Deja vu-rawa Reds

Urawa Reds are in pole position for this year’s J1 championship but look far from convincing and have previous when it comes to throwing titles away… (日本語版はこちらです:http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/10/26/post53143/)

Football Channel,  October 26th, 2014

Anyone glancing at the current J1 table would be forgiven for thinking they had travelled back in time. This year’s title race is a flashback to the mid-to-late 2000s, when Urawa Reds, Gamba Osaka, and Kashima Antlers were the big boys in the J.League, and it has been a while since the real heavyweights of the Japanese game have contested the top honour.

All three clubs have experienced problems in recent seasons – with Gamba relegated to J2 in 2012, Kashima very nearly doing likewise in the same season, and Urawa only surviving in the top flight by the skin of their teeth in 2011 – but it will surely be one of them raising the J1 shield come the end of the season (although Kawasaki Frontale could sneak up on the rails and finally shake off their always-the-bridesmaid tag).

However, as always in the J.League no one team is surging towards the championship and while Reds have a seemingly comfortable five-point cushion at the top of the table they have looked anything but convincing in recent weeks.

After a fantastic spell between Rounds 9 and 25 when they lost just twice in 17 games the wheels are starting to fall off and they have been victorious in just one of their last four league games, all of which were against teams battling at the other end of the table. Furthermore, that triumph was against Tokushima Vortis, a fixture which, with all due respect, has been a free pass for opponents in J1 this year.

Is history repeating itself, then? Are Urawa set for another spectacular collapse, a la 2007? Possibly, but in order for that to happen someone needs to take advantage of Mihailo Petrovic’s side’s jitters.

None of the teams who comprised the top four heading into Round 29 were able to win on Wednesday night, and four of the current top five, including Reds, have won just two of their last five games – the same number of victories as relegation strugglers Shimizu S-Pulse and Cerezo Osaka.

The anomaly in the chasing pack is Gamba Osaka who have been in scintillating form since the restart after the World Cup, winning 12 of their 15 games and surging up from 16th to 2nd. Kenta Hasegawa’s side suffered a rare defeat to Kashiwa Reysol in midweek which leaves them five points adrift, but they still look the most likely side to pip Urawa to the post – especially as they take Reds on head-to-head next month.

“It’s a difficult number [of points] to overturn but we still have to play Urawa,” Hasegawa said after the loss to Reysol. “Instead of looking at what they’re doing our first priority has to be to focus on winning our next game at home and making sure we don’t lose two in a row.”

Gamba Osaka fans, Kashima Soccer Stadium, Sunday 5th October, 2014

Takashi Usami agreed that focusing on how the sides around them are getting on is not of any benefit to Gamba.

“Until now we have been playing without any consciousness of what other teams are doing and just focusing on the game in front of us, and we’ll keep doing that from now on too,” he said on Wednesday.

Yasuhito Endo was characteristically relaxed after the loss to Reysol, and while his coach and star striker were hesitant to reference Urawa’s situation Japan’s record cap holder was happy to shift the pressure onto the team leading the way with five games to go.

“I think the team sat at the top will be feeling it the most,” he said. “Gamba just have to apply it, we don’t really feel any pressure. We just have to keep applying pressure to Urawa and if they start to feel it then that’s great.

“Kashima still have a chance too, I think. But there are two matches before we play Urawa so we have to make sure we take six points from those games so we are able to go and take Reds on properly.”

The one thing which may curtail Gamba’s advance is the fact that they are also still going strong in both cup competitions, although Hasegawa was hesitant to use their congested fixture list as any kind of early excuse.

”The Nabisco Cup is just the final so I don’t think it will have an especially big impact,” he said. “The Emperor’s Cup semi-finals take place within two or three days in the same week so may have an impact, I’m not sure. In October we have played six games so far (up until the 22nd) and in September we played seven games. I think the team is toughening up from playing back-to-back matches. With that in mind, November isn’t going to bring so many games and one way or another I want the team to fight together as one to weather the storm.”

For Endo the intense schedule and potential for a treble was something to look forward to rather than be concerned about.

“I think it will act as a kind of motivation,” the veteran, who already has one J.League title, one Nabisco Cup, two Emperor’s Cups, and one ACL winner’s medal to his name, said. “I don’t really feel any sense of tiredness. After the next game we move to a pace of one game per week so on the contrary I think there are many things to be excited about.”

