Upstarts on the charge

The teams relegated from J1 last year are having far from impressive campaigns in the second tier this season, and as Omiya Ardija, Ventforet Kofu, and Albirex Niigata toil away in the mid- to lower reaches of the table it is instead two of the J.League’s younger clubs that are setting the pace… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Friday 10th July, 2018

Matsumoto Yamaga started the season without a win in their first six games but have lost just twice since then to ensure they sit top on 53 points, while Machida Zelvia have won four in a row and are breathing down their necks on 49 points.

In a division that remains frustratingly unpredictable both sides have exhibited impressive levels of consistency, establishing themselves as the teams to beat and each losing just two of their last 15 games.

Under the guidance of the wily Yasuharu Sorimachi, who remains an accomplished tactician 10 years after leading Japan at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Matsumoto have exhibited an impressive ability to adapt to the style of whichever team they are playing.

They can fight and play aerially, break down teams that try to pack bodies behind the ball and counter – as they demonstrated most expertly in the 5-0 dismantling of Zweigen Kanazawa on 12 May – and also go blow-for-blow with the more proactive teams, as evidenced in their 1-1 draw away to Tokushima Vortis on 26 May and the back-and-forth 3-2 on the road to JEF United last weekend. 

That victory was their seventh in an eight-game unbeaten run, and a wealth of quality all over the park has enabled them to settle into an intimidating stride atop the rankings.

Solid at the back and in possession of the third best defence in the division, conceding just 25 goals in their 27 games and keeping 12 clean sheets, Yamaga also have an enviable wealth of attacking players, with Hiroyuki Takasaki, Ryo Nagai, Daizen Maeda, and Serginho a formidable array of options all capable of occupying opposing defenders in a variety of ways.

Indeed, the club have so much strength in depth up front that former Mito Hollyhock hotshot Kohei Mishima has become a forgotten man and can’t even make the bench, while they were also able to let Kohei Kudo and Naoki Maeda move elsewhere recently without any effect on results.

They may only be four points clear in first (so the fans who were wondering after the win over JEF whether the team could put a star on their shirt if they win the league were getting a little ahead of themselves), but seeing as they sit 11 points clear of seventh place it would take an impressive collapse now for them to fall far enough from grace that they don’t make the play-offs at the very least.

Football Channel, 10th August, 2018

The only other team that has demonstrated a similar level of ruthlessness is Machida, who made the step up to J2 in the same year as Matsumoto in 2012 but have had a rockier journey since.

Zelvia finished bottom that year and dropped straight back down to the JFL, only returning to the second tier after finishing as runners-up to Renofa Yamaguchi in the 2015 J3 season and beating Oita Trinita in the promotion/relegation play-off.

This year, however, their fifth under Naoki Soma in his second stint at the club, they have motored steadily up into the battle for supremacy at the top of the table and are the closest side to Matsumoto in the automatic promotion places.

What makes the small Kanto outfit’s form all the more remarkable is the fact that even if they were to upset the odds and finish the season in the top two they won’t be promoted to the first division as they don’t fulfil the J.League’s licensing requirements.

That hasn’t stopped them putting together their formidable run of form though, and even if they are to run out of steam as the season wears on it certainly won’t be for a lack of motivation on the part of the players. 

Considering the position Soma played during his career Machida have traditionally been a solid, no-nonsense defensive unit, but as they have looked to become more expansive this season they have been no more than average in that regard, conceding 31 times in the process – more than mid-table Montedio Yamagata and Mito Hollyhock, and only once more than Tochigi SC (17th) and Ehime FC (18th).

Going forward, however, they have posed plenty of threat and are the third highest scorers in the division, notching 44 times thanks to 16 different players finding the net.

Yuki Nakashima is their most prolific marksman with eight goals, while fellow forwards Koji Suzuki and Taiki Hirato have also contributed five each. The defensive players have left a mark at the other end of the pitch as well, with centre-backs Kodai Fujii and Kota Fukatsu scoring three apiece and Naoki Otani and Koki Shimosaka also amongst the goals.

They welcome JEF to Nozuta Stadium on Sunday, when they will no doubt be looking to lay down another marker against one of the J.League’s original members and show that in football history counts for very little – it’s what you do now that matters.


Rusty Reysol

Kashiwa Reysol’s 6-2 thrashing away to Kashima Antlers last week was a new low in a disappointing season. Tonight, they’re away to Vissel Kobe and Andres Iniesta… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel,  July 28th, 2018

The J.League is back after the World Cup break, and it already feels like it never went away.

