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.


Muto announces himself on big stage

Japan failed to pick up its first win under Javier Aguirre on Tuesday night, but Yoshinori Muto’s performance meant neither the new coach or Muto’s teammates were too downbeat post-game…

The Japan News, Thursday 11th September, 2014

YOKOHAMA — Keisuke Honda has lavished praise on Yoshinori Muto, claiming that the young striker brings a hitherto lacking dimension to the Samurai Blue setup.

Muto struck his first national team goal just six minutes after coming on as a halftime substitute in the 2-2 draw with Venezuela in Yokohama on Tuesday night, and his captain was thoroughly impressed with what he saw.

“He has good speed, he looks fresh and [brings] a new style,” Honda told reporters after the match. “We didn’t have his kind [of striker] ever in the Japanese national team. I agree [that he’s not a typical Japanese striker], so I like him.”

Shinji Okazaki, the third-highest scorer in Japan’s history with 39 goals, concurred that the FC Tokyo forward adds something much-needed to the side.

“Recently, more and more players like that have been appearing, and it’s great to have players who are confident in making the decision to try to score by themselves,” the 28-year-old said.

“He plays soccer with all his power and that’s why the shot went in,” continued Okazaki, who plays for German team Mainz in the Bundesliga. “He knew that he had a chance to impress and really wanted to score. He showed his specialty, I think. He scores many goals like that in the J.League and it means a lot for him that he was able to do the same for the national team.”

Muto’s goal came after he picked up a half-cleared ball just inside the Venezuelan half, surged purposefully toward goal and dispatched crisply with his left foot from just outside the penalty area. It was exactly the kind of opportunity he had envisaged as he studied the game from the substitutes’ bench in the first half.

“The passes were going long, but we weren’t really able to create much when receiving the ball in the center, so I thought it would be good if I could try to spark attacks from the middle,” the 22-year-old explained.

“I thought that the first defender was going to try to foul me, and that if I could avoid going down, then it would turn into a chance.

Japan v. Venezuela, Nissan Stadium, September 9th, 2014

“Perhaps the goalkeeper wasn’t sure if I was going to pass or shoot, and so I just went for it. I knew that I had to get a goal any way I could, and the fact I was able to do so will give me confidence from now on.”

Such proactive play will have delighted his coach, Javier Aguirre, with the new man in charge stressing that he wants his players to think for themselves once they get on the field.

“I’ve only had a short week working with the players, and while I’m the one who gives them the directions, I want them to play more freely,” the Mexican said in his postgame press conference.

“I do not make the decisions for the players when they are on the field. Depending on how the game is going, they must make the decisions themselves.”

While there were positives to take from the game, Aguirre did hint at slight frustration at the defensive lapses that — as in the 2-0 loss to Uruguay last Friday — cost his side two goals.

“I’m satisfied with the performances of the young players over these two games,” he said. “In the future, I hope we will have a little more luck and that the opponents won’t score each time we make a mistake.”

The first error against Venezuela was made by Hiroki Mizumoto in the 57th minute. The Sanfrecce Hiroshima defender surrendered possession in the middle of the park then had to chase Alejandro Guerra half the length of the field before he ended up fouling him to concede a penalty. Fourteen minutes later goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima was the culprit, allowing a long-range effort by Gabriel Cichero to slip through his hands and into the net.

Aguirre will now have to wait until next month’s friendlies against Jamaica in Niigata and Brazil in Singapore to try to register his first win as Japan boss.

While Honda expressed disappointment that neither of the 55-year-old coach’s opening games had ended in victory, he preached patience.

“Of course, I’m not satisfied, but this is soccer and we are just beginning a new project because we have a new coach and new players, so I don’t say negative things,” the AC Milan player said. “It’s all right because we know we have some good players, new talent, and I think that we can improve more.”


Lack of experience costs Aguirre Japan

On Friday I travelled up to Sapporo to see Javier Aguirre’s first game in charge of Japan. The Samurai Blue were fairly comfortably beaten  2-0 by Uruguay, and after the game I gathered some reaction from those involved…