While the future may be bright for Gamba, any slip up by Reds against bitter rivals Kashima tonight could leave them wishing they could turn back time as it steadily runs out.


Aguirre getting his defence in early

It is still early days for Javier Aguirre as Japan boss, but there were signs in the recent win over Jamaica that his team is starting to take shape… (日本語版はこちらです:


Football Channel,  October 14th, 2014

Speaking after Javier Aguirre’s first game in charge of Japan last month, Yuto Nagatomo explained that the new boss was initially focusing more on the individual abilities of the players available to him than how they should function as a team. While it is still early days, the match against Jamaica suggested that the Mexican is beginning to convey to his players the shape he wants them to take though.

The Reggae Boyz were terrible opponents – making as many unforced errors as a struggling J2 side – meaning the Samurai Blue were widely panned for only being able to provide Aguirre with his first win courtesy of Nyron Nosworthy’s 16th minute own goal.

It wasn’t especially inspiring viewing from up in the Gods at the beautiful but flat Big Swan Stadium, but whereas September’s friendlies against Uruguay and Venezuela had the air of a group of diverse players being auditioned – rather like a university open trial – there were the early signs of a team being constructed in Niigata.

To begin with, a glance at the starting line-up demonstrated that, despite his early assertion that he would be trying to use all of the players in his squad, some favourites have already emerged for Aguirre.

Yuto Nagatomo, Masato Morishige, Hajime Hosogai, and Keisuke Honda have started all three of the 55-year-old’s games in charge, while Gotoku Sakai, Yoshinori Muto, and Yoichiro Kakitani have also featured each time.

While the players refuted such claims afterwards, it is clear that Aguirre is initially focusing on tightening up the team defensively. The threat from Jamaica was all-but non-existent but that didn’t stop Hosogai from dropping in almost as a third centre back alongside the impressive Morishige and Tsukasa Shiotani whenever Japan had the ball, while Sakai and Nagatomo were hesitant to tear forward and join the attacks in the first half.

That meant it was left to the front five to try and break through the ragged Jamaican backline, something they struggled to do with any regularity, with Shinji Kagawa still searching for his best form and fitness, Yoshinori Muto and Gaku Shibasaki adapting to international football, and Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki both missing presentable chances.

Things looked up a little in the second half though, and although Japan were unable to find the net again they created a hatful of chances to do so – Muto missing the best of them with a delayed shot which was closed down and a header from close-range.

The reason for that increase in productivity was largely because Sakai and Nagatomo had been let off the leash a little for the second 45 minutes, and were taking it in turns to supplement the attacks from wide.

PICNiigata, Friday October 10th, 2014

“Against big teams attacking with just the front three isn’t enough and we have to get the central midfielders and full-backs involved more,” Nagatomo had said after training in Sapporo last month. “From now on we have to work together more when attacking.”

That was certainly the case as the game against Jamaica progressed, and I’m beginning to wonder if Aguirre may be trying to mould the team into more of a counter-attacking side than one which dominates possession.

Japan national teams tend to be full of players who can keep the ball, but often struggle to vary the speed of attacks once they have been in possession for a while. On the counter-attack, however, the side has frequently demonstrated an ability to catch opponents not yet set in position out on the break. Aggressive and quick full-backs such as Sakai and Nagatomo, direct forwards with sensational ball control like Muto and Kakitani, and players with Kagawa and Shibasaki’s ability to play the killer final passes would surely suit such an approach.

Of course, in order to operate that way, you need to be able to trust the guys at the back to keep the opposition at bay, which is why Aguirre is focusing so much on defensive organization at the moment.

Maya Yoshida is still probably the number one choice at centre-back, but if Shusaku Nishikawa does eventually usurp Kawashima as No.1 then his understanding with both Morishige and Shiotani could hugely benefit the national team.

The Urawa stopper has been in wonderful form yet again this season, and looks to be headed for a third straight J1 title. Amazingly he has been a regular in the J.League for 10 years now – a decade which has included spells working with Morishige (at Oita Trinita between 2006-2009) and Shiotani (at Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2012 and 2013).

“It certainly gave me peace of mind knowing that Shu-kun was there,” Shiotani said after his debut. “We’d already spoken before the game about being there to receive passes from each each other and I think we were able to do that well in the game.”

“His strength is that he is good at dealing with opponents in one on one situations but he can also join in with the attacks as well,” Nishikawa said of his former clubmate. “I really felt that it was easy to play with him because we had played together while at Hiroshima – especially in the second half when we started to work the ball around a bit more.”

