Root or branch?

A new name is being touted as the next Japan coach every day, but the problems lie deeper than the man at the top… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel,  February 13th, 2015

For the bulk of Javier Aguirre’s 10-game stint as Japan coach there were as many questions about his future in the role as there were his selections and tactics.

With the Mexican finally being put out of his misery last week – as the match-fixing case hanging over the 56-year-old and 40 others, including Atletico Madrid captain Gabi and Manchester United’s Ander Herrera, was accepted by a Spanish court – the conversation has now turned to who will replace him.

The shortlist has reportedly been trimmed down to five people: Cesare Prandelli, Paulo Bento, Jose Antonio Camacho, Oswaldo Oliveira, and Luis Felipe Scolari.

Some of these options are more appealing than others. Prandelli and Scolari have an obvious pedigree and experience at the highest level, Camacho’s ill-fated time in China would suggest he may not be the answer, Bento has never worked outside of his native Portugal – although his name would be an advertiser’s dream in the land of the rising sun – while Oliveira would appear to be the safest pair of hands on account of his tremendous success at Kashima Antlers between 2007 and 2011.

Personally, however, I have my reservations about how much of an impact any new coach can have on this pool of players, and believe the problems are deeper-rooted.

The Japanese national team – and Japanese football as a whole – finds itself at a difficult crossroads, and just changing the guy at the top may not be enough to navigate the bumpy path ahead.

Gone are the days when the Samurai Blue are cast as plucky underdogs, as they were at World Cup finals between 1998 and 2010. The relative success of Takeshi Okada’s men in South Africa has been supplemented by more and more Japanese players establishing themselves in Europe’s big leagues, and there is now an expectation on the team to progress to at least the knockout rounds, while anything less than a semi-final spot at the Asian Cup is considered below par.

Bringing in talented foreign coaches to drag up the level of the team is no longer as easy as it once was, and while Philippe Troussier worked wonders with the 2002 vintage, there was plenty of room for improvement then. Nowadays Japan is chock-full of technically-gifted, athletic, and experienced professionals, and the aspects which need refining are incredibly difficult to enhance.

Vacancy at the JFA

Alberto Zaccheroni’s ultimate failure to at least match Okada’s triumph demonstrates that, as does the recent Asian Cup flop under an admittedly embattled Aguirre, with Japan exiting at the quarter-final stage for the first time in 19 years.

What needs to change now is the type of players Japan is producing, and the way in which they are being coached during the early stages of development. It’s all very well having a raft of talented chance-makers or wingers in your squad – each of whom fulfill that position at their various clubs in Germany – but how about sending some proper centre-backs, bulldog midfielders, or predatory strikers down the conveyer belt.

The thing most lacking is a spark, a player who will try something out of the blue to change the dimension of Japan’s attacks, which, while invariably easy on the eye, are all too often predictable and relatively easy for decent, organized defences to set-up against. An Omar Abulrahman-type player through whom the team can catch opponents out.

It is hard to encourage that instinctiveness out of players who have been trained in a far more rigid and organized fashion since they were children. It is for this reason that I think adaptations should be made to the youth coaching structures, with more freedom given to players to express themselves, something which may be aided by sending more young players abroad to learn the game.

Along similar lines, it may be beneficial to start casting the net wider than just players born and developed in Japan. The conversion of the likes of Rui Ramos and Alex Santos worked wonders for early-era Japan, while Tulio was a vital member of the 2010 side that made it to within a penalty shoot-out of a quarter-final against Spain.

Gotoku Sakai – born in New York to a Japanese father and German mother, and now playing regularly for VfB Stuttgart – was probably the standout performer for the Samurai Blue in Australia, and It looks increasingly likely that Kashima Antlers’ Caio may opt to represent the Japan rather than the country of his birth, Brazil. As we saw with France in 1998 and Germany in 2014, including players from more diverse backgrounds makes for a more adaptable and varied squad, and can provide the unpredictability needed to be successful.

