Is Kagawa’s number up?

It looks like Shinji Kagawa will be spending another season at Manchester United, but it is not entirely clear where he will be playing – if he even manages to get off the bench… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/08/14/post47771/)

Football Channel,  July 29th, 2014

Louis Van Gaal’s arrival at Manchester United has thus far been a huge success. The Dutchman has successfully implemented a new formation, impressed players and fans alike with his no-nonsense approach, and even managed to hold the majority of the notoriously difficult-to-please English media in his thrall.

In contrast to David Moyes – who, while a decent Premier League manager, ultimately failed to adapt to life at the very top of the game – the former Holland coach has achieved success everywhere he’s been; and he knows it. That gives him a presence and the aura that is needed to stand a chance at one of the world’s biggest clubs.

That is not currently the case with Shinji Kagawa, whose future at United has again been the matter of some debate. The past 12 months have been hugely forgettable for the former Cerezo Osaka star, and his triumphant spell with Borussia Dortmund is becoming an increasingly hazy memory.

His first season in Manchester didn’t go badly, but instead of building on that steady start and establishing himself as the man around which the team’s attacks were built the 25-year-old is now very much considered as a squad player at United.

It is still unclear whether Van Gaal envisages a regular role for Kagawa at Old Trafford, and rumours of a transfer overseas have again been doing the rounds – most recent suggestions linking him with the reigning La Liga champions Atletico Madrid.

Van Gaal has spoken directly about Kagawa, although his comments were a little ambiguous and have been interpreted in different ways. Talking after the draw and penalty win over Inter Milan on July 30th the 63-year-old made it clear that he did not initially see Kagawa as a no.10, and instead planned to try him as a deep-lying midfielder.

“I know him from Borussia Dortmund and he played in the no.10 position,” he was quoted as saying on manutd.com. “I wanted to try him in the no.6 or no.8 position in our system in the first two matches, and then I also gave him a chance at no.10 because he wanted to play in that position. He did it much better than in the two matches before.”

Jonathan Wilson, the leading expert on football tactics in England, perceived this as positive for Kagawa, and suggested that, “given his energy and understanding of the game, there is no reason Kagawa should not function well [as a central midfielder].

Nissan Stadium, July 2013

“The fact [Van Gaal] is looking at him in an array of positions suggests the new manager sees a future for him. Kagawa is, after all, quick, hard-working and tactically intelligent. He should be the ideal Van Gaal player.”

I have to admit that my reaction was not quite so positive though. I read Van Gaal’s comments as being along the lines of: ‘He played better as a no.10 but I want to play him as a no.6 or no.8. Therefore he probably won’t play much.’

Rob Dawson of the Manchester Evening News has been following United at close quarters throughout their pre-season preparations and likewise doesn’t envisage Kagawa being given a starting berth any time soon.

“It’s going to be difficult for him to play much because Van Gaal looks like he’s going to play Mata behind Van Persie and Rooney,” he told me after United’s final game of their American tour, the 3-1 win over Liverpool in which Kagawa played the last 20 minutes.

“On the other side, at least [Van Gaal] is incorporating a No.10 into his system,” Dawson continued, “so when he does get a chance, it should be in his best position.”

Dawson, unlike Wilson, isn’t convinced that Kagawa is capable of playing a more traditional central midfield role though, and thinks that the high caliber of creative players at the club – and potential arrival of more – could see Japan’s No.10 heading for pastures new in the not-too-distant future.

“I’m not sure he’s cut out to play in a two in midfield. I think if United get a reasonable offer they’ll let him leave,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he left. Van Gaal has said the squad has too many no.10s and Mata is going to be his first choice.”

While several players appeared to hold the power when it came to their futures under Moyes – Wayne Rooney negotiated a generous new deal, for instance, while Nemanja Vidic opted to leave the club – Van Gaal is very much in charge now. If he wants a player they’ll be hanging around and playing when and where he tells them to; if he doesn’t want them they’ll more likely than not be making their way through the exit door.

It looks like Kagawa will be sticking around for now, but just how many and what kinds of opportunities he will get remains to be seen.



There can’t be many situations in which the blurred line between football player and pop star is more clearly displayed than when a Japanese player moves overseas… (日本語版はこちら: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/07/27/post47141/)

Football Channel,  July 29th, 2014

Screaming fans, streams of tears, commemorative merchandise: the send-offs arranged for Japanese footballers ahead of their transfers to average European teams are becoming an increasingly emotional experience and really need to be toned down a notch or two.