A couple more national team players have earned themselves moves to Europe – with Naomichi Ueda and Wataru Endo sealing transfers to Cercle Brugge and Sint-Truiden, respectively, despite not making it off the bench in Russia – Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres have arrived to huge fanfare but both lost on their debuts off the bench, and a mish-mash of ridiculous scores have ensured J1 remains one of the least predictable divisions in the world.

Yokohama F.Marinos hit the ground at a sprint with an 8-2 hammering of Vegalta Sendai, before then finding themselves 5-0 down within 64 minutes of their next game against FC Tokyo, which they ultimately lost 5-2. Sendai, meanwhile, bounced back from their hammering with a solid 1-0 away to Torres’ Sagan Tosu on the same day that Kashima Antlers swept past Kashiwa Reysol 6-2.

That defeat means Reysol are one of only three teams to have lost both their games since the restart, after they were also edged 1-0 at home to Tokyo on 18 July. One of the others, Gamba Osaka, disposed of Levir Culpi after last Saturday’s home loss to Shimizu S-Pulse and replaced him with club legend Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, but with Reysol having already changed manager back in May when Nozomu Kato took Takahiro Shimotaira’s place in the hot seat a similar course of action seems unlikely in Chiba for now.

Things don’t look especially good for the Sun Kings though, and there has been a cloud hanging over Hitachidai for the bulk of this season.

The club snatched the final Asian Champions League spot on New Year’s Day when Cerezo Osaka, who had finished third in J1, also won the Emperor’s Cup, but Reysol’s campaign ended in ignominy as they exited at the group stage after winning just one of their six games.

Their form in the first half of the league season was patchy as well, and the club haven’t won back-to-back games all year – a run which actually stretches back to 19 August 2017, when they followed a 4-1 win away to Shimizu with a 1-0 victory on the road to Gamba.

That led to the departure of Shimotaira after the 2-1 loss to Kawasaki Frontale in the penultimate game before the World Cup break, and while the promoted Kato got the new manager bounce with a 3-2 win against Nagoya Grampus the team have lost their three games since play resumed this month, going down 2-1 to a Montedio Yamagata B-Team in the Emperor’s Cup on 11 July before their recent pair of J1 losses.

Injuries and loss of form of key players are also a cause for concern. Kosuke Nakamura’s two concussions in consecutive games are a big worry, 2017 J.League Young Player of the Year Yuta Nakayama is also out, Hidekazu Otani is beginning to show signs of his age, and talisman Cristiano has only found the net twice in the league since 10 March.

Football Channel 28 July 2018

The humbling away to Kashima last weekend saw each of Otani and Cristiano substituted in the second half, and the team failed to offer any kind of defence as Kashima ran rampant and threatened to score with every attack.

Nakamura’s replacement Kazushige Kirihata was at fault for the second goal but could do little about any of the others, with Reysol’s marking incredibly sloppy and their failure to apply any pressure to the Antlers forwards enabling the hosts to probe at will – most glaringly for Shoma Doi’s fourth and Koki Anzai’s fifth, for which the former Tokyo Verdy man ran unchallenged from the edge of the centre circle in his own half before converting.

“We lost the ball badly when we were attacking and our risk management at those times wasn’t good,” Jiro Kamata said after the loss in Ibaraki. “It’s painful to concede six goals as a defender and there are things to reflect on, but I think the team as a whole wasn’t good today.

“We fought until the end but unless you manage to get the goals back that has no meaning. The three goals in the first half really hurt us and we just headed into the second trying to keep a clean sheet and equalise, but we weren’t able to stop conceding.”

His manager was also disappointed with the lack of aggression in the team’s defensive approach.

“There was certainly an aspect of not going towards the ball,” Kato said. “That wasn’t everything but I think there was a lack of awareness of the dangerousness of situations at certain times.

“We have been working on that area for the past two months but are still not thorough enough. That sense of danger, that habit, I feel we’re still not able to see things through to the last.”

That is certainly a concern for the team, and while things are as tight as ever in J1 – Reysol are currently 14th, five points above the relegation/promotion play-off place but the same amount adrift of sixth placed Vissel Kobe – they will want to steady the ship as soon as possible.