Of course some of the coaches being sounded out may be able to coax a little more out of Japan as it is, but a few tweaks to the set-up at large could reap far greater rewards further down the line.


Football on the up down under

Football is not the most popular sport in Australia, but now the Socceroos are Asian champions the players believe the game will continue to grow…

Football Channel,  February 1st, 2015

Australia’s Asian Cup triumph was historic in its own right – being the first major title the Socceroos have picked up – and the 2-1 extra-time win over South Korea on Saturday night could have far wider implications for football in the country. Tim Cahill was full of pride aboyt that fact post-match.

“It’s just a sweet feeling to know that people are going to have to jump on the bandwagon now – they’ve got no choice,” the former Everton man told journalists. “We know the people that love football and the people that don’t love football. But tonight is one of the biggest moments in sport for Australia, because this is an Asian tournament that is so difficult to win.”

It is unclear who exactly Cahill was railing against, but as with Japan where baseball still reigns supreme, football is not the number one sport Down Under. Rival codes Australian Rules and Rugby League still receive the majority of fans and media attention, while the likes of cricket and tennis – when in town, as was the case with the Australia Open in Melbourne – also often take precedence over football.

Jason Davidson also felt that the success would enable the next steps to be made for a sport that is gradually establishing itself in its nation’s consciousness.

“Qualifying for consecutive World Cups [has] helped the team grow, and I think tonight the team gave a different aspect in the Asian Cup – having success on home soil,” the West Bromwich Albion full-back – attired in a green and gold wig, Australian flag and scarf, and holding an inflatable kangaroo – told me after the win over Korea.

Jason Davidson speaking to journalists after the Asian Cup final, Sydney, January 31st, 2015

“I think that definitely will help grow Australian football. You saw tonight how many passionate Socceroos supporters were out there and definitely the sport’s growing. It’s only going one way and that’s upwards.”

Ki Sung-yeung, captain of the vanquished South Korean team, was magnanimous in defeat, and having spent time in Australia as a youngster offered a balanced perspective on how far the game has travelled – choosing to focus on the development in the on-pitch style.

“When I was in Australia 10 years ago, Australian football was not like this,” he said. “But when I played against them [today] they started to play football – not just long ball or physical, they are also really comfortable with the ball, they looked comfortable. So I think the manager is a very good manager. Because he teaches how to play football and they deserve to become champions.”

Cahill also expressed his respect for Postecoglou, in particular the way he had seamlessly integrated so many less experienced players into the national team. “I’m really proud of the boss, I’m proud of someone being Australian, of really having the passion to believe in the youngsters, to believe in the talent and to really take us to a different level.”

Davidson had perhaps the most productive last word, though, opting not to try and set football apart form the sports it is in competition with, but drawing all disciplines onto an equal footing.

“We dug deep. That’s what Australian footballers do – and Australian sportsmen and sportswomen do. We dig deep when we have to.”

That they did, and now they are reaping the rewards.


Another g’day for the Socceroos

Australia are on course for the Asian Cup title, but South Korea will be a ready, willing, and able opponent in Saturday’s final… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel,  January 28th, 2015

There was always an expectation that Australia would be the team to beat at the Asian Cup, but with the Socceroos being defeated in their only real test in the group stage – going down 1-0 in Brisbane against South Korea – and still largely reliant on the aerial prowess of Tim Cahill, delivering on the expectation was always going to be difficult.

While the team hasn’t really hit the heights that many within the camp and local media suggest, Ange Postecoglou’s team did book its place in the final on Tuesday, striking twice in the first 14 minutes to defeat Japan’s conqueror UAE 2-0.

Despite that achievement, Cahill insisted after the win in Newcastle that nobody in the green and gold shirt was taking anything for granted.

“It wasn’t too upbeat, you know,” he said of the atmosphere in the dressing room post-match. “Everyone was straight on the massage tables and into the ice baths, and focusing now on one of the biggest games in Australian soccer history.”