The Japan News, Sunday 7th September, 2014

SAPPORO – The hope was that a new manager and squad littered with fresh-faced, eager debutants would revitalize Japan after a dismal World Cup showing.
Change can take time to adjust to though, and the Samurai Blue’s 2-0 defeat to Uruguay on Friday night was a disjointed and largely uninspiring one.
Almost a third of Javier Aguirre’s first squad were uncapped heading into the Mexican’s first match, and with recent stalwarts such as Yasuhito Endo, Makoto Hasebe and Shinji Kagawa all either injured or overlooked the new look team was comfortably swept aside by a seasoned Uruguayan outfit.
“We just trained for two days and Uruguay has been together for a long time,” centerback Maya Yoshida reasoned after the match. “That’s a huge experience difference. We just started a new page of the team so we need a little bit more time.”
Keisuke Honda, who captained the side in the absence of the injured Hasebe, made a similar point.
“We have to understand each other more, we didn’t show our ability yet,” the AC Milan forward said. “We are not mature yet. That’s obvious because we are a new team. But we have to show our individual ability more.”
Another requirement will be to eliminate the rookie errors that gifted Edinson Cavani and Abel Hernandez with a goal in each half at Sapporo Dome.
“You can’t afford to do that against teams like Uruguay,” Aguirre said in his post-match press conference. “The difference was their experience and our mistakes, but we have Venezuela next so we have to look ahead to that.”
As well as the players needing to get used to each other, Yoshida also suggested that the coaching staff are yet to fully stamp their authority on the team.
“I think they need the time as well – to adjust to Japanese culture, Japanese football, to living in Japan,” the 26-year-old said.
Japan v. Uruguay, Sapporo Dome, Friday September 5th, 2014
“To be fair, Uruguay is one of the best teams in the world. But we didn’t let them make too many opportunities, we just made mistakes.”

Aguirre was also careful to point out the caliber of opposition his side were facing – even without the legendary-if-aging Diego Forlan and controversial-yet-lethal Luis Suarez.

“It’s not easy to play a team like Uruguay after just a few training sessions,” the former Espanyol coach said. “Our team is young and four players made their debuts today. It wasn’t the result I wanted but there were some aspects I was satisfied with.”
One of those will surely be the performance of one of the aforementioned debutants, Yusuke Minagawa, who along with defender Tatsuya Sakai started the match (Yoshinori Muto and Ryota Morioka both made substitute appearances).
The 22-year-old only made his J.League debut for Sanfrecce Hiroshima on July 19th but three goals in eight games have seen him fast-tracked into the national team.
“I’m paying close attention to the process I’m going through,” the striker told reporters after the game. “When you’re not on the pitch, for example, how you work on honing your skills and achieving positive results. I think continuing to work on those things has led me to where I am now, so I realize there are actually people who have been watching me in those areas too.”
The Tokyo native insisted he didn’t experience any nerves ahead of his first start, and instead gave the impression of being a player very much at home at this level.
“I had the feeling of, ‘finally I can be on this stage’, and, ‘I’m definitely going to do this’,” he said when asked how he felt to pull on the blue jersey for the first time.
He was given an instant lesson in the harsh realities of international football though, missing a presentable headed chance in the first half that would have given Japan the lead.
“I wanted to score and the fact that I didn’t hurt the team so I felt responsibility for that.”

Football Channel TV, No.4

Last week I once again joined Football Channel TV to discuss the latest topics of interest concerning the Japanese players in Europe and, of course, the national team selection of new Japan manager Javier Aguirre.

Football Channel TV, No.4

In Part One (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZn-Hj6ZVHQ) myself, chief editor of Football Channel Michio Ueda and Sports Zone commentator Kei Fukusawa discuss Shinji Kagawa’s future, before moving on to Keisuke Honda’s prospects at AC Milan for the coming season in Part Two (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaSqz6pSm0E). Finally, in Part Three (http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/09/04/post48665/) we get onto Aguirre’s first 23 and what we expect of the new man’s new-look team



United in Japan

I’ve recently taken part in a few discussions and/or talk events in Tokyo about Manchester United.

First up I joined Atsushi Abe, the man behind the video-game ‘Barcode Footballer’, to chat about one of my favourite ever players, Paul Scholes. http://app.famitsu.com/20140805_416567/

Discussing Paul Scholes with Atsushi Abe

Then I discussed all things United with Football Channel’s chief editor Michio Ueda, football writer Kenji Nishibe, and sports presenter Tsuneyuki Shimoda at a live event at Loft/Plus One in Shinjuku.