Last summer they managed to put together a nine-game unbeaten run between 30 July and 23 September, and they will be hoping they can make the first step towards something similar away to Kobe this weekend – with Vissel also looking to bounce back from a disappointing result after losing 3-0 to Shonan Bellmare last Sunday.

There is still a lot of football to be played and no need to panic just yet, but it is important to stop bad days at the office turning into extended runs of poor form. After the thrashing in Kashima the primary target should clearly be to tighten up at the back, and a shut out against Iniesta on Saturday would be a good way to start restoring some confidence.


Japan’s Next Steps Vital After Strong World Cup Showing

Japan put in an impressive showing at the recent World Cup, and it is vital that steps are now taken to build on the team’s progression to the Round of 16 in Russia.

Japan Forward, 18th July, 2018

Some key veterans are retiring, Akira Nishino won’t be continuing as coach, and the JFA should now be pulling out all the stops to attract the former Premier League manager who would be perfect for nurturing the next generation of Japanese talent.


Lack of control costs England and Japan

England and Japan both performed beyond expectations at the World Cup, but a lack of composure at key times ultimately prevented them from leaving even bigger marks on the competition… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Sunday 15th July, 2018

Both Japan and England exited the World Cup after some late heartbreak, and aside from that there were plenty of other similarities in the two teams’ showings over the past few weeks in Russia.

The Samurai Blue and the Three Lions both exceeded expectations in progressing to the Round of 16 and semi-finals, respectively, both played some stirring football at times, and both gave their fans back home plenty to celebrate as they ventured into the latter stages of the competition.

However, it was ultimately an inability to manage the flow of the game and cope when put under concerted spells of pressure that did for each side, meaning both left the tournament with plenty of regrets over what might have been.

On Wednesday, England started sensationally against a slightly nervous-looking Croatia in Moscow, going 1-0 up in just the fifth minute after a wonderful Kieran Trippier free kick before threatening on several other occasions. Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard were guilty of missing the best chances though, offering encouragement to Croatia by enabling them to go in with just the one-goal deficit at half time.

Zlatko Dalic’s side gratefully seized upon that encouragement after the break, wrestling control of proceedings from the second half on and slipping steadily into the slick, hypnotic football that can be so pleasing on the eye and so difficult to halt.

Croatia had played 120 minutes plus penalties in both the Round of 16 and quarter-finals but it was England who looked to be running out of steam as the game wore on, with Gareth Southgate’s men struggling to keep hold of the ball or fashion anything approaching a goal-scoring chance going forwards.

While Croatia rode out their tricky spell on the ropes in the first half by sticking to their possession-based approach and trusting in their ability to look after the ball and create space, England lost their composure and reverted to type, frantically hacking balls up into the Croatia half and hoping that Kane – so expertly marshaled by Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida – could somehow get them out of jail.

That always looked like a tall order, however, and the lack of a player in midfield to get on the ball and make something happen meant the Three Lions had no real alternative to their heavy reliance on set pieces.

“The all-round perception was that this is a new-look England who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield, but when we pressed them it turned out they haven’t,” Croatia defender Sime Vrsaljko said.

That was a fair summary of England’s shortcomings on the night, with Trippier’s opener the ninth of their 12 goals in Russia to come from a dead-ball situation – with another of their three from open play Dele Alli’s header from a deep cross to make it 2-0 in the quarter-final against Sweden.

Football Channel, 14th July, 2018

There was certainly more subtlety to some of the team’s play on their route to the semi-finals than those statistics suggest, but in the end there was a nagging feeling that they just lacked the quality and composure in possession of their opponents at the Luzhniki Stadium, and you half expected to see Emile Heskey or Peter Crouch being thrown on at the death as the team grew increasingly desperate and direct.

Ultimately Trippier’s goal was the only effort England managed to land on target over the 120 minutes of the semi-final (compared with Croatia’s seven), and the hurried nature of the team’s late play only served to gift the ball back to Luka Modric and co., who were more than happy to look after it and carve through an increasingly flustered defence. Mario Mandzukic’s winner shattered the dreams of millions of England fans but it had been coming and was richly deserved.

While losing in the semi-final is often perceived as the most painful way to be eliminated from a competition, Japan’s demise was perhaps even harder to take, coming with the last meaningful kick of one of the games of the tournament against Belgium, and just moments after Keisuke Honda had almost decided things in the Samurai Blue’s favour with a wicked free kick.

