but our attack finally clicked and after a lightning start we secured a dominant final victory. Ritsu Doan was absolutely unplayable; he got two goals and an assist, as well as creating three clear cut chances and making seven key passes.

Only one thing left to do now, celebrate!

In terms of key performers, Ritsu Doan was the obvious standout. He wasn’t even in the starting eleven for the first game, but the injury to Mitoma gave him his opportunity and he grabbed it with both hands, winning the Golden Boot with 6 goals and taking his place in the tournament’s All Star XI.  In support of him was Takefusa Kubo, who after a quiet start found his place as our striker and finished the tournament with three goals and two assists. At the back, Takehiro Tomiyasu was a colossus as expected. Throughout the tournament he played across the entire back four, giving us the flexibility to change our build up style to suit the game state, and also managed to chip in with two absolute screamers.

There weren’t many disappointments, but Kyogo Furuhashi was the biggest. Only one goal throughout the tournament, and at 32 with a lot of young strikers coming through, this may well have been his last tournament for his country. 

The rest of the year sees us play plenty of friendlies, and then in December we have the East Asian Football Federation Championship, where we’ll face China, North Korea and South Korea. We’ll have to do that without Wataru Endo though, as he’s decided to retire from international football.

Until next time…


  • adam_otbfm

    Adam, known in the Football Manager (FM) realm as @adam_otbfm, is a fervent gamer and content creator. With a penchant for football simulations, Adam delves into the intricacies of FM, sharing his findings on his blog "On the Break." His creative ventures include replicating football legends like Kaka in the virtual pitch, showcasing a blend of nostalgia and modern gameplay. Adam's musings extend to social platforms like Twitter, where he actively engages with the FM community, sharing his gaming journey with @SJK_Seinajoki. His insightful content and avid participation enrich the FM community, making him a valued member in this virtual football world.

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