United talk event at Loft/Plus One, Shinjuku

That show can be viewed in three parts here:

Part one (looking back at the (brief) David Moyes era): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vd4A0HSCt3o

Part two (the next stage under Louis Van Gaal): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEKWCDtmE94

Part three (Shinji Kagawa’s opportunities (or lack of) at United): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSb8-5BRZMQ


Aguirre makes striking changes with 1st squad

Today I was at JFA House in Tokyo to hear Javier Aguirre announce his first squad since taking over as Japan manager. Here’s the full squad, along with comments about the selection from the new man in charge…

The Japan News, Friday 29th August, 2014

TOKYO — Javier Aguirre swept into his role as the new coach of the Japan national team on Thursday, promising a clean slate for the side that hugely underperformed at the World Cup this summer as he announced his maiden squad.

The Mexican named seven previously uncapped players—five of whom have never been called up before—including defender Tatsuya Sakai of Sagan Tosu, Vissel Kobe playmaker Ryota Morioka, and J.League man of the moment Yoshinori Muto, who has five goals in his last six games for FC Tokyo.

“I didn’t look at the list of players from before,” the 55-year-old said when announcing his 23 for the upcoming friendlies against Uruguay in Sapporo on Sept. 5 and Venezuela in Yokohama on Sept. 9.

“I decided by also listening to the opinions of my coaches, and I watched many games and checked many videos.”

Albirex Niigata defender Ken Matsubara and Sanfrecce Hiroshima rookie Yusuke Minagawa were the other two new faces, while goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi of Sagan Tosu and Kashima Antlers’ Gaku Shibasaki have both been handed chances for first national team appearances.

Aguirre refused to be drawn on any players in particular, though, and also made it clear he would not discuss those left out of the squad—of which there were 11 from the Brazil World Cup list, including Japan’s most-capped player Yasuhito Endo, and the injured Shinji Kagawa and Atsuto Uchida.

Javier Aguirre, Saitama Stadium 2002, August 17th, 2014

“We are starting from scratch—if I talk about one player then I have to talk about all 23,” the former Atletico Madrid and Espanyol head coach told a packed press conference at the JFA headquarters in Tokyo.

“All the players are starting from scratch and now I am thinking about which 11 will make my starting team. Young players, veterans, first call-ups, players with experience, J.League players, overseas-based players: It makes no difference. They are all Japan national team players.”

Aguirre has previously enjoyed success with his native Mexico, guiding El Tri to the World Cup’s knockout round in both 2002 and 2010, and his first big challenge in his new post will be to help Japan defend the Asian Cup in Australia in January.

“There are tests the players have to pass and six games before the Asian Cup,” he said. “The players who pass the tests will continue to the Asian Cup.”

Full squad: Eiji Kawashima, Shusaku Nishikawa, Akihiro Hayashi; Hiroki Mizumoto, Yuto Nagatomo, Masato Morishige, Maya Yoshida, Hiroki Sakai, Tatsuya Sakai, Gotoku Sakai, Ken Matsubara; Makoto Hasebe, Hajime Hosogai, Junya Tanaka, Ryota Morioka, Takahiro Ogihara, Gaku Shibasaki; Shinji Okazaki, Keisuke Honda, Yoichiro Kakitani, Yuya Osako, Yusuke Minagawa, Yoshinori Muto


Home disadvantage?

Could Tokyo Verdy’s choice of home stadium be preventing the club from returning to the heights at which it once soared? (日本語版はこちらです:http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/08/28/post48227/ )

Football Channel,  August 29th, 2014

Tokyo Verdy’s problems have been well-documented and there is not the time or space here to carry out a full assessment of the fall from grace which saw ‘Japan’s club’ plummet from the peak of the game to that of J2 also-rans.

The departure of key sponsors Yomiuri and then NTV were clearly principal factors in the club’s steady demise, and once money is taken away success, players, and ultimately fans also disappear.

The rebuilding process should thus begin in reverse order, and the team’s primary objective should be to concentrate on boosting its core fanbase and improving the atmosphere on matchdays. They are not helped in this objective by the fact that they play the majority of their home games in the preposterously over-sized Ajinomoto Stadium.

My first ever J.League game was a thoroughly depressing 0-0 bore-draw between Verdy and Avispa Fukuoka in Chofu back in 2009, played out in front of 4,183 people. That’s not such a bad crowd for the second division on a grey Sunday, but in a stadium with a capacity of 49,970 it makes for a bleak atmosphere.

A couple of weeks ago I saw another Verdy home game played in front of an almost identical crowd (4,219 for those counting), but this time it felt like I was watching a football match and that the home team had some kind of identity and people who cared about them. They consequently won the game, played against Mito Hollyhock at Ajinomoto Field in Nishigaoka, 1-0, and it seemed to me that the smaller venue (the stadium has a capacity of just 7,258) undoubtedly played a part in the win.