Morishige also enjoyed working alongside players who he shares such a good understanding with. “Of course we need games in order to improve upon our co-ordination but I think that in order to be able to play so well together in such a short space of time is great,” he told me in the mixed zone. “It will take time but I think we will continue to get better and better from here on in.”

Several pieces still need to be slotted into place for Aguirre, but it does look as though the puzzle is beginning to take shape.


Aguirre building Japan from the back

On Friday I headed up to Niigata to see Japan pick up a 1-0 win over Jamaica. While the Samurai Blue should have beaten a lacklustre opponent by more than a single own goal, an all-too-rare clean sheet was a welcome positive. After the game I spoke to the back five about the team’s defensive structure…

The Japan News, Sunday 11th October, 2014

NIIGATA — It is an oft-used maxim that attack is the best form of defense, but the first order of business for Japan coach Javier Aguirre would appear to be shoring up a leaky back line.

The Samurai Blue conceded 39 goals in the last 20 games of the Alberto Zaccheroni era, and continued that trend by shipping four in Aguirre’s first two matches against Uruguay and Venezuela in September — all from avoidable errors by Japan defenders.

They needed an own goal to claim the first victory of Aguirre’s reign against Jamaica in Niigata on Friday night, but the fact that they shut the opponent out in that 1-0 win was greeted with much relief.

“Since Aguirre took over, we hadn’t won, so as a team we spoke about the goal being to beat Jamaica,” goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa said post-game.

“Of course for us at the back, there is always an awareness of doing that while not conceding. The fact that we won and managed to keep a clean sheet will give the team confidence, I think.”

The scoreline was far from convincing against a poor and unprepared Reggae Boyz, but Gotoku Sakai insisted that the result takes precedence over the margin of victory.

“More important than how many goals we win by is the fact that we win,” the VfB Stuttgart fullback said.

Masato Morishige, who is steadily establishing himself as a favorite of Aguirre’s, having started all three of the Mexican’s games so far, made it clear that the team does not want to set up negatively.

“Today, we didn’t come with the intention of playing defensively at all,” the FC Tokyo centerback told The Japan News after the game.

“We wanted to come out and attack when we had the chance, but also to limit the risk at the back as well. I don’t think we were too aggressive or too defensive in this game. I believe we had a good balance between the two.”

Denka Big Swan Stadium, Niigata, Friday 10th October, 2014

Inter Milan star Yuto Nagatomo admitted that he was disappointed that the team missed a handful of chances to score more goals.

“I think it would have been better if we could have won by a few more goals; 3-0 or so would have been good, I think,” the 28-year-old said.

Even so, he was pleased with the smoothness of the defensive line, and in particular the performance of debutant Tsukasa Shiotani. “The communication between us was good, and although it was Shiotani’s first game, I thought he was very impressive. I think he played very well.”

Shiotani certainly settled into the national team with apparent ease, and although he admitted to feeling tense before kickoff, he grew into the game and completed 90 minutes at the heart of defense.

“Before the game I was nervous, but once it started, I soon lost that feeling,” the Sanfrecce Hiroshima centerback said.

“I didn’t have the experience of playing the game at this speed before, but we didn’t have to deal with any really dangerous attacks. The players up front put in a lot of running for us and that made it easy for the back line to defend.”

The next game will be a true challenge of Japan’s newfound resiliency, as it takes on five-time world champion Brazil in Singapore on Tuesday.

“Jamaica is Jamaica, Brazil is Brazil — they are completely different teams,” Sakai reasoned. “We have to decide on the way we play depending on the situation in a given game. Defensively, you always have to put your body on the line and of course we will continue to do that against Brazil.”

For Morishige, meanwhile, the outcome of the clash with the Selecao will provide a clearer marker of what Aguirre Japan can achieve.

“We have to think about how we will play depending on the opponent,” he said. “We need to respect Brazil and see what level we are currently at; how strong we are at the moment.”


Kagawa, Havenaar set to play roles for Aguirre

I was at JFA House on Wednesday to hear Javier Aguirre announce his squad for the upcoming friendlies against Jamaica and Brazil. Eight players not included in last month’s 23 made the cut, including the returning Shinji Kagawa and Mike Havenaar…

The Japan News, Thursday 2nd October, 2014

Javier Aguirre continued his mission to rejuvenate the Japan national team on Wednesday, calling up eight players he has yet to run the rule over since assuming control of the squad in August.