After a couple of months away for the World Cup we were thrust very quickly back into the J.League swing of things as Yoichiro Kakitani finally said farewell to Cerezo Osaka – the club everyone knew he would be leaving as soon as Brazil 2014 was out of the way (some more cynical observers may even suggest that while he had been there in body this season his mind was already elsewhere) – in an elaborate and highly choreographed display that was almost as long as the presentation of the World Cup trophy to the triumphant German team 36 hours earlier.

Kakitani is a fantastic talent who has been key to this Cerezo side but does his departure really warrant all of that outpouring of emotion? Yes, he had been with the club from a very young age but three years were spent in exile in Tokushima due to a poor attitude, and his only truly effective season was last year, when he was absolutely sensational. (It really is a shame that his dip in form coincided with the World Cup, as Kakitani of June 2013 in Brazil could quite possibly have dragged this year’s Japan side through Group C.)

This idea of him as a ‘young’ player with potential for the future also needs to be debunked. Kakitani is 24-years-old, as is Thomas Müller who has 10 World Cup finals goals to his name and is a world champion. James Rodriguez, the new flavour of the month after his sizzling displays in Brazil, is 23. Toni Kroos, the standout midfielder in a team of standout midfielders, is 24. Neymar is 22. Lionel Messi won four consecutive Balon d’Ors between the ages of 22 and 25. Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and David Beckham were all 24 when they starred for the Manchester United side which won the treble in 1999.

I am not trying to dismiss Kakitani in relation to the very best of the best (and Gary Neville), but merely to illustrate that the idea of a ‘young player’ in Japan is vastly different to that in the rest of the world. 24 is not young, it is the peak age for many players and if Kakitani even wants to be considered as one of the top Japanese players he needs to be delivering results now, and consistently.

The mood of the night summed up with a picture of fans taking pictures of a picture of Yoichiro Kakitani

Transferring to Europe is the next logical step for him, and Basel, a club which regularly appears and performs well in the Champions League, is an intelligent choice. It is not an event which warrants such an overblown spectacle though, especially when Cerezo – and Kakitani – have underachieved so spectacularly this season.

The atmosphere at Kincho Stadium for the Kawasaki game was bizarre, and even though Kakitani was on the bench he for some reason joined the starting line-up for the pre-match photo, then everyone rushed to celebrate with him after Jun Ando opened the scoring, before he was back on the pitch at the start of the second half to place the captain’s armband back on Hotaru Yamaguchi. It all had the air of a testimonial or exhibition match, but it wasn’t; this was an official game that Cerezo desperately had to win.

The on-field action all took a back seat to what Kakitani was up to on the sidelines though. The fact that the team had surrendered their lead to go 2-1 behind and were a man down after Takumi Minamino’s petulant sending off didn’t appear to bother the nearly 16,000 fans who squealed in delight when their outgoing No.8 prepared to come on with seven minutes to play. “Yoichiro! Yoichiro!” spluttered the guy behind me, fumbling for his camera-phone. “Cool!” he drooled as Kakitani ran forwards unchallenged a couple of minutes later.

Even the ultimate defeat did nothing to dampen the mood, and Kakitani delivered the obligatory tearful speech (into a shiny pink microphone), received bouquets of flowers, and then circled the pitch to be showered with scarves (including from some of the Kawasaki fans; I’m all for the J.League’s well-mannered style of support but that’s outrageous. The sight of Frontale supporters with pink merchandise was ridiculous). The show even interfered with Marco Pezzaiuoli’s press conference with coach and journalists alike having to strain to hear over the ear-splitting PA announcements and pull-at-your-heartsrings music

I’m all for showing appreciation to those who’ve contributed to a club and wishing them the best of luck with their next challenge, but the festivities really needn’t be quite so dramatic. It’s a footballer transferring to a new club, not a SMAP concert or Disney parade (although anyone over the age of 10 who screams or cries at either of those events also needs to take a long, hard look at themselves). Thank those heading to pastures new, wish them well, and send them on their way. Ultimately the only players who really matter are those who will be lining up for you next week.


Style over content…

Japan had targeted – and were widely expected to achieve – a berth in the knockout stages of the 2014 World Cup finals. They didn’t make it, so I spoke to those who had been there before to find out what went wrong… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/07/15/post46691/)

Football Channel,  July 14th, 2014

Brazil booting Colombia off the park; Holland all-but-bypassing midfield and launching direct, powerful attacks; Germany reverting slightly to type and re-adopting the ruthless, organized football they have spent the best part of a decade trying to move away from: if this World Cup has demonstrated anything it is that teams cannot stick to one rigid way of playing in order to achieve success.