After the game I asked their coach Yasutoshi Miura if he agreed.

“The atmosphere has been created by a combination of the venue, the supporters, the sponsors who prop up the club – it’s an atmosphere created by all those concerned,” he said.

“Honestly speaking, the grass on the pitch here is kept wonderfully and, for the number of supporters who gather for us at the moment, the size of this stadium is very good.

Tokyo Verdy fans, Ajinomoto Field, Nishigaoka, Sunday 17th August, 2014

“Our home ground is Ajinomoto Stadium [though] and so it is our mission as a club to create the same atmosphere there.”

As the 49-year-old suggested that is not going to be especially easy, however, and the emptiness of the club’s designated home ground does seem to affect the players, with Verdy winning just one of their nine league games there in 2014. (Conversely, they’ve won both their J2 matches at Nishigaoka.)

But is it really as simple as that? I asked Dave Phillips, an MBA in Football Industries Candidate at the University of Liverpool and expert on J.League club finances, for his thoughts on Verdy. He wasn’t especially concerned about their economic situation, but did suggest that the current priority should be to get more fans through the turnstiles.

“They had the fifth highest income in J2 in 2013, and that’s bearing in mind that was a season in which both Gamba and Vissel made an appearance,” he said. “Advertising income and ticket income are stable if unspectacular – though the latter would be a result of stable, low attendances – and I’d be asking as a club what they can do to increase attendance. The answer is plenty, and cheaply (don’t copy Gifu or Matsumoto fully, because it won’t work, but some elements definitely will).”

Taking a closer look at the club’s finances and where money was being lost, Phillips arrived at the conclusion that hosting games at such an outsized venue was detrimental to the club.

“The clear issue seems to lie with game-related expenses and “top-team” operating expenses (not the same as remuneration), and, although I can’t be completely sure about this, a little bit of guesswork […] suggests to me game related expenses are the costs of matchdays, and the top team operating expenses are training facility costs.  Only Sapporo, as a percentage of their expenditure, spend a greater amount of what’s really “dead money” on these two areas – spending 30% suggests a huge amount of wastage.”

2013 JLeague 2 Revenue Distribution_Graphic Courtesy of Dave Phillips 2013 JLeague Division 2 Game Related and Top Team Expenses Percentages_Graphic Courtesy of Dave Phillips

Interestingly, a comparison with the costs Consadole accrue using Sapporo Dome was also offered by a source at Verdy by way of a partial defence of their use of Ajista. They did also reveal that efforts have been – and, from what I could gather, are still being – carried out to find a more suitable venue (including the stadiums set to be revamped or constructed for the 2020 Olympics), but suggested that abandoning Ajista would be a little tricky, with the ongoing relationship with the stadium described as “delicate”.

They moved there at the time of the change from Verdy Kawasaki to Tokyo Verdy for the 2001 season, and started well, beating Kashima Antlers 2-1 in front of 30,930 fans. Attendances and results have gone downhill since then though, and the average now sits around the 5,500 mark.

While there is no legal or official obligation for them to play games there – the J.League merely insists that clubs designate one stadium capable of hosting at least 80% of their home games, with fixtures technically only allowed to be moved if the allocated ground is otherwise in use – the fact that the association with Ajista dates so far back is – in true Japanese business style – I assume what makes it tricky to sever the ties.

The club also cites a return to J1 as an objective though, and last time they were in the top flight they averaged around 15,000 fans – the required capacity for J1 teams’ home grounds. A return to the first division doesn’t look to be on the cards for Verdy any time soon, however, and if they keep losing unnecessary money by hosting games at Ajista and continue to tread water in J2 as a result then it would surely make sense to burn those bridges.

A move to Nishigaoka would, admittedly, require the J.League to relax its capacity rules. J2 clubs are currently required to have at least 10,000 seats but attendances rarely get into five figures – and when they do it’s usually the likes of Consadole, Matsumoto Yamaga, or relegated giants like Gamba Osaka who draw the crowds.

Just six of Verdy’s games in 2013 attracted more supporters than would fit into Nishigaoka – the same number of fixtures the club are scheduled to play away from Ajista this season (also hosting at Komazawa Stadium and National Stadium). Why not reverse that, play all home games at Nishigaoka, and save Ajista for the bigger games? The results on the pitch seem to suggest it would be beneficial and, ultimately, they would also improve off it as well.

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