Shinji Kagawa and Mike Havenaar headed the list of players returning to the Samurai Blue fold, while goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda and defender Kosuke Ota, both of FC Tokyo, and Kashima Antlers’ defender Daigo Nishi were also named after spells away.

Dortmund midfielder Kagawa missed out through injury on Aguirre’s first two games in charge, friendlies against Uruguay and Venezuela. The Mexican coach is hopeful that the 25-year-old can perform a central role for him as Japan play friendlies against Jamaica in Niigata on Oct. 10 and Brazil in Singapore on Oct. 14.

“[Kagawa] is a very talented player with the ability to come up with solutions,” Aguirre said. “He is a real threat in the attacking half, has played in Europe for several years and is also able to contribute to the team defensively. For me, he is an all-rounder.

“He can play anywhere beyond the halfway line. Fundamentally, I am thinking of playing him centrally if we use a 4-3-3 formation.”

Havenaar, meanwhile, has not been involved in the Japan squad since he came on as an 85th-minute substitute in a 1-0 defeat to Belarus on Oct. 15, 2013. He has yet to score for La Liga’s bottom side Cordoba since joining from Dutch club Vitesse in the summer, but Japan’s new boss wants to take a closer look at the 1.94-meter striker.

Javier Aguirre, JFA House, Wednesday  1st October, 2014

“I was also aware of him from the national team before,” Aguirre explained. “I want to see him playing as a center forward in this team. I trust him.”

Three other players — defenders Tsukasa Shiotani of Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Gen Shoji of Kashima Antlers, and Kawasaki Frontale striker Yu Kobayashi — have been handed opportunities to make their Japan debuts based on recent league form.

“I’ve been watching many J.League games and those players are all contributing to teams doing well,” Aguirre said.

“Irrespective of their teams’ results, they always perform well. They are young but have experience — all of them are established as regulars. They can perform well in the J.League, and in these two games I want to see if they are able to replicate that at the international level.”

The full squad is:

■ Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima, Shusaku Nishikawa, Shuichi Gonda

■ Defenders: Hiroki Mizumoto, Yuto Nagatomo, Kosuke Ota, Daigo Nishi, Maya Yoshida, Tsukasa Shiotani, Gotoku Sakai, Gen Shoji

■ Midfielders: Hajime Hosogai, Masato Morishige, Junya Tanaka, Shinji Kagawa, Ryota Morioka, Gaku Shibasaki

■ Forwards: Shinji Okazaki, Keisuke Honda, Mike Havenaar, Yu Kobayashi, Yoichiro Kakitani, Yoshinori Muto


Capital attraction

FC Tokyo forward Yoshinori Muto is flavour of the month in the J.League, but he needs to keep his feet on the ground to prevent things turning sour… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/09/27/post49747/)

Football Channel,  September 27th, 2014

Yoshinori Muto would be the ideal poster boy for Cerezo Osaka in the year that was supposed to be theirs. Yoichiro Kakitani has gone and who better to replace him as No.8 than the 22-year-old with the boyband good looks, the mazy dribbling skills, and the pink boots?

Thankfully for Muto – and, of course, his club FC Tokyo – he is not caught up in the relegation battle (or the marketing vaccum) in Osaka and is able to concentrate, for the time being at least, on playing football.

Muto, who only turned professional at the start of this season, has come from nowhere to occupy the role of the J.League’s man-of-the-moment, and while I am as impressed as anyone with his ability and maturity I can’t help but feel a little concerned for him.

The hype machine doesn’t need much to whirl into action in Japan (he is surely already odds on to be picking up the Young Player of the Year award come December), and I worry a little how he will cope with the pressure that comes with being a talented forward in the J.League.

The division’s unique brand of family-friendly entertainment often veers dangerously close to being more TDL than EPL – as Javier Aguirre recently alluded to with his ‘testimonial game’ comment – and the treatment of footballers as tarento shows no signs of letting up.

After FC Tokyo’s recent game against Kawasaki Frontale – immediately before which, to give an example of the blurred boundaries between serious top-level sport and light-entertainment, captains Kengo Nakamura and Masato Morishige donned Kamen Rider belts and posed with a man in a costume of the character – I spoke to Muto’s teammate Edu about the phenomenon.