Japan, meanwhile, meekly departed the competition at the group stage, picking up just one miserable point as they stubbornly, naively persisted in their aim to showcase their “own football”. So impressed was the watching world that Paolo Bandini of the Guardian, in his match report of the inept 0-0 with Greece, described the Samurai Blue as, “a squadron of cautious drivers following Alberto Zaccheroni’s tactical satnav.” Hooray for Japanese football!

Of course, it’s very easy for those of us looking from the stands or our sofas to criticize the players and coaches so I decided to ask some of those who’ve made it past the group stage at the World Cup finals what they thought of Zac Japan’s disappointing campaign in Brazil. They weren’t especially impressed either.

Tulio – immense at the heart of defence with Yuji Nakazawa as Takeshi Okada’s side swept through the group in South Africa in 2010 – was the most forthright in dismissing this year’s showing.

“Ah,” he said when I asked for his thoughts after Nobuhisa Yamada’s recent testimonial, barely letting me finish the question. “Japan’s way of fighting was wrong. Even though you know the opposition are capable of overtaking you, you have to go for it. Japan doesn’t have that ability yet.”

How about the constant assertions of wanting to play their own football?

“Of course it’s impossible,” the 33-year-old responded sharply. “Even Brazil, even other teams like Holland cannot play their own football. Of course Japan can’t play their own football. It’s the World Cup. It’s not something that can be taken that lightly. You have to rise to the occasion, if you don’t you can’t win.”

Shinji Ono, one of the most gifted players in Japanese football history who has achieved success in Holland and, most recently, Australia, as well as helping the country to its first ever knockout stage at a World Cup in 2002 was similarly disappointed, and drew a comparison between Japan and Costa Rica, who he said had impressed him as a result of every player playing for the team and giving everything they had.

“I think [the main thing Japan lack is] mentality, a strong mentality,” Consadole Sapporo’s newest signing told me. “[Costa Rica] know what they have, they all know what they can do. The Japanese players also know [their capabilities] but they couldn’t show it on the pitch. That was the big difference between Costa Rica and Japan.”

Ono, too, was keen to stress the importance of winning games, rather than showcasing a certain brand of football. “Of course we need results. Sometimes you cannot get a good result [playing the way] you want.”

Yuki Abe, who was drafted into the starting line-up to add further steel at the 11th hour four years ago, felt that this year’s team were missing a certain bite and desire when it came to battling for possession.

Tulio was, unsurprisingly, the least compromising in his assessment of Japan in Brazil

“[They lacked] tenacity to get the ball; that sense of ‘I’m absolutely going to win this ball,’” the Urawa Reds captain said. “I was involved in several camps [during Zaccheroni’s reign] and I don’t really think the team played the way we did then.”

For Tulio the key frustration was the naivety at the back. “The defence [was the biggest problem]. One goal difference; you can’t underestimate the weight of one goal. I think these games – whether it was Cote d’Ivoire or Greece – made us feel the importance of just one goal – especially at the World Cup.”

Ono also referenced the inability to manage the game correctly after taking the lead in the opener against Cote d’Ivoire – a defeat which Abe described as the most important factor in Japan’s elimination.

“We were 1-0 up and then we conceded two goals in four minutes,” the former Urawa, Feyenoord, and Western Sydney Wanderers man said. “That is not good so we have to learn what we have to do after going 1-0 up. Maybe if they learn about this then we will get better and go up the next step.”

More players appearing regularly for European sides is one thing Ono believes will help to make Japanese players more streetwise – but he was keen to stress that they have to be playing every week. “The next step means that if players are going to Europe they have to play from the starting eleven. That’s important, to keep playing in every game. Then they have more confidence to bring to Japan.”

Of course, even that would only bring Japan on to a par with the majority of the teams they are competing with for a place in the knockout stages of the competition. For Tulio the fundamental issue which needs addressing is for Japan to realize where they sit in the hierarchy of the world game.

“In South Africa we focused clearly on setting the base from defence, you have to do that. If you concede one goal you absolutely cannot concede again. We’re Japan, that will always be the case.

“You have to go out there and puff out your chest; we’re not yet able to compete at the same level as these teams.”

Bravery was certainly in short supply this time around, and the fawning response the team received on its return to Japan does not help matters. These are not idols or pop stars, they are football players who massively underperformed at the biggest competition in the game. They did not deserve to have thousands of screaming fans welcoming them home at Narita.

In fairness the players looked suitably embarrassed by that hysteria, and hopefully they will have learned from this year’s chastening experience. That kind of acclaim needs to be earned, and as Costa Rica – as well as Mexico, Australia, Algeria, and USA – can attest to, that comes from leaving everything you have on the pitch, not just the aspects of your game that you want to show off.


