Down but not out

Avispa Fukuoka and Shonan Bellmare are on their way back to J2, but just because the clubs are dropping down a division it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to dispense with the services of their coaches… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 29th September, 2016

The fates of Avispa Fukuoka and Shonan Bellmare look sealed for this season, with both sides cut adrift at the foot of the table and all-but out of time to save their top-flight status.

Avispa’s victory when the two came head to head a fortnight ago moved them level on points with Shonan and left both with an outside chance of survival, but the pair failed to win this past weekend – with Avispa losing 4-1 at home to Vissel Kobe and Shonan drawing 0-0 away to Jubilo Iwata – meaning they sit eight and seven points from safety, respectively, with only 12 to play for. Barring a miracle they will be back in J2 next season.

Once that is confirmed it will be interesting to see what happens to their coaches. Avispa’s Masami Ihara and Shonan’s Cho Kwi-jae have both experienced difficult seasons but are two talented young managers and – assuming that both want to stay on, they may well have offers elsewhere – it would be a shame if their clubs were to dispense of their services.

Ihara is in his first job as head coach but spent five years earning his stripes on the coaching staff at Kashiwa Reysol, helping them to back to back J1 and J2 titles in 2010 and 2011 while working under Nelsinho, and has showed potential in his nearly two years as the main man at Avispa.

Despite starting his maiden season in J2 with three straight defeats, the former Japan captain guided Avispa to an end of season surge that saw them unbeaten in 12 games and winning their last eight matches before dramatically sealing promotion to J1 with an 87th minute goal in the play off final against Cerezo Osaka.

Things, predictably, have been less straightforward in the top flight, with Avispa picking up just four wins all season courtesy of doubles over Shonan and FC Tokyo. The table may not make for pretty reading, but performances on the pitch haven’t been as bad as the stats suggest, and despite losing 19 times 11 of them have come by just a single goal.

Although this past weekend saw them well beaten by Vissel, on the whole Avispa have been well organised and difficult to break down, and the overriding issue has been a lack of top quality at each end of the pitch.

“Of course there are many different factors, but I think being able to control games – how you ensure you win games that you should win – is key,” Ihara said after the Shonan match, when discussing what separates the teams that get relegated from those that avoid the drop.

Football Channel, Thursday 29th September, 2016

“We have had many games where we have played well but dropped points. There was a succession of games where we were caught off guard within a second and lost, preventing us from picking up points. Really strong teams don’t allow any of those chances, every single player knows exactly what is needed to win games and control them for the full 90 minutes.”

Whereas Avispa’s season has been defined by dogged organisation and a refusal to go down without a fight, Shonan have continued to play with the gunslinging abandon that saw them finish in a lofty 8th place in the overall table on their return to J1 last year.

The side have picked up rousing draws with big boys Kawasaki Frontale (4-4), Gamba Osaka (3-3), and Sanfrecce Hiroshima (2-2) with their positive attacking approach this year, but having lost a trio of players capable of deciding games in their favour in the form of Yota Akimoto, Wataru Endo, and Ryota Nagaki ahead of this campaign they have struggled to come out on top in enough matches to avoid another plunge back down to J2.

Despite the results not arriving, however, Cho doesn’t think a team’s position in the table should affect their style. “I’ve only worked as a coach for five years and managed to avoid relegation once so I don’t know if I can give an informed answer or not, but personally I think that pursuing what you believe in as the club’s philosophy and carrying it out until the end is the key ingredient for a team to look ahead and avoid relegation,” he said after the loss to Avispa.

“Of course you can tweak the system, but you have to stick to what you have, to take care of the original DNA – which for us is to run more than the opponent, to play attacking football, and to aim for the goal. Today again we weren’t able to get the three points, but I firmly believe that teams who can do this without giving up until the end – this year, next year, in three years, 10 years – achieve improvement. I’m somebody who demands results and development, and I want to do so even in this kind of situation.”

Whether Cho or Ihara will get the chance to stick around at their current clubs for another year – or three, or 10 – remains to be seen, but based on their efforts this season it would be a shame if they weren’t given a little longer to bring their respective projects closer to fruition.


Per Angusta Ad Augusta

Reports suggest that the J.League will be doing away with it’s much-derided two stage format after this season.

Soccerphile, 15th September, 2016

With that in mind, I took at look at the lie of the land in J1 as the 2016 campaign nears its climax.



