Coming back stronger

The effects of having more Japanese players with European experience are far-reaching, and it’s starting to pay off back home in the J.League as well (日本語版はこちらです / Also available in English on the Football Channel Asia site)…

Football Channel,  April 27th, 2015

Something that crops up whenever there is talk of J.League players transferring to Europe is how it will help to raise the level of the Japanese game.

Opinion may be split as to whether Yoshinori Muto should sign on the dotted line for Chelsea, for instance, but pretty much everyone agrees that for the 22-year-old to achieve his full potential he needs to move somewhere in Europe sooner rather than later.

While football – as Diego Forlan so concisely put it last year – is not a science, it is hard to disagree with the assumption that more players in the big leagues means more exposure to a higher level of football, improved levels of physicality and aggression, and greater appreciation of what it takes to be successful.

That, in turn, should have a knock-on effect for the national team, and as more and more players representing the country in international competition become used to competing against a wider variety of opponents the Samurai Blue should be able to add a level of resilience and streetwiseness that has thus far been lacking.

Of course ‘Japanese football’ doesn’t just mean the full national team, and having more rounded, experienced players in the division will also benefit the J.League as a whole. Thus far this season we have seen the impact that a few years playing abroad can have on players who return to the J.League, with Takashi Usami – understandably so, with the goals flying in – the one getting the most headlines at the moment.

Gamba Osaka’s prolific marksman had a difficult time in Germany, predictably finding first team opportunities hard to come by at Bayern Munich, and then failing to make an impression at Hoffenheim. The experience was clearly beneficial for him, however, and since he returned to Osaka mid-way through the 2013 season he has cut a more authoritative, confident figure, as well as being far more ruthless in front of goal.

Gamba is not the only team benefiting from a new-and-improved version of an already talented J.Leaguer in 2015, and on Saturday another player who has grown after a spell overseas showed how he has developed as Kashima Antlers took on Vissel Kobe.

When I arrived in Japan Mu Kanazaki was a member of the Oita Trinita side that inexplicably found a way to get relegated to J2 despite, alongside Kanazaki, having Shusaku Nishikawa, Masato Morishige, and Akihiro Ienaga in their ranks (plus a young Hiroshi Kiyotake).

Mu Kanazaki ahead of Kashima Antlers' 2-1 defeat to Vissel Kobe on Saturday April 25th, 2015

At that time Kanazaki was yet another technically gifted, skillful, but rather raw Japanese attacker, who clearly had something about him but all too often lacked the final product. He improved a little in that regard after transferring to Nagoya Grampus the following season – picking up a J1 winner’s medal to boot – before earning his chance overseas in 2012, when he signed for Nuremburg.

Like with Usami things didn’t go as well as planned in the Bundesliga, but Kanazaki wasn’t willing to call it a day there, and took on the challenge of moving to the second division in Portugal, with Portimonense.

There he added a new string to his bow, finding the net 16 times in 47 games – the same total he had accumulated in his 153 J.League games for Oita and Nagoya combined.

That success has seen him return to J1 with a spring in his step, and he has taken back to the J.League pitches with no fuss whatsoever, slotting straight into Kashima’s style of play and, in the absence of Davi, effortlessly filling in at centre-forward. As well as his vital injury-time winner in the recent triumph away to Western Sydney Wanderers Kanazaki has also scored three times in J1 so far.

It is not just his goalscoring exploits which are benefiting Antlers, though, and the physical side of the game is now something Kanazaki seems to relish. He put in a wonderful performance in the 3-1 win away to Kashiwa Reysol on April 16th, holding the ball up and creating time and space for his teammates superbly, and he was a real handful for the Kobe backline from the first minute on Saturday as well.

Indeed, within half-an-hour he had already inflicted a war-wound on Jung Woo-young – who had to be bandaged up after a keenly-contested aerial battle – and forced the Vissel captain to pick up a yellow card after reacting quicker to a ball over the top and being tripped from behind by the South Korean.

