Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu introduced new faces and tactical tweaks in a 1-1 home draw with Uruguay on Friday as the Samurai Blue began their journey toward the 2026 World Cup football finals.
Leaving out veteran World Cup defenders Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo and Hiroki Sakai altogether, it was a fresh-looking four-man defense that began the game at National Stadium, with right-back Yukinari Sugawara impressing in particular.
The AZ Alkmaar defender, who moved from Nagoya Grampus to the Netherlands in 2019 after just a handful of J-League appearances, has established himself in the Eredivisie but had been limited to a single Samurai Japan appearance to date.
The 22-year-old, like debutant Ayumu Seko, never looked out of his depth against the tricky South Americans, whether in possession or facing their potent attackers, and he provided an incisive ball down the touch line for Junya Ito that led to Takuma Nishimura's equalizer.
"I knew Junya was setting off the moment I got the ball and looked up, and also that he was faster (than the Uruguay defender) if they began racing at the same moment," Sugawara said.
"That was the type of the ball I was intending to deliver. It led to the goal, which was positive."
With his contract extended following the World Cup in Qatar, Moriyasu said his aim was to build a team capable of holding the ball, even against stronger opponents, and the game against Uruguay gave hints of what could be in store from Japan.
The positioning of Sugawara and left-back Hiroki Ito with Japan in possession was something not seen since the start of Moriyasu's tenure in 2018, with the pair tucking inside to join the midfield as Wataru Endo dropped to the backline.
"We previously had the ball going to the side and (new coach Hiroshi) Nanami wanted to have the circulation inside as well," Sporting midfielder Hidemasa Morita said of the tactics introduced by the former Japan No. 10.
Endo said the full-backs' movement was still "way off" what the team wanted, but he welcomed the new thinking.
The pace offered by Kaoru Mitoma, who did not start in Qatar, and substitute Ito was a threat throughout the match, as it was at the World Cup. It would have been a welcome sight for Moriyasu, who knows he can always count on the pair as he looks to add another dimension to the team.
"My role has changed with more attention coming my way, and I'm now in a position where I need to produce the end product," said Brighton star Mitoma. "I want to devote myself for the team first before showing my talents, and I'll keep working, as there are still areas I need to improve."
It remains to be seen whether Moriyasu's side will be able to dictate terms against the world's heavyweights, as several players said they hoped to do following the World Cup, but there are positive signs heading toward the next tournament in the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Football: Nishimura goal gives Japan friendly draw with Uruguay