The Kagawa Conundrum

Shinji Kagawa is a vastly different player for club and country, and perhaps it’s best for all concerned if he is given a bit of a break from national team duty… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2016/09/13/post174348/)

Football Channel, 13th September, 2016

It is quite clear – and has been for a while – that all is not well for Shinji Kagawa when he plays for Japan.

In the recent World Cup qualifiers the Borussia Dortmund playmaker was again a peripheral figure for the Samurai Blue, floating around the fringes of the games and all-too often favouring sideways or backwards passes instead of attempting anything more proactive, and snatching at the half-chances that came his way rather than dispatching them in the clinical fashion we have so often seen for his club.

As a result of these latest less-than-impressive showings Kagawa again came in for criticism, with many wondering why the 27-year-old is still a sure-fire pick for the side despite not having delivered consistently for a very long time, if ever, in national team colours.

While questions should certainly be asked of Vahid Halilhodzic and his refusal to drop a player who has been little more than a passenger for the past couple of years, it isn’t really fair to suggest that Kagawa is lacking in effort – if anything he is trying too hard.

At his club Kagawa is surrounded by some of the best talents in the game, players who share the burden of deciding games, leaving him to play freely as one of several cogs in Dortmund’s attacking machine. For Japan he is not afforded that same luxury, and he clearly struggles with the expectation to be the main man when it comes to unlocking opposition defences – defences that are focusing the majority of their energy and manpower on keeping him quiet.

This is a common theme in international football, and there are countless instances of star players of less successful nations struggling to carry the burden of responsibility when it comes to playing for their country. Just look at Wayne Rooney, for instance.

The Manchester United and England captain is the Three Lions’ all-time top scorer and most capped outfielder, and for many – including, thankfully for him, England’s past five managers – still the first name on the teamsheet. For just as many people, however, Rooney is longer an effective player for the side and shouldn’t be guaranteed a place in the XI.

Current boss Sam Allardyce has dismissed those suggestions, and despite the fact that Rooney has not delivered consistent results or performances for quite some time offered a rather strange comment after England’s 1-0 win over Slovakia last week.

“This is the most decorated outfield player in England,” he said. “He’s won everything at Manchester United, at Champions League and domestic level. I think he holds a lot more experience at international football than I do as an international manager. So, when he is using his experience and playing as a team member, it’s not for me to say where he’s going to play.”

Football Channel, September 14th, 2016

The suggestion that Allardyce – the manager of the team, no less – has no say over where his players play was a bizarre remark, and implied that some members of the squad are un-droppable.

Whereas Big Sam is hesitant to offer Rooney any instructions Halilhodzic was certainly not shy about dishing them out to Kagawa in the recent Thailand game, frequently grabbing his No.10 and giving him a piece of his mind.

With Kagawa it doesn’t seem like that is the answer though. Instead of giving him more instructions, more advice, more things to think about, perhaps he should be given less: either by being given a totally free role, or perhaps by being left out of the squad altogether.

Andres Iniesta recently gave a fascinating interview to the Guardian’s Sid Lowe, in which he talked about his style of play and the way in which Barcelona and Spain managed to achieve so much success. One comment in particular stood out with Kagawa’s current troubles in mind.

“Most things come from inside, they’re intuitive; that’s the way I am,” Iniesta said. “There’s tactics, strategy but I understand football as something unpredictable, because you have to decide in a thousandth of a second. If the ball is coming and there’s someone behind you, I’m not thinking: ‘I’m going left or should it be right?’ I just go and it comes off … well, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Unfortunately for Kagawa those ‘sometimes it doesn’t’ instances are occurring far more often than the times when things go well at the moment, almost certainly because he is not playing instinctively, as Iniesta does, but instead to pre-prepared routes in his head.

Persevering with him when he is not in form just opens him up to more criticism, which in turn adds more pressure and then causes him to retreat further into his shell.

“There are moments when your mind is very vulnerable,” Iniesta said elsewhere in his interview when discussing a difficult period in his life that impacted on his form. “You feel a lot of doubts. Every person is different, every case. What I’m trying to explain is that you can go from being in good shape to being in a bad way very quickly.

“People see footballers as different beings, as if we’re untouchable, as if nothing ever happens to us, but we’re people. Of course we’re privileged but in the tangibles we’re the same.”

That shouldn’t be forgotten when it comes to Kagawa, who certainly doesn’t look especially happy when playing for Japan. Perhaps it would be better for him and the national team as a whole if he was allowed a little time out of the limelight to get his head together and start enjoying his football again.