No cojones for Zaccheroni

Japan’s meek surrender at the 2014 World Cup was not so much down to tactical or technical failings as it was, erm, testicular ones… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/06/28/post45563/)

Football Channel,  June 27th, 2014

Japan has rightfully earned a reputation as one of the best countries in the world at developing players with outstanding technical ability, but some things can’t be learned on the training pitch. The Samurai Blue have now appeared at five consecutive World Cup finals, and while there has undoubtedly been development in several areas there is still a naivety to the side on the biggest stage, with mental strength and self-belief continuing to be a key problem for Japanese players.

Alberto Zaccheroni has come in for a lot of criticism in the wake of the miserable elimination from the World Cup at the group stage, but while he must take his share of the responsibility it is far too simplistic to lay all the blame at the Italian’s doorstep. He picked the players and set the tactics but could not legislate for individual errors, and there were far too many of them in Brazil – particularly in the vital last game.

For the first quarter-of-an-hour Japan went blow-for-blow with an athletic, pacey, and passionate Colombian side which had confidence coursing through its veins having already sealed progression to the round of 16. Then Yasuyuki Konno, matching Adrian Ramos stride for stride and having no need to commit himself, lunged into a poorly timed tackle inside the box and gifted Juan Cuadrado the chance to give Jose Pekerman’s side the lead from the penalty spot, which he duly accepted.

Why Konno made that decision only he knows, but it demonstrated a lack of concentration and confidence that he was in control of the situation. As a coach you can tell players over and over again who to mark, when to drop off, and when to make a challenge but if they aren’t able to control their emotions on the night then it makes very little difference.

Similarly, having gotten themselves back into the game via Shinji Okazaki’s header right at the end of the first half, Japan’s defenders again panicked in a situation which called for cool heads. Three players were attracted to James Rodriguez on the edge of the box, leaving Jackson Martinez – whom Atsuto Uchida should have been covering – completely free to pick his spot and re-establish his side’s lead just 10 minutes after the break.

Even prior to that Japan had shown an inability to adapt to the context of the game – another common problem – and needing just one more goal to secure their passage into the next round it is unclear why they felt the need to come haring out of the traps against a side as proficient on the break as Colombia. For this oversight Zaccheroni should be held culpable – particularly as he had made incorrect tactical calls in both previous games as well.

Yoyogi Gymnasium, May 2014

Bringing on the slower, deeper-lying Yasuhito Endo for the more dynamic, forward-thinking Makoto Hasebe at half-time while ahead against Cote d’Ivoire was an invitation to the Ivorians to apply pressure to an incredibly brittle defence, while the decision not to introduce a player capable of breaking through the rigidly arranged 10 men of Greece in the second match, instead settling for a hit-and-hope approach, was baffling.

Nevertheless, again it was the players on the pitch who lost all form of discipline, and as well as a lack of organization and leadership at the back the increasingly frantic forays forward left gaping holes in the midfield meaning it always looked as if any more goals were going to be scored by the team striding the field in yellow, not that darting frantically about in blue.

That’s not to say that Japan didn’t have chances, and several good opportunities presented themselves as the half wore on. Again there was an inability to stay calm under pressure though, and Yoshito Okubo, Shinji Kagawa, and Yoichiro Kakitani all should have done better when they had the goal in their sights. Contrasting their wayward or tame efforts with the clinical finishes which made the score 3- then 4-1 to Colombia further highlights the lack of composure of the Japanese players. Rodriguez’s classy dink to round off the scoring was a particularly stark reminder of the difference between the two sides.

Colombia hadn’t qualified for the finals since 1998 but looked like they belonged on this stage – and, more importantly, the players looked like they believed they did – while Japan gave the impression that they were still a bit overawed by it all – something most apparent in their opener when they seemed genuinely shaken by the introduction of the 36-year-old Didier Drogba.

It’s easy to make knee-jerk reactions and we shouldn’t forget that this is the very highest level of football, at which the likes of Italy and reigning world champions Spain have also fallen at the first hurdle. However, development is constantly demanded (and proclaimed) by the JFA and looking purely at results (the symmetry between 2014 and 2006 has been given much publicity in the wake of this year’s disappointment) it is difficult to see how much is really being made.

Technical ability is vital in modern football, but it still needs to be backed up with a strong resolve. Pekerman’s Colombia side demonstrated that as they eliminated Japan with relative ease, and another Argentinian coach, Diego Simeone, repeatedly praised the cojones of his Atletico Madrid side during the 2013/14 season. The days of a Japan coach being able to do the same thing seem a long way off.