As a Brazilian I assumed he would have plenty of experience of young players being over-promoted, but the 32-year-old surprised me by suggesting that the excitement around players in Japan supersedes even that back home. The striker played in the Bundesliga for seven years and described Atsuto Uchida’s arrival at Schalke to make his point.

“I think in Brazil it’s different – also in Germany it’s different,” he began. “I think Japan is a very special country. For example, Uchida, when he came to Schalke, we could see in the training or when we go to a match many Japanese people; reporters, everybody, you know. That’s why I think Japan is special.” Is there more pressure on these players than in Brazil, I asked: “I think so,” he nodded after a brief pause for consideration.

Yoshinori Muto, Todoroki Stadium, September 20th, 2014

That is some claim to make, and while Muto appears to have the ability to live up to his early promise he is going to have to develop under exceedingly intense scrutiny. Already branded as Tokyo’s ‘ace’, it is Muto’s chiseled features the cameras zoom in on ahead of kick-off. All the time he is tucking the goals away then all will be rosy. When he hits a dry patch though – as he inevitably will – things may get a little tricky for him.

“Sometimes I’ll lose two chances but next time I can score two, three goals,” Edu explained to me after he had, indeed, spurned a couple of chances in the Tamagawa Clasico. (True to his word, he did find the net in the next game, scoring a penalty against Tokushima Vortis.) “When this situation comes to him [Muto] he has to understand this is the striker’s life. He has a long time to play. He will stop scoring for maybe five, six games, then start to score again, and then not score again. It’s like this. A striker’s life is like this. I don’t know, maybe only Messi and Ronaldo score every game.

“He’s a good player, he’s very young but he has quality. He’s strong, he’s fast, he has power, he has good dribbling. Now I think step by step he has a good future. He’s knows how to talk, […] I think he has good family to support him; good father, good mother… He’s a good guy.”

Muto certainly comes across as intelligent and – those awful pink boots aside – it doesn’t seem as if he has become too sidetracked with the trappings of fame and fortune that so often swirl around top level footballers.

“I still haven’t achieved any results,” he said at Japan training the day after his debut against Uruguay. “In order to become a fixture in the national team I know I have to keep doing a lot more.” Three days later he again came off the bench for Javier Aguirre and launched himself into the national consciousness with a confident display and sensational goal. Here’s hoping he can keep such a level head now that he’s ‘Japan’s Yoshinori Muto’.

The responsibility for that doesn’t rest solely in his young hands, and Edu was quick to point out the importance of creating a healthy environment for his talent to develop.

“Of course he’s a good player but every good player needs support from the club, his parents, the people around him,” he said. “This is very important. Now he has to keep this good work, good training, good mentality to keep [going] step by step. If he starts to think ‘Oh, I’m pretty good – a superstar,’ it doesn’t work, you know? I think now he needs good support from everybody.”

That includes the fans and the media. By all means be excited by his potential, but we don’t want him getting carried away with himself and we shouldn’t either.


Independence nay

Scotland opted against independence from the United Kingdom on Friday, and I considered what impact the referendum could (and would) have had on football in the country… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/09/20/post49522/)

Football Channel,  September 21st, 2014

In the early hours of Friday morning (UK time) it was announced that a majority (55.3%) of the Scottish population had voted against independence from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The union between Scotland and England began on May 1st 1707, when the Parliament of Great Britain was formed. The intervening 300 years have, as you’d expect of such near-neighbours, had their ups and downs – the historian Tim Stanley suggesting that, “England and Scotland have always been like jealous brothers, full of boiling resentment and given to violent fights” – and in October 2012 things reached a head when it was agreed that a referendum would be held to decide whether Scotland would leave the United Kingdom (which also comprises England, Wales, and Northern Ireland).

The day of reckoning was set as Thursday 18th September, 2014, and the choice was quite simple; one six word question to which there were only two possible answers:

Q. Should Scotland be an independent country?

A1. Yes

A2. No

The debate divided the nation of 5.2 million (around 4 million of whom are eligible to vote), with the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns infiltrating every aspect of Scottish society – including, of course, the football stadiums.

Unsurprisingly supporters of the ‘Old Firm’ clubs Rangers and Celtic were among the most vocal in that arena. For many Rangers fans the club’s identity is bound up with that of Great Britain – it is no accident that their kit is red, white, and blue – while Celtic, as a club with ties to Ireland, traditionally lines up in the opposing corner.