On the up

The contest at the top of J2 is looking a lot less open than usual this season, and with a dozen games still to play it looks like we already know the six teams in the mix for promotion to the top flight…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 30th August, 2016

Despite the fact there are still seven games to play in J1, things are looking all but set at both ends of the overall table. Kawasaki Frontale, Urawa Reds, and Kashima Antlers look odds-on to be in the Championship, while Avispa Fukuoka, Shonan Bellmare, and Nagoya Grampus need miracles (or maybe just Tulio?) to avoid relegation.

Unusually the picture is similarly clear at the top of J2. Since the play-offs were introduced in 2012 the second division has maintained a healthy level of competition as seasons have neared their climaxes, with nigh-on half the teams involved in with a shout of making the post-season competition for promotion to J1.

This year things look a little different though, and with 12 games left to play there is already a seven-point gap between Kyoto Sanga in the last play-off spot in sixth and seventh-placed Renofa Yamaguchi. At the top, meanwhile, Consadole Sapporo are nine points clear of second-placed Matsumoto Yamaga and 12 above third-placed Cerezo Osaka and looking clear favourites for the title – or at the very least automatic promotion.

With that in mind thoughts are already turning to the pressure of the play-offs, and after Shimizu S-Pulse’s recent 2-0 win over Yokohama FC – which moved Shimizu up to fifth and left Yokohama in 10th, 11 points outside the play-off places – Chong Tese made it clear that Shinji Kobayashi’s side don’t expect anything less than a spot in the end of season shootout.

“We’re not really paying any attention to what’s happening below us, we’re not thinking about dropping down to seventh,” he said. “We have the game against Matsumoto to come too [on 25 September]. So far we have lost important games like that – against the likes of Sapporo and Cerezo– but if we can beat them then we’ll be able to move up.”

There are two rounds of games before that clash, but assuming no slip-ups in the meantime a Shimizu win over Yamaga could mean just three points separating the teams in second and sixth – a mini-league contesting the last automatic promotion spot, with the nerve-shredding play-offs the consolation for the unlucky four who miss out.

“Of course we are aiming for second but in reality third looks more achievable as it’s not only dependent upon us but how the teams above us do too,” Tese added. “All the teams above us are also aiming for second, and it’s our responsibility to do the same. Initially though we have to make sure we are up in third and then we can think about second.”On the up, August 30th 2016

S-Pulse have more than matched the rest of the chasing pack, of late, picking up 10 points from their last five games, with three wins, one draw, and a solitary defeat, away to Sapporo. That is the same return as Fagiano Okayama in fourth, while Kyoto have claimed nine points and Matsumoto and Cerezo have each gathered seven.

The Shizuoka side are also the division’s leading scorers with 57 goals, and after an unsteady start to life in the second tier with blanks fired in each of their first four home games Shimizu have been free-flowing in front of goal and only failed to find the target in three games since.

“The team is doing very well in terms of attacking at the moment,” Tese, top scorer in the league with 17 goals, said after the win over Yokohama – the first time in six games that he hadn’t found the net after eight goals in the previous five games. “I’m not worried that I didn’t score today though. I want to become the kind of player who can score for the team in difficult situations, and while I wanted to get a goal at 0-0 here I feel that we are combining well in attack.”

Those difficult situations are sure to arise, and Tese is hoping the team will cope with the pressure as it begins to mount.

“You could see in the recent Sapporo game [in which Shimizu came back from 2-0 down to 2-2, only to then concede again right at the death] a bit of a mental weakness, and we have to get stronger in that respect.”

The former Kawasaki Frontale star believes there is more than enough experience and ability in the Shimizu squad to ultimately see them over the line though, and is hopeful they can come good when it matters the most.

“With our quality we can only improve. We have the feeling that we can win going into every game. In almost all our games we have scored first and when that happens the opponent begins to pour more players forward and maybe we haven’t been able to deal with it so well. Most of our games have been there for us to win and most of the times we haven’t have been because of us letting them slip.”

Indeed, S-Pulse have opened the scoring in 18 of their matches, being pegged back to draw four times and losing once – a total of 11 points squandered after taking the lead.

They can’t let many more opportunities pass them by between now and the end of the season, but with Tese in form, Genki Omae due back from injury soon, and a coach who has plenty of experience navigating the road from J2 to J1 they still have every chance of an instant return to the top flight.


A case for the defence

Japan suffered a miserable group stage exit at the Olympics, ultimately paying the price for a lack of defensive solidity… 日本語版はこちらです

Football Channel, 16th August, 2016

After all the talk of aiming for a medal and placing a focus on defensive solidity Japan’s early exit at the Olympics – and in particular the manner of it – was hugely disappointing.