Even so, confidence is coursing through the veins of the hosts – and in particular their talisman, who is never short on self-belief or a media-friendly soundbite.

“I’m not going to focus on Korea – I’ve never focused on any team we’ve played,” the former Everton and New York Red Bulls man added of Australia’s opponent in Saturday’s final.” I’m going to focus on us. If we dictate games with our intensity and the style of football we play, the way we move the ball, it’s going to be very hard for any team to play us. Congratulations to Korea, but it’s going to be all about us, the way we prepare.”

Cahill and his teammates missed out on top spot in Group A after defeat to the Taeguk Warriors in their final group game, but there is a belief that things will be different this time around.

Australia v. UAE, Newcastle Stadium, Tuesday 27th January, 2015

“We know the mistakes we made in that game,” Massimo Luongo said of the loss on January 17th. “We don’t want to change too much because I think we dominated that game, and the way we play is going to give every team a problem.”

Mark Milligan agreed.

“The way that we want to play has not changed,” the former JEF United player told journalists after the win over UAE. “I think they have definitely improved since that match, as have we, so they will present different challenges than they did last game. They’ve been wonderful defensively, we know we’re going to have to be at our very best to break them down.”

One of the men responsible for breaking down the Emiratis on Tuesday was Jason Davidson, whose goal to double the Socceroos lead was his first national team strike.

“Every generation or every step in Australian football is pushing in one direction; that’s to grow the game in Australia,” the West Bromwich Albion defender said. “So now it’s up to us and this generation to help build that and push that forward.

“I left home at 14 and have been a professional footballer for a while now so I know what I have to do.”

Davidson is a quarter-Japanese and spent a period of time studying in Japan, but while he has an affection for the country he dismissed any suggestions that he would have preferred to face the Samurai Blue in a repeat of the 2011 final.

“Everyone knows about Japan and it’s a very respectful country,” he said. “It’s very disciplined and I have fond memories of being in Japan. For us our job is to win the Asian Cup. Whoever we play is going to be a tough opponent but for me I’m just happy we’ve done our job.”

Whether they can complete it at Stadium Australia against South Korea remains to be seen.


Time out

The schedule at the Asian Cup has been a topic of debate throughout the tournament and shows no signs of letting up as the final approaches… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel,  January 27th, 2015

Time was prematurely called on Japan’s participation at the Asian Cup, and the clock is steadily ticking down for the remaining sides in the competition as well.

The sands are not slipping by at a steady speed for the participants, though, and the unequal rest time for countries in the latter stages of the competition has caused much grumbling.

Iraq, like Japan, endured an energy-sapping 120 minutes and mentally-draining penalty shoot-out in their humdinger of a quarter-final with Iran on Friday, giving them just two days to recover and prepare for their semi-final against South Korea. Their opponents, however, were gifted an extra 24 hours to get their breath back, and duly emerged victorious at Stadium Australia on Monday.

“Regarding the recovery time, yes, there’s a disadvantage from the local organizing committee,” Iraq coach Radhi Shenaishil said after his side’s defeat. “Maybe the Australian team, if they get to the final, will have four or five days of recovery. So that should have been organized well.”

While he’d confused his dates a little (in fact, the winner of the South Korea-Iraq game received the extra time before Saturday’s final), his point was valid, and also referred to by Uli Stielike.

The Taeguk Warriors boss was delighted that his team had been able to seize upon the LOC’s forward planning to trump Australia and gain some much-needed breathing space in the knockout rounds.

“For us in this tournament we had two important games,” he explained, citing the semi-final and last group match. “The first one was Australia because the deciders of the tournament – and this is [the case] in every [competition], a legal and normal way – that the host is trying to get the best way to reach to the final.