Like England Japan had also been ahead, establishing a scarcely-believable 2-0 lead inside seven incredible minutes at the start of the second half courtesy of Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui’s strikes, but like England Akira Nishino’s men failed to maintain control of proceedings once in the ascendancy, offering their opponents a route back into the game and unable to stem the flow of the tide once it had turned against them.

It is these narrow margins that separate teams at the very highest level, and the two sides who will battle it out to be crowned world champions on Sunday have shown time and again throughout this competition that they understand and are able to contend with the ebb and flow of the game.

Croatia have conceded first in all three of their knockout ties in Russia but had the wherewithal to emerge victorious from each, while France have remained equally as unflustered as they weathered a brief Argentina storm to come back from 2-1 down in the Round of 16 before ruthlessly disposing of Uruguay and Belgium with clinical and efficient showings in each subsequent round.

Whichever lifts the famous trophy in Moscow will be a deserved champion of an exceptional tournament, and the likes of Japan and England would do well to learn from them over the coming years.


Confidence the key for Samurai Blue

Japan were ultimately a little fortunate to make it into the Round of 16 at the World Cup, but now they’re there they need to play with confidence… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Monday 2nd July, 2018

If the World Cup has shown us anything, it is once again that in football everything can change in an instant.

When the Samurai Blue made a muted departure from Japan after the 2-0 defeat to Ghana on 30 May, expectations on the team were far from high. The squad looked stale, the mood around the team was negative, and the usual fervour amongst fans – both core and casual – was notable by its absence.

An incredible start to the game against Colombia saw everything turn on its head, however, as Japan were handed a golden opportunity to snatch a hugely unexpected three points. Akira Nishino’s side made it harder than they needed but managed to do just that, and that momentum carried them through the Senegal game as well, as they twice came from a goal behind to secure a point and leave their fate in their own hands.

Ninety minutes on and the mood has swung again though, with Nishino’s personnel and tactical choices against Poland creating much debate, and the manner in which they ultimately dragged themselves over the line drawing criticism both domestically and overseas.

The coach himself admitted to feeling uneasy about ordering his players to essentially stop playing for the final 10 minutes in Volgograd despite being 1-0 down, but countered that he only did what he felt was necessary

It was a very tough decision, of course,” he was quoted as saying by The Guardian. “We conceded a goal, but with the time passing the other match moved. When I put on [Makoto] Hasebe I told him what was in my mind: ‘Do not go for any high risks.’ I told him not to concede any yellow cards, go 4-1-4-1, defensive, and then I told him to tell the team to ‘stay put’. We could not concede another goal.

“I’m not too happy about this but I forced my players to do what I said. We did not go for victory, but we just relied on the other match. I view that it was slightly regrettable but I suppose at that point I didn’t have any other plans. The World Cup is such that these things happen. And we went through. Therefore it was perhaps the right decision.”

And as unsavoury – not to mention nerve-wracking – a way as it was to progress to the Round of 16, he was right; in hindsight it was the correct decision. Just.

Football Channel, 2nd July 2018

The 63-year-old had no option but to gamble after his player rotation and shift to a 4-4-2 formation hadn’t worked out, but in a matter of days everything will blow over and this episode will be consigned to the history books, especially if Japan can put in a positive showing against Belgium on Monday.

The Red Devils were one of only three sides to pick up maximum points in the group stage – along with Uruguay and Croatia – and in Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku they have a trio of the best attacking players in the world. Roberto Martinez also had the luxury of being able to rest the bulk of his first choice eleven in their final group game against England, and so they will come into the clash well rested as well as confident.

Japan are yet to keep a clean sheet in Russia and, realistically, it looks unlikely that they will be able to do so against the tournament’s top scorers. Therefore, what better way to erase the memory of that uncomfortable ending in Volgograd than by coming out all guns blazing and taking the game to Belgium?

The team have looked at their best thus far when playing proactively, and in the second half against Colombia and for spells in the second period against Senegal the likes of Gaku Shibasaki, Takashi Inui, and Yuya Osako caused plenty of problems in the final third. Further to that, Keisuke Honda has demonstrated that he has no objections to being used as an impact sub – characteristically full of confidence that he can make a difference and backing it up with a vital goal and assist.

The likes of Iceland, Switzerland, and South Korea served up shock results in the group stages against Argentina, Brazil, and Germany, and Japan should be using those performances as motivation heading into this clash.

The odds are undoubtedly stacked against them, and if they were to win in Rostov-on-Don it would constitute one of the upsets of the tournament. They shouldn’t surrender to the inevitable though, but instead make Belgium win the game. Be confident on the ball, commit men forwards, take risks.