Makoto Teguramori’s side were handed a tricky but negotiable group and given what should have been a helping hand when Nigeria only arrived in Brazil hours before their opening game. Inexplicably they allowed the Nigerians to set the tempo of the match from the outset though, and defensive errors galore produced a ludicrous 5-4 defeat.

That was followed by another cautious display against a fairly mediocre Colombia side, with Japan only really gaining any foothold once they were 2-0 down and heading for elimination. Then, with Colombia on the ropes at 2-2 Japan seemed content to settle for a point, even though that then left qualification firmly in Colombia’s grasp.

As well as question marks over the team’s hesitant tactics one of the key issues was the choice of overage players. The initial impression when the squad was announced was mixed; with Shinzo Koroki looking like a smart selection, Tsukasa Shiotani understandable if a little underwhelming, but Hiroki Fujiharu seeming an odd choice.

In 2012 Takashi Sekizuka only opted to take two overage players to London, and both brought some experience and leadership to the side, which complimented the host of youthful talent coming through. Yuhei Tokunaga was 28 at the time and an experienced J.Leaguer with full national team experience, while Maya Yoshida was vital at the heart of defence.

The then-VVV Venlo player was only a year above the cut-off and so not much older than his teammates, but having already been playing in Europe for two and a half years and established himself as a first choice in the full national team under Alberto Zaccheroni – playing a key role as the side won the 2011 Asian Cup and also featuring heavily in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers – he was a calming presence at the back, guiding the physical but raw Daisuke Suzuki and demonstrating his class and composure as the team very nearly won a medal for the first time in 44 years.

Shiotani, while a very good player, doesn’t come across as a leader in the same way and is more used to playing as part of Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s three-man defence rather than the more orthodox four at the back preferred by Teguramori. Fujiharu, meanwhile, is a decent J.League player and has been in and around the national team but it was a little unclear what the coach felt he would bring to the side at left back that the likes of Ryosuke Yamanaka and Masashi Kamekawa couldn’t.

Koroki did look like a good choice up front though, and did reasonably well considering the relative lack of service he got in the first two games. The Urawa Reds striker is one of the most natural finishers in the J.League and has possibly only struggled to become a more regular feature in the full national team because of his frequent injuries.

Football Channel, Monday 15th August, 2016 (Getty)

If you want to take the full quota of three overage players to the Olympics then those who bring cool heads or a touch of extra quality like Koroki are surely preferable to steady-but-unspectacular J.Leaguers. The likes of Masato Morishige, Yuki Abe, Kengo Nakamura – who works well in tandem with Ryota Oshima at Kawasaki Frontale and could have done so in Brazil too – or even Shunsuke Nakamura could surely have been convinced to head to Rio and would have brought some much-needed composure to the side as the youngsters lost their heads against Nigeria and Colombia.

Indeed, as is so often the case, the kind of players Japan lacked in Rio were those in the middle of the park to add some resilience to the spine of the side at centre back and defensive midfield.

The best Japan have done at an international tournament in recent history – perhaps ever – was at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when Tulio and Yuji Nakazawa formed a solid partnership at the heart of defence while Abe sat in behind Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo as an extra shield to win back the ball and then distribute it to the more attack-minded players.

At the 2012 Olympics Sekizuka had Cerezo Osaka teammates Hotaru Yamaguchi and Takahiro Ogihara in front of Yoshida and Suzuki, and the pair’s familiarity and understanding added good balance to the team and enabled the likes of Hiroshi Kiyotake, Yuki Otsu, and Kensuke Nagai to focus on attacking.

This time around Teguramori never seemed sure about his first choice pairing in the middle of the park, ditching the 4-4-2 with which they had qualified and then chopping and changing who featured alongside captain Wataru Endo – who himself is perhaps better suited to a place in the backline, where he has impressed for Reds this season.

Ryota Oshima, Shinya Yajima and Riki Harakawa are all good players but none of them could be described as natural ball-winners, which meant the side had a soft core throughout which opponents regularly took advantage of.

When Japan did go forwards – which wasn’t often enough until the Sweden game, when the return to 4-4-2 and 1-0 win was too little too late – they looked good, and had plenty of attacking options, ranging from Koroki’s fox-in-the-box play, Takuma Asano’s pace and sharp shooting, and Shoya Nakajima’s ability to find the target from distance.

Musashi Suzuki and Takumi Minamino also offered glimpses in the final third, but over the three games as a whole Japan didn’t spend enough time playing with intent in that area of the pitch. They should have taken the initiative more often but were ultimately unable to do so because of a lack of security at the back.