Iraq's fans had plenty of enthusiasm but ultimately time ran out for them

“So the design was made for Australia. But with our victory we were put in the position of Australia. That gave us the advantage to have one day more rest in the upcoming games. This was very important. If you saw how a lot of players finished the last game against Uzbekistan I’m not sure if we played yesterday that we could put all players in good condition on the pitch, so it was very important.”

Keisuke Honda had complained about the lack of recovery time even while the group stages were still ongoing, and questions are retrospectively being asked about Javier Aguirre’s decision to start all four of Japan’s games – contested within a 12-day period – with the same eleven players.

The Mexican wasn’t helped by the fact that Group D included tournament whipping boys Palestine – meaning the remaining three teams would almost certainly not be able to confirm progression until the final match, and that no risks could be taken – but would surely have benefited from giving a few of his key men a rest at some point.

The likes of Kosuke Ota and Yu Kobayashi didn’t get any minutes at all, and if they had against, say, Jordan in the final group game (when a draw was enough for the Samurai Blue to seal first place) then Yuto Nagatomo and Shinji Okazaki may have had a little more in the tank for the quarter-final defeat to UAE.

Of course this is all conjecture, and the introduction of the previously-underused Gaku Shibasaki did inject a bit of life into the team, while it was glaring misses by substitutes Yohei Toyoda and Yoshinori Muto that ultimately did for Japan.

Perhaps, like the rest of us – including the JFA, who apparently sent the majority of their luggage ahead to Newcastle in advance of the quarter-final loss – Aguirre had expected his team to progress further and was saving his reserve players for the battles that lay ahead.

The clock stopped earlier than anticipated, however, and it will be interesting to see if the Koreans can take advantage of their extra hours to emerge triumphant at the weekend.


Japan pay penalty for poor finishing

Japan were eliminated from the Asian Cup on Friday, but coach Javier Aguirre believed they had done enough to progress to the semi-finals…

The Japan News, Sunday 26th January, 2015

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – Javier Aguirre was at a loss to explain Japan’s early exit from the Asian Cup on Friday night, firmly believing that his players had done enough to overcome the United Arab Emirates and progress to the semifinals.

The Samurai Blue were aiming to extend their record as the most successful team in the competition’s history, but instead of adding a fifth crown in Australia the holder was dumped out at the quarterfinal stage for the first time since 1996, losing 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

“I don’t want to make any excuses – the players were prepared,” the Mexican said post-game. “I don’t want to say that we didn’t have enough luck. Today I think we showed enough to win the game and deserved the victory. We fought well and I want the players to continue to do that.”

Whether Aguirre will still be around to oversee the next stage of the team’s development remains unclear, and this underachievement will hardly have strengthened his position.

It seems increasingly likely that the 56-year-old will have to defend himself in a Spanish court against allegations of match-fixing while he was in charge of Real Zaragoza in 2011, and his failure to make a decent fist of Japan’s title defense could give the Japan Football Association a convenient opportunity to bring his brief tenure to a close.

Aguirre’s future was not on the agenda as the post-mortem began in Stadium Australia, though, and the former Atletico Madrid coach was adamant that his players had done enough to win the game.

“I’m proud of this team, they gave everything in these 120 minutes,” he said. “We played better than the opponent in every aspect, including attacking.

“More than the opposition, we took control of the pace of the game. Ultimately we lost, but we have to keep playing this way.

Aguirre's seat

“I’m happy with the quantity of chances we made. I’d be worried if we had only created a few, as the opponent did, but that wasn’t the case and we have to keep going in the same way in the future and to try and score more.”

Indeed, Japan outshot the UAE by a remarkable 35 shots to three – although it only managed to find the target with eight of those attempts, and allowed Ali Mabkhout to score far too easily after a long ball in the 7th minute.

“Because of a lack of care at the start of the game we conceded a goal,” Aguirre complained. “After that the opponent retreated and played behind for 110 minutes.”