And if that’s still not enough then at least they will exit the competition in style. The performance is almost more important than the result, and if Japan can deliver on that front then the mood will be positive again, win or lose.


Time for Samurai Blue to Make Their Own Luck at World Cup 2018

A look back at Japan’s group stage exploits in Russia, ahead of Monday’s Round of 16 clash against Belgium.

Japan Forward, Sunday 1st July, 2018

Lady Luck has been shining on the Samurai Blue so far, but now it’s time for them to make their own luck…


Do or die for the daihyo

Japan finally picked up a win in their last warm-up game ahead of the World Cup, but with Colombia up next improvements are still required all over the pitch… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Saturday 16th May, 2018

In England there is a saying that a team is ‘already on the beach’. It is used towards the end of the season when a side has nothing to play for and knows it can’t win any trophies or be relegated, and implies that while the players are on the pitch in body their minds are already elsewhere, focused on the surf and the sand and topping up their tans.

In the second half in Innsbruck last Tuesday Paraguay were very much ‘on the beach’, as Gustavo Morinigo’s men sleepwalked through the second 45 minutes of their friendly against Japan and allowed the Samurai Blue to pick up a much-needed, morale-boosting 4-2 win in their final warm-up ahead of the World Cup.

However, English football also has the maxim that, ‘you can only beat what’s put in front of you’, and the fact that Japan were able – just about – to overcome their disinterested opponents was just what the doctor ordered after a miserable few months.

The dark clouds hanging over Akira Nishino’s squad haven’t been blown away completely by a victory assisted by some questionable goalkeeping and an own goal, but a win is a win and the players have at least remembered what it feels like to bask in the glow of victory ahead of today’s vital opener against Colombia.

At the same time, the side should certainly not be getting too carried away, and the fact remains that they still face an uphill struggle to make any kind of impact in Russia.

The first 45 minutes against Paraguay were as uninspiring as the earlier losses to Switzerland and Ghana, with the team devoid of any real spark in attack and continuing to look susceptible defensively. There were far too many unforced errors, with possession surrendered cheaply and accuracy once again lacking with final balls and shots, and while things improved in the second period that was as much down to Paraguay switching off as it was to Japan clicking up a gear or two.

After the miserable 2-0 defeat to Ghana on 30 May Makoto Hasebe was attempting to remain positive, pointing out that the team knew which areas they had to improve in.

“I think it’s big that the two goals we conceded came about as a result of our mistakes, not being broken down,” the captain said.

Football Channel, Tuesday 19th June, 2018

“We need to correct those kind of errors, but we weren’t really opened up by the opponent. We still have a lot to work on, plenty of issues are cropping up, but we are in the middle of the process so I don’t feel things are especially bad.”

The concern, however, is the very fact that the team was still in the middle of the process on the eve of the competition. Three years of work under Vahid Halilhodzic were thrown out the window at the eleventh hour, and although the starting eleven doesn’t look like it will be hugely different to that from Brazil four years ago, the ongoing lack of cohesion in the side is a big worry.

“Everyone is talking about ‘veterans, veterans’, but personally I still think of myself as young and feel like I’m in the best condition of my career, including mentally,” Yuto Nagatomo said at the team’s pre-tournament training camp in Chiba, three weeks before attempting to prove his youthfulness with a hugely questionable new hairstyle.

“I don’t feel the years at all, but there are still many things that us players with plenty of experience can pass on to the younger players. That isn’t just in terms of speaking with them, but also demonstrating things on the pitch. In that respect I want to become a player who leads by example.”

That is certainly vital in the cauldron of the World Cup, but a cursory glance at Japan’s 23 raises the question as to which youngsters exactly the wise old heads will be guiding in Russia. Just two of the squad are aged 24 or under, and they are third choice goalkeeper Kosuke Nakamura and fourth choice centre back Naomichi Ueda.

Who will inject some life into the team’s attacks? Where is the fearless tyro willing to try something different in a tight spot? Where are the young legs to charge around and see out a win or chase down lost causes? The Keisuke Honda against Cameroon in 2010? The Yosuke Ideguchi against Australia in 2017?

Ultimately, those are the things that settle games at the World Cup, and while the win over Paraguay will have offered the team a little encouragement they are going to need to perform at a significantly higher level at the competition proper. The question is: does this group of players have it in them?

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