Although both sets of fans – who share an intense and often violent rivalry – did partake in public displays of which side of the fence they were on, displaying ‘Vote No’ (to remain part of Britain) or ‘Vote Yes’ (to become independent) banners at games, there weren’t any reported instances of the situation getting out of hand. This, to Japan Times football writer Andrew McKirdy, was an interesting aspect of the referendum.

“The standout thing, for me, has been that this has been such a mature debate,” he told me a couple of days before his friends and family back home took to the polls. “People who ordinarily wouldn’t have the slightest interest in politics have been engaging with the issues, reading white papers, and discussing the pros and cons.”

Part of the reason for the considered way in which the nation conducted the referendum was, in McKirdy’s opinion, because Scotland – regardless of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ outcome – already has its own identity, particularly when it comes to football.

“The thing that makes Scottish independence different is that Scottish football already has its independence. It has its own national team and football league that is entirely separate from England. Often with independence there is a huge surge in national pride – as with Croatia, for example – but in Scotland there wouldn’t even be that as we already have our own national team.”

That autonomy meant that even if the nation had gone for a ‘Yes’ majority the impact on the domestic game wouldn’t have been especially far-reaching. Some issues would have needed resolving though, particularly if a newly-independent Scotland had experienced difficulties joining the European Union (EU).

As part of the United Kingdom Scotland enjoys EU membership, which means that Scottish clubs are able to sign players from and sell players to other EU nations with relative ease. Players signed from outside the EU, however, are subject to more stringent visa demands – currently, for example, the FA stipulates that English clubs’ non EU players must have played at least 75% of their country’s games in the previous two years, and that the nation must be ranked in the top 70 in the world (there are suggestions this may be changed to the top 50).

Yokohama, October 2009

If Scotland wasn’t part of the EU then it would have become more difficult for Scottish players to move to clubs in EU countries, and the number of Scottish players in the Premier League and Football Leagues would likely have dropped steadily.

While many assumed that Scotland would find entry into the EU a mere formality, however, McKirdy wasn’t convinced, citing the concerns of other European nations hesitant to encourage breakaways.

“It’s not guaranteed [that Scotland would automatically be accepted into the EU], as Spain may have a veto and block it,” he said. “The Catalan and Basque regions want independence so the Spanish government won’t want Scotland to become independent so easily.”

Indeed, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy – not wanting the Catalan independence movement, which has also been gaining momentum of late, to take encouragement from an independent Scotland – made it clear that the nation would not have found an easy passage into the EU were it to leave the United Kingdom, suggesting that the process could take years and that Spain may raise objections.

While being barred from the EU would have had far-reaching implications for Scotland at large, there may actually have been some benefits for the domestic leagues in Scotland if the ‘Yes’ vote had prevailed. Angus MacLeod, who runs the Japanfooty.com website, pointed out, for instance, that more Japanese players may have been able to complete transfers to the nation where Shunsuke Nakamura became a cult hero.

“Just now it is very difficult for Scottish clubs to sign talented players from countries like Japan,” he said. “Hiroki Yamada spent some time on trial at Celtic last season, and would almost certainly have been an excellent addition to the club, but the move never materialized. I also wonder if that was what dissuaded them from moving for Yuki Otsu in 2012, after openly declaring an interest.”

While that avenue remains closed, however, there is one other footballing aspect which may well crop up again now that Scotland has decided to remain a part of the UK; the Great Britain football team.

At London 2012 a combined side competed for the first time in 52 years, although no Scottish players were included in the squad, with the 18 comprising of 13 Englishmen and five Welshmen.

“A lot was made of the fact that Scottish players didn’t feature in the Team GB Olympic squad for London 2012, but I’m not sure it was all that surprising,” MacCleod said. “The SFA repeatedly made it very clear that they were not keen on the concept, and, although Scots are (somewhat surprisingly, perhaps) generally supportive of Team GB in other disciplines, football is seen as something quite different, given the long history between the two nations on the pitch.”

Concerns about their federations being able to remain independent were frequently raised by both the Scottish and Northern Irish associations (and, for a time, the Welsh FA) ahead of the Olympics as they were concerned that FIFA would demand that Great Britain also compete in its competitions, instead of the four countries playing separately.

It was also suggested, however, that this was a convenient excuse with there being very few, if any, players good enough from either country to make the team.