Substitute Gaku Shibasaki did pull Japan level in the 81st minute, and it was not in regulation play but from the penalty spot that Japan ultimately lost the game. The side’s star players Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa both failed to convert from 12 yards in the shoot-out, but Aguirre was not open to casting blame.

“Keisuke is a great player. He scored three goals [in the tournament] and was a great leader of this team. In a penalty situation anyone can miss. I saw he had confidence so that’s why he was one of the kickers.”

Honda skied the opening penalty but it was Kagawa who missed what proved to be the decisive kick.

“I have to make sense of things, the fact that my miss ultimately caused the defeat,” Kagawa said after the loss.

The 25-year-old has had a difficult couple of years – failing to establish himself at Manchester United, performing poorly at the World Cup in Brazil, and then returning to a Borussia Dortmund side embroiled in the Bundesliga relegation battle – and this latest setback meant he cut a forlorn figure in the mixed zone.

“I’m really sorry. I felt that we had a lot of potential playing this kind of football – it was really enjoyable. I wanted to progress to the semi-finals and final so am very sorry. It was very fulfilling and so [being out] is difficult to take.”


Fortune favours the brave

Losing on penalties is never as unlucky as it’s portrayed, and Japan – in particular one of their star men – have only themselves to blame for their quarter-final elimination at the Asian Cup… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel,  January 24th, 2015

There was all the usual bluster about lotteries in the wake of Japan’s penalty shoot-out defeat to the UAE on Friday night, but luck had nothing to do with the Samurai Blue’s premature exit from the competition they were favourites to win.

The team had dominated in its characteristically methodical style throughout the 120 minutes, achieving a 90.1% success rate on its 799 passes, according to Opta. As is all too often the case they weren’t able to take advantage of their superiority, though, only managing to get eight of their 35 shots at goal on target – with Takashi Inui, Yohei Toyoda, and Yoshinori Muto all missing absolute sitters.

Shinji Kagawa was also culpable when presented with goal-scoring opportunities, and it was fitting that the Borussia Dortmund man was ultimately the one who lost his nerve from 12 yards in the shoot-out.

The 25-year-old has been a passenger for the national team for too long now, and it is not only his lack of goals that mean his seemingly automatic selection as No.10 should be rethought. Kagawa has not been the same since his disastrous transfer to Manchester United, and his ineffectiveness in a Japan shirt is more than just a dip in form.

The reaction of his teammates when Kagawa did finally end his scoring drought against Jordan was telling, with everyone expressing their joy that the former Cerezo Osaka forward had found the net and commenting on how it would boost his confidence.

This is not a youngster settling into international football, though, this is supposedly one of the stars of the Asian game, a man who should be leading by example and taking responsibility for his team. Why was he not up there with Keisuke Honda and Makoto Hasebe in taking the first penalties in the shoot-out?

Japan's fans ahead of the defeat to UAE in Sydney, Friday 23rd January, 2015

Yes, Honda missed, but he had had no qualms about going first. Kagawa, meanwhile, was happy to remain in the shadows and hope that his teammates could settle the game instead – something he has been doing in regular play for far too long. Once we progressed to sudden-death and he was obliged to step up there was only going to be one outcome.

“In the end we went to a penalty shot-out – that is 50% probability, plus the players’ precision,” Javier Aguirre claimed in his post-match press-conference. Yasuhito Endo, however – a man who does know how to convert a spot-kick, but was sadly already on the bench by that stage – dismissed suggestions that any aspect of success from 12 yards is beyond the control of the player striking the ball.

“Aside from luck, everything [is important] – technique and mentality,” he told me in the mixed zone. “Luck is irrelevant. In reality, if you kick it hard enough towards the side-net it will go in. It’s nothing but technique and mentality.

“There was pressure on everyone. Some can deal with that, some can’t. For penalties I think everyone has the same pressure. You are thinking about what will happen if you miss. Shinji and Keisuke both missed but I don’t think that either of them have a weak mentality.”

Kagawa was visibly affected by his miss, addressing the media in barely-audible tones after the game.