Jung had no complaints about Kanazaki’s aggressive style post-match, but displaying such a combative nature in the J.League does leave players open to unwanted attention from the match officials. Antlers’ No.33 was booked midway through the second half for one physical challenge before receiving his marching orders in injury time after a something-and-nothing coming together with Shohei Takahashi. The Vissel defender’s reaction was embarrassingly over the top, but he does have previous and Kanazaki probably shouldn’t have given him the opportunity to collapse to the floor and roll around like a child who’d been told he couldn’t have any ice-cream.

Even so, you have to take the rough with the smooth, and if this leaner, meaner Kanazaki keeps delivering positive results as well then I can’t imagine Toninho Cerezo will be overly concerned with the odd discretion every now and then.


Yoshinori Muto: The unique Japanese superstar who’s keeping Chelsea waiting

Premier League champions-in-waiting Chelsea would like to sign Japan striker Yoshinori Muto, but just who is the 22-year-old FC Tokyo star?

Yoshinori Muto, unique Japanese superstar

Find out in my introduction to the player for Bleacher Report, which includes comments from Ranko Popovic, Massimo Ficcadenti, Kosuke Ota, Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, and, of course, the man himself.


Sanfrecce deal FC Tokyo 1st loss

FC Tokyo were top of the J1 table for the first time in a decade heading into Round 6, so I headed to Ajinomoto Stadium to cover their game with Sanfrecce Hiroshima for The Japan News…

The Japan News, Saturday 18th April, 2015

Sanfrecce Hiroshima dealt FC Tokyo its first league defeat of the season on Saturday, coming from behind to win 2-1 at Ajinomoto Stadium.

Chelsea target Yoshinori Muto gave the hosts the lead in just the first minute, but strikes from Kosei Shibasaki and Takuma Asano gave Sanfrecce its first win since Mar. 14.

“Playing the leaders away we expected a tough match, and conceding the goal so early put us in a difficult situation,” Sanfrecce manager Hajime Moriyasu said.

“There were several questionable decisions in the first half, but the players never lost their concentration and because of that, they were ultimately able to get the victory.”

Tokyo was one of just three undefeated top flight teams at the start of play, and Massimo Ficcadenti’s side got off to a dream start in front of 24,369 fans.

Naohiro Ishikawa flicked the ball on inside the Sanfrecce penalty area and Hiroki Mizumoto’s attempted header clear inadvertently struck his teammate Kazuyuki Morisaki and landed at Muto’s feet 10 meters from goal. The man of the moment gleefully seized upon the opportunity and rifled home after just 36 seconds.

The hosts hadn’t conceded since the first day of the season in the league and had won their last two J1 games 1-0, but Sanfrecce swiftly made sure that pattern wouldn’t be repeated here and drew level in the 11th minute.

Tokyo midfielder Yoehi Kajiyama gave the ball away in the center of the pitch and Sanfrecce forward Douglas did superbly to dribble past two challenges on the right before cutting back to the edge of the box, where Shibasaki was arriving to drill in off the crossbar.

FC Tokyo v. Sanfrecce Hiroshima, April 18th, 2015

Shibasaki then had a claim for a penalty waved away by referee Yudai Yamamoto in the 15th minute, shortly after which Tokyo broke down the other end and nearly reestablished its lead as Muto lashed a volley into the sidenetting.

Four minutes later Yoshifumi Kashiwa thought he’d put Sanfrecce in front, but referee Yamamoto ruled out his beautifully curled effort from the corner of the penalty box for an infringement.

Sanfrecce’s high-pressing style kept the hosts penned back for large periods of the game, and when Tokyo did break it was invariably Muto who posed the biggest threat.

In the 72nd minute, the 22-year-old latched onto a Keigo Higashi pass, applied the burners, and then carved a delightful ball into the box for the onrushing Higashi to meet, but the substitute couldn’t quite convert.

Ten minutes later, 20-year-old substitute Asano weaved through a flatfooted Tokyo backline and lashed home his first ever J.League goal to dash Tokyo’s hopes of remaining at the summit.

“He has been working very hard and today his running and attitude were very good. I hope that he will continue to go for goal like that from now on too,” Moriyasu said.

Elsewhere in J1, Vegalta Sendai, which also came into Round 6 unbeaten, lost 3-2 in a roller coaster of a game with Kawasaki Frontale.