It is unclear whether a Great Britain team will be entered for any future Olympic tournaments, but if Scotland had voted for independence then it would have been free to enter on its own. Having voted ‘No’ that option is no longer available though, meaning there is still potential for the friendly rivalry with its neighbours to rumble on as Rio 2016 moves into sight.


Aguirre’s style cancel

Despite failing to pick up a win in either of his first two games as Japan manager, Javier Aguirre looks like he can breathe new life into a team that has been stagnating… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/09/13/post49117/)

Football Channel,  September 13th, 2014

With just a couple of weeks to pick his first squad and a handful of training sessions to drill those who made the cut, the results from Javier Aguirre’s first two games in charge of Japan are largely meaningless.

A defeat to Uruguay – by way of two defensive errors – and a draw with Venezuela would both have been believable outcomes had Alberto Zaccheroni still been at the helm, and it will take a while – most likely until after the Asian Cup – before we have a true sense of how ‘Aguirre Japan’ differs from ‘Zac Japan’.

There are some early indications as to how the Samurai Blue’s new boss works though, and it is clear that intricate preparation is key to the Mexican.

Speaking after the loss to Uruguay in Sapporo, Keisuke Honda commented that, “I feel that the harmony of the team is really important to him,” and this also came across as Aguirre announced his first squad at JFA House on August 28th.

“A game is 90 minutes,” he said. “Within any one game the ball is only in play for between 45 and 48 minutes; around half the time. On the pitch there are 22 players and one ball. As an average that means each player has the ball for around two minutes. For 88 minutes they don’t have the ball. I watch what the players are doing in those 88 minutes they don’t have the ball. I’m watching their commitment to the team, their responsibility for the team, the way they think about the team.”

Such attention to detail may well be what saw the likes of Takashi Usami and Hiroshi Kiyotake left out in favour of the more industrious and unselfish Yoshinori Muto and Junya Tanaka. Both Usami and Kiyotake are fine players, but aside from their two minutes of creativity when they have the ball neither are renowned for putting in a shift going the other way.

Aguirre is focusing carefully on his selections at the moment in order to make sure he is sending the right men into battle. He may eventually opt to decorate the team with a little sparkle and creativity but initially it is clear that he wants to be confident that he has a core of trusty foot-soldiers in place.

The less savoury side of the game – intelligent fouls, intimidating opponents, time wasting – also appears to be important for the former Espanyol boss, and he gave a fascinating insight into what he expects of his team in a recent interview with fifa.com in which he bemoaned the lack of picardia (streetwiseness) in Japanese players. (http://www.fifa.com/world-match-centre/news/newsid/243/719/6/index.html?intcmp=fifacom_hp_module_news)

Javier Aguirre's hotseat, Nissan Stadium, Yokohama, September 9th, 2014

“Less and less football is played out on the street – back in my day we learned the game in between dodging cars, or in the schoolyard, whereas now the game’s taught more rigidly,” he said. “But you have to try and add a touch of picardía, while staying within the rules of course. I’m talking about the players not giving up lost causes and knowing how to ‘manage the result’. I don’t mean cheating or kicking people, but just making sure your opponents know you’re really in the game.

“I’m talking about when you’re winning in the 85th minute, you go and retrieve the ball more slowly, you take short corners, you tie your laces… That way you use up valuable seconds without breaking the rules. What can the ref do about it? You need to have that picardía, while of course staying within the rules.”

That is a trait almost entirely lacking in the Japanese game – as we saw when Hiroki Mizumoto opted not to commit a smart foul on Alejandro Guerra when 40 yards from goal, instead delaying and delaying before ultimately giving Venezuela a penalty – but it is absolutely vital at the highest level of international football where you need to do anything you can to gain an advantage over your opponent.

While he does pay attention to the small details, however, Aguirre seems less concerned than Zaccheroni was with how his team is perceived by others. ‘Playing our football’ was the key catchphrase for ‘Zac Japan’, but Aguirre isn’t especially preoccupied with the way his team plays as long as they emerge victorious.

“In terms of the style I am aiming for, it is a style which will take us up,” he said after the Venezuela match. “I would rather play a style that is not deemed to be ‘good’ but that takes us into the top 20 teams in the world than play a style that is perceived as ‘good’ but be ranked 44th. I don’t really place any importance on what style we play. More important than that is to play better, to win, and to move up.”

Such a win-at-all costs mentality is just what the national team needs after the disappointment of the World Cup, and I for one look forward to watching a more direct, aggressive, and, hopefully, passionate team over the coming months and years.

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