Asano off to Arsenal

Another Japanese youngster recently moved to the Premier League, and some of Takuma Asano’s former teammates had some advice for the striker before he completed his transfer from Sanfrecce Hiroshima to Arsenal…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 28th July, 2016

There goes another one.

Takuma Asano bade farewell to Sanfrecce Hiroshima in tears last month, unable to mark his last game for the Purple Archers with a goal but offering the customary emotional goodbye ahead of his participation in the Rio Olympics and then his transfer to Arsenal.

Such scenes are becoming increasingly common in the J.League at this time of year, as the division’s youngsters are whisked off mid-season to Europe to ‘realise their dreams’ and ‘help Japanese football grow’, etc. and so on.

Of course, a lot of these players are soon back home with their tails between their legs, and many Arsenal fans have already decided that Asano is destined to be a flop in north London – partly because they are frustrated with Arsene Wenger’s refusal to spend inflated fees on top-grade strikers, and partly because Asano is yet to prove himself at anything approaching the highest level.

That is unfair on the 21-year-old, but is something he is going to have to get used to if he wants to avoid joining the likes of Kensuke Nagai, Yuki Otsu, Yoichiro Kakitani, Hotaru Yamaguchi, and Takashi Usami as another full or U23 national team player to fail to make the grade in Europe (although Usami has, of course, been given a second bite of the cherry).

Mihael Mikic knows just how thick-skinned his now-former teammate will need to be once he arrives in England, and he joked that Asano may initially be helped by the fact that he doesn’t speak the local language.

“If he doesn’t score then a good point is he cannot read English,” the Croatian said with a smile after Sanfrecce’s recent 3-3 draw with Kashiwa Reysol. “Because it is not easy to live with that if your fans are so critical. I’m reading a lot and people don’t have respect for him already. But I think and hope these people will change their opinions.

“I already told him, ‘please don’t read the newspapers or the internet, don’t go to Twitter or Facebook, and don’t translate everything!’”

Mikic was laughing as he spoke but it was clear he meant what he said, and he firmly believes that if Asano can overcome the initial culture shock he can go on to become a big success in the Premier League

“He is hungry. That means he will take this chance; I believe he will take this chance. I really want that he takes this chance and improves more there, because Wenger is one special coach for a young player. My opinion is he is maybe the next Michael Owen. He really, really has this potential. If he starts scoring then he is unstoppable, in my opinion.”

A failure to hit the ground running is perhaps the biggest concern for Asano, and if he struggles to have an instant impact – more likely at another club in Europe on loan before he makes it onto the pitch at the Emirates– then it will take a huge mental effort to stay focused and demonstrate his true ability.

Football Channel, 28th July, 2016 (Getty)

Peter Utaka agrees that Asano can’t afford to dwell on things and needs to keep his head up.

“I’ve prepared his mind for that already, because I played in Europe for more than 10 years and I’ve told him that it’s not like in Japan, no-one’s going to say to you, ‘no problem, no problem’ – it is a problem [for the fans], and there is pressure every game,” the Nigerian said.

“Every chance you miss could cost the game and could be crucial for you and the team, so you’re going to have to be ruthless in front of the goal. He knows that already, because I’ve told him, so let him prepare his mind because English fans don’t do criticism like Japanese fans (laughs). He’s going to get the shock of his life!”

Utaka agrees that having Arsene Wenger oversee his development is a huge plus for Asano, and hopes he is able to fully capitalise on this opportunity.

“I know Arsenal like to have young players and turn them into great players, so I think it’s a great move for him. There’s a lot of competition there for him but he just has to be focused and work hard and see the plans they have for him. I know he needs time to adapt, not just to the league but to living abroad, because this is his first time not in Japan, so it’s going to be a big challenge for him.

“Mentally he’s very strong and he’s a very dangerous player when he’s running behind the defence. He’s very hungry to score goals. He’s never satisfied; he always wants to score in training and in games, and if he doesn’t score he’s like, ‘my job is not done, I need to score’.”

Despite holding himself to the highest standards, Utaka is hopeful that Asano doesn’t get too weighed down by the expectations on him and has noticed an increased determination in the youngster since the move was agreed.

“He’s not nervous, he wants to go with his head high so he’s working the same, and even a little bit more. At the training ground I see him in the gym every single day. In training and in games he wants to score goals and go to Arsenal with his head high. He hasn’t changed but he wants to improve, he wants to add more quality.