Wilson gave the hosts a first half lead but two second half goals in three minutes from Yu Kobayashi and Renato tipped things in Frontale’s favour. Atsuto Tatara pulled Vegalta level with 10 minutes to play, but Yoshito Okubo made sure of the three points for the visitors, converting a Renato cross from close-range in the 86th minute.

Meanwhile, Montedio Yamagata and Matsumoto Yamaga played out a 0-0 draw, leaving them both with just one win apiece since they were promoted from J2.


Keeping Communication

Organisation is vital at the back, and language ability can have an impact on how smoothly things run… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel,  April 18th, 2015

There was recently a very interesting interview with Maya Yoshida in the English newspaper The Independent, in which the Southampton defender discussed how he had been able to become the first Japanese player to renew a contract with a Premier League club.

Yoshida left Japan at the age of 22 having already established himself as a regular at the heart of the Nagoya Grampus defence and has grown steadily since, captaining Japan at the 2012 Olympics in London before transferring to Southampton in August of that year.

Nearly three years on the 26-year-old has matured into one of the leaders of the national team, and cited his efforts to pick up and communicate in the local language as key to his success.

“This problem of people who cannot speak English – this is a problem with Japanese education,” he said. “When I was young, I studied English since I was 12, in middle school and high school. But after six years studying English, people can read English, understand a little bit, but cannot speak English. It’s English for an exam, not for talking. And if they cannot speak English, there are no opportunities. It’s a shame. Some Japanese players are lazy.”

Of course, there are plenty of foreign players (and foreigners in general) in Japan who can’t speak, read, or write Japanese but find a way to get by – and the same can be true of Japanese players abroad. For Yoshida, though, that is dependent on your role on the pitch.

“Not all positions are the same. The most difficult for Japanese people are striker, centre-back and goalkeeper. I am the only Japanese player playing as a centre-back in Europe. Goalkeepers, there is maybe just one, my friend [Eiji Kawashima] in Belgium. There are many Japanese midfielders and full-backs, but the key positions are not as easy. You have to lead the team. If you cannot speak the language, you cannot lead the team.”

That reminded me of a discussion I had had a few years ago about the lack of foreign goalkeepers in the J.League. One explanation proposed was that goalkeepers need to be able to organize the defence and dominate the penalty area, and for that Japanese ability is vital.

48-year-old King Kazu scored against Krzysztof Kaminski oat the start of April

With that in mind I was interested to see that Jubilo Iwata had signed a Polish goalkeeper, Krzysztof Kamiński, ahead of the 2015 J2 season, and a couple of weeks ago I headed to their game against Yokohama FC to see how he was getting on.

The 24-year-old certainly had an interesting start to the game, conceding that goal to Kazuyoshi Miura in the 14th minute, then playing a hospital pass to Yuichi Komano which led to Junki Koike doubling Yokohama’s lead before half-time.

“It was not such good marking [for the first goal] but the second goal was my mistake,” he said after the game. “I shouldn’t have passed to Koma because he was in a difficult situation.”

Jubilo ultimately went on to win the game 3-2, though, and Kamiński doesn’t feel that the language barrier is holding him back at the moment.

“Many words in Japanese during the game are similar,” he explained. “These are short words, so everyone understands. Maybe they can’t speak [English] but they understand when I scream something.”

Even so, like Yoshida he knows how important smooth communication is on the back-line, and has started to pick up some key vocab.

“[I know things like] ‘Hidari’, ‘migi’ – right, left – this is important in the game, but sometimes I don’t have time to think about it and I say something in English. But I want to learn Japanese to a basic level.”

As well as adapting to the new language, the 191cm stopper is also getting used to a different style of football.

“The difference in the game is that the players are more quick. They make many short passes. Sometimes of course teams play long passes, but here is very quick game.”

The biggest surprise was not the speed, however, but the timidity of opposing forwards.

“Strikers don’t want to shoot,” he laughed. “This is for me different. Because, you know, everyone should want to score, but here they want to pass, pass, pass. This is the biggest difference.”

As a new goalkeeper, hesitancy on the part of opponents to test your reflexes must help in the settling in process, but it will be interesting to see if there are any other breakdowns in communication between Kamiński and his teammates as the season progresses.