“The fact that, in the end, I missed and we lost the game has meaning,” he said. “Whether there is something lacking, in terms of mental strength, I don’t know. I believed [we could win], and so I am just incredibly sorry.”

Just how many more chances he will be given to prove himself for the national team remains to be seen, but the pattern of failure followed by apology can only be repeated so many times before a change needs to be made – for the good of the player himself as well as the team.


Son of a gun

The best players make the difference in the biggest games, and Son Heung-min is certainly one of the elite… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel,  January 23rd, 2015

We are now at the business end of the Asian Cup and it is time for the big players to start proving why their nations’ hopes rest on their shoulders.

Son Heung-min was the first to step up to the plate on Thursday night, seizing the responsibility for South Korea and finding the net twice against Uzbekistan to ensure the Taeguk Warriors of a place in the semi-finals.

There were no draws in any of the 24 group games in Australia, but the margins are far finer in knockout competition – as we saw as the Koreans and Uzbeks exchanged blows over 120 minutes in Melbourne – and cool heads are required to make sure there are no regrets.

Lutfulla Turaev could have been the hero for Mirdjalal Kasimov’s side but sent the ball over when presented with a free header into an open goal, and while Son had fluffed his lines at other times – trying to be too cute and tying himself up in knots when he could have scored – he didn’t let his head go down. In fact, he used it instead to nod narrowly beyond Ignatiy Nesterov as the ball came back to him in the six-yard box in the 104th minute.

The Bayer Leverkusen man had been a constant threat throughout the game, floating around in the pockets of space between midfield and attack and making it incredibly difficult for the opposition to pick him up. If the defender steps up then the likes of Lee Keun-ho are always buzzing around in behind to take advantage of the space, but if they don’t try and close him down then Son is more than capable of playing the next pass with his first touch, instantly changing the dynamic of his team’s attack.

Within the first 25 minutes he had already created chances for Lee Jeong-hyeop and Lee Keun-ho, as well as producing a sensational effort that Nesterov needed to be at full-stretch to tip over.

He had also showcased his rare ability in the final group game against Australia, when he replaced the injured Koo Ja-cheol just after half-time.

Son Heung-min gets his Cristiano Ronaldo on, Melbourne, Thursday 22nd January, 2015

There had been complaints galore about the pitch in Brisbane, but Son didn’t have too many problems dancing through the tackles during his 40-minute cameo – skipping by the Socceroos players as he nonchalantly ate up 50 metres of the pitch to turn defence into attack for his side. (Admittedly he did mess up the final pass, although that was partly because Kim Jin-su didn’t complete the run he should have made to support his teammate).

Runs like that have seen Son compared, inevitably, to Cristiano Ronaldo, and there is an unfussy elegance to everything he does when in possession. In the 71st minute in Melbourne he took off on another sauntering run through the heart of the Uzbekistan defence, selling Sanjar Tursunov a dummy and sending the midfielder lunging into thin air, before twisting Shavkatjon Mulladjanov inside out inside the penalty area.

He was ultimately thwarted on that occasion by another last-ditch tackle, but continued to probe and was eventually rewarded with his extra-time opener before wrapping things up with a thunderous drive at the end of the match after Cha Du-ri had done superbly to create the opportunity.

“Son got his two goals but he can play better,” his coach Uli Stielike said ominously after the game. “He lost the ball a lot in the 120 minutes and these are not the mistakes of a player who plays in the Champions League.

“I don’t think we saw the real Son Heung-min in these four games because of sickness. A lot of the problem is that he works with too much hassle. He’s a powerful player with a lot of speed. But in the right moment he has to calm down a little bit. This is the thing that he can do better.”

Those points are valid, but are surely also the coach trying to keep his star player’s feet on the ground. Son is still only 22, let’s not forget, and can surely only get better. A terrifying thought for defenders around Asia, and, indeed, the rest of the world.

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