“But he can’t put himself under pressure. He just has to be very cool-headed and focused to make sure he gets the job done when he gets the opportunity to play.”

At the end of the day playing and performing is the only thing that matters for Asano, and how well he is able to zone out the background noise will be key to determining whether he makes a success of this chance or not.


Marinos hit the ground running

Yokohama F.Marinos have started the second stage of the J1 season in good form, and after their recent win over Avispa Fukuoka Manabu Saito and Quenten Martinus spoke about th team’s new attacking accent… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 14th July, 2016

The usual suspects have started the second stage of the J1 season strongly, with Urawa Reds and Kawasaki Frontale – who were jostling for the first stage title until Kashima Antlers pipped them both to the post – and 2014 treble winners Gamba Osaka all winning their first two games.

Yokohama F.Marinos have also picked up six points from six, and while both 3-0 victories have come against sides more focused on survival than glory in the top flight, in Shonan Bellmare and Avispa Fukuoka, there are signs of improvement for Erick Mombaerts’ side – particularly when considering they started the first stage with a loss at home to Vegalta Sendai and then a draw away to Avispa.

Marinos finished the first stage in 11th place, a full 17 points behind winners Kashima and 11 adrift of third-placed Reds, primarily because they only managed to win two of their nine home games, scoring just eight goals in front of their own fans and failing to register in five of the matches they hosted.

On the flip side, however, they won five and lost just twice away from home, scoring 16 goals and only failing to find the net on one occasion. With their defence as resolute as ever it would appear that Mombaerts is warming to the idea of playing with a little more attacking verve, and he certainly has the players in his squad to cause teams problems in that respect.

“We have to increase the amount of times we win the second balls back from the opponent and then break quickly,” the team’s livewire-in-chief, Manabu Saito, said after scoring the opener in the win over Avispa. “By doing that I was able to break through from the side and get the goal today. Overall the performance wasn’t great, but winning is everything. We’re not playing well but have won 3-0 and 3-0 – that doesn’t happen so often.”

Indeed, you have to go back to the start of the 2013 season – the year that Marinos came tantalizingly close to becoming champions – for the last time they scored three times in back-to-back league games (3-2 v. FC Tokyo, 3-1 v. Sanfrecce), and all the way to the beginning of the 2010 campaign for the most recent time they won consecutive games by three goals or more without conceding (3-0 v. Shonan and 4-0 against Kawasaki).

Manabu Saito and Martinus, Getty

“We need to score more goals, and if we are able to finish teams off on the counter then I think we will have become a strong team,” Saito added. “We have to show more in that respect. [Quenten] Martinus, Kayke, me, we have to do more and make more chances in open play. I think we’ve switched to two up front in order to do that, to take the initiative from the opponent.”

That shift to playing with two strikers certainly adds to Marinos’ threat going forwards, and Martinus believes the double spearhead of Kayke and Cayman Togashi has helped Marinos to hit the ground running.

“[Cayman] is a player who runs a lot and I think that’s good for us because he makes a lot of space for me, for Manabu.” The Curaçaoan told me after the Avispa match.

“Kayke also runs a lot, so if they come to the ball we go behind them because if [the defenders] come with them there is a lot of space behind. If [the defenders] stay then we come in the midfield and we take the ball and then we can make combinations. I think it’s a good combination, Kayke and Cayman together, because they run a lot so Manabu and me get a lot of chances – because we have a lot of speed, Manabu and me – to go behind the line. And I think that is our power.”

The pair certainly kept the Avispa defence on their toes with their unpredictable and direct play, and even before Saito swept past Kim Hyun-hun and left Shunsuke Tsutsumi for dead to put Marinos 1-0 up in the 38th minute the 26-year-old had shown his intent with a trademark run that left a trail of grey shirts in his wake just before the half-hour mark.

“I think me and Manabu are players who have our own will,” Martinus said. “Sometimes you need to play for the team but sometimes you need to do something, to try. If you always do the same things teams can look at you and then they know the next time, but Manabu and me we try to do something and it’s always difficult for the opponent.

“The coach said to me, ‘make dribbles’, because here in Japan not many people [do that] they only want to pass. That is typical J.League: pass, pass, pass, tick, tick, tick, one touch, two touch. Me and Manabu try to dribble [past] one guy and then you have a man more because one man is down, then you can make one or two passes.”

And then you can score one or two (or three) goals, as well. The new approach has worked well for Martinus and co. so far, and it will be interesting to see how teams cope with the new-look, more direct Marinos as the second stage progresses.

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