Disappointing Japan barely deserve survival chance

Japan’s performances in their first two games at Brazil 2014 have been far below those expected of Alberto Zaccheroni’s side.

When Saturday Comes, June 24th, 2014

Ahead of the Samurai Blue’s final game in Group C against Colombia I wrote a short preview for When Saturday Comes.


Can Japan still walk the talk?

Tsuneyasu Miyamoto captained Japan at two World Cup finals, including in 2002 when the country co-hosted with South Korea and reached the knockout stage for the first time.

Miyamoto rates Keisuke Honda as Japan's key man in 2014

Ahead of this year’s competition I asked him what he expected from the Samurai Blue in Brazil. and how this year’s squad compares to the 2002 vintage…


Target practice

Footballers talk a lot of nonsense but they’re also asked some pretty stupid questions… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/06/14/post43728/)

Football Channel,  June 13th, 2014

Pre-match comments from players and coaches are, along with those men waving red sticks at Japanese road crossings already ably controlled by traffic lights, among the most pointless things in existence.

Bland platitudes for journalists to slap into their ready-made preview templates abound, one of the most obvious negatives of our 24-hour news culture. We are trapped in an inescapable cycle: fans and the media need (or should that be want?) new content every day – or, thanks to Twitter, every hour, minute, second… – while players, on the whole, can’t stand being asked the same questions over and over again and are becoming increasingly adept at saying nothing while seeming to say something. Or, in the case of Keisuke Honda, just saying nothing.

And who can blame them? Imagine being asked about your health, targets, and thoughts on how things would go/had gone before and after every day at work. Or for that insufferable ‘message for the fans’.

In the build-up to the World Cup this process is turned up to 11 with everyone headed to the tournament being grilled for a month before the first ball is kicked about things they realistically can’t talk about in much detail. Thoughts on the opposition? ‘They’re a well organized/physical/attacking team.’ How’s your condition? ‘Getting better every day – I’m sure I’ll be ready in time.’ Target for the competition? ‘We’ll take it one game at a time and want to win them all.’

This last question, in particular – and I’m as guilty as the next journalist of having asked it to several of the Samurai Blue players – is one of the most inane. There is no right way for the players to answer, with ridicule greeting overzealous targets and accusations of lack of belief being leveled if the bar is set too low.

It has hardly been made any easier after Takeshi Okada was so widely derided for offering an honest assessment of where he thought his squad could finish in 2010. (In hindsight his semi-final target wasn’t far wrong. Had they got the rub of the green in their penalty shoot-out against Paraguay they were a single victory away from making the last four. Yes, they would have needed to overcome Spain, but the eventual champions only squeezed by Paraguay courtesy of a David Villa goal seven minutes from time – the margins at the World Cup can be incredibly fine.)

National Stadium, March 2014

Honda is never afraid to make a bold statement though, and in one of his rare chats with the media has gone on record as saying he thinks Japan can succeed Spain as the world champions this year – a claim he reinforced last week.

“Yeah,” he said when asked by Kyodo News if he still believed they could triumph in Brazil. “I am very eager to surprise the world so we just (have to) believe in our style and ourselves. We will see at the World Cup.”

A few other players have followed his lead – albeit more out of a sense of duty than because they actually believe it, as you feel Honda may genuinely do – and Maya Yoshida’s slip-up at the team’s send-off at Yoyogi Gymnasium demonstrated how little should be read into pre-tournament predictions. The centre-back was on autopilot and fumbled his lines, saying he wanted to “win the World Cup” before checking himself and correcting that to “win games” as the 7,000-plus fans in attendance shrieked their excitement. What the players say isn’t necessarily what they mean.

This is not just an issue in Japan, of course, and England players have been asked for as long as I can remember if they can win the trophy. This time is no different, even though nobody realistically ranks Roy Hodgson’s men among the favourites in Brazil.

“We don’t want to make up the numbers,” Daniel Sturridge was quoted as saying by the BBC. “That doesn’t mean we will win the World Cup but we are winners and we will do our best.”

Wayne Rooney offered a slightly more honest appraisal, although he too refused to rule out the possibility of becoming world champions and almost got ahead of himself. “I’ve got absolutely no idea how we are going to perform,” he told The Mirror. “We could have a massive impact on the tournament, go all the way to the final and surprise everyone. All I can say is that the potential and quality we have got in this squad is really exciting.”

He’s right, potential, games and goals are exciting; footballers’ comments about whether they think they can win a competition or not invariably aren’t. So perhaps we should just stop asking them.

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