Muto’s chance of a lifetime

My thoughts on Yoshinori Muto’s potential move to Chelsea, for Football Channel… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel,  April 10th, 2015

When I first heard that Chelsea and FC Tokyo had agreed a fee for Yoshinori Muto I, like most observers of Japanese football, was surprised to say the least.

While he is undoubtedly a supremely gifted player who has taken to the professional game incredibly quickly, a jump up from a mid-table J1 team to the Premier League champions-in-waiting is not something that happens all that often.

My information was sound though, and I had no reason to doubt the validity of what I was hearing, which is why I contacted Football Channel with the news. Spreading rumours about potential transfers is not something that is of interest to me personally or professionally, but this, I felt, was worthy of reporting.

The overall response to the piece was divided fairly evenly between disbelief and dismissiveness – both of which I understood. This, after all, is a player who was still at university not so long ago and only made his J.League debut in 2013. Suggestions that I had fallen for a tweeted April Fool were a little irritating – I’m aware the reputation of football journalists looking for scoops is often not the highest, but contrary to popular belief there are certain standards we set ourselves (well, most of us) – but, again, I appreciated that people would be skeptical.

After FC Tokyo moved to make an official announcement on the situation three days after my piece was published the news was picked up by all the mainstream media, though, and the fallout was predictably huge.

Whenever a Japanese player moves to Europe there is a buzz, but this is Chelsea. One of the biggest, most successful, and richest clubs in the modern game looking to sign the new poster boy of Japanese football direct from his J.League club. It doesn’t come much bigger.

Of course, the cynical view is that if he moves to London he won’t play, and that if the transfer is successfully concluded it would be primarily for marketing reasons. While those fears can’t be allayed completely, it is a little simplistic to still be banging that drum in 2015.

And to suggest that Yokohama Tires are able to coerce a club of Chelsea’s reputation to sign a Japanese player is also perhaps overestimating the sway that sponsors have – how many Korean players pulled on the blue shirt during Samsung’s long-running deal with the Stamford Bridge club, exactly?

Football Channel break the news of Chelsea and FC Tokyo's agreement for the transfer of Yoshinori Muto, Monday 6th April, 2015

For the player himself it is understandable that he needs a little time to mull this over. Still adapting to life as a professional footballer in Japan – where the off-field pressures and attention can often outweigh those on the pitch itself – moving to a club in the highest echelons of the world game is stepping up to another level entirely.

However, I do find it a little strange that so many people in Japan have responded so negatively to the news.

In a sense I suppose it could be read as a positive on the development of Japanese football culture – fans aren’t content for their best players to just be at European clubs, but want them to be playing regularly. On the other hand, this idea that football careers have to advance along carefully thought-out paths, progressing one steady step at a time, is also not borne out by the facts. There are no set rules as to how players make it to the top, and often opting for a smaller move in the hope of getting a bigger one further down the line doesn’t bear fruit. Sometimes you have to take a risk and believe in your ability.

Muto may only have started playing professionally last year but he is already 22. Not only 22, but already 22. In the football world, that is not so young. Oscar, for example – a potential soon-to-be teammate of Muto’s – signed for Chelsea for a reported £19million as a 20-year-old. Muto is a talented footballer and, by all accounts, intelligent guy who has been scouted by one of the biggest clubs in the world. The year on his birth certificate is irrelevant, all that matters is what he can contribute on the pitch.

If he does decide to take the plunge and head to London then he will of course have to prove himself worthy of minutes under Jose Mourinho, and that may well come in the form of a loan to one of the club’s associate club in another European league. That would give him the opportunity to adjust to life outside of his comfort zone, and just because other players have been swallowed up in that process and never made it as regulars for Chelsea it doesn’t mean the same fate is guaranteed to befall him.

Ultimately, the player himself has to make the decision that he feels is the best one for him. This is a huge opportunity, though, and one that might only come around once in his career.


Halilhodzic shows he’s in charge in Japan debut

I was in Oita for Vahid Halilhodzic’s first game in charge of Japan on Friday, and after the game got some reaction from the players on their latest new boss…

The Japan News, Sunday 29th March, 2015

OITA — Vahid Halilhodzic’s debut as Japan coach didn’t quite live up to the cliche of being a game of two halves, but there were two clear phases in the 2-0 win over Tunisia in Oita on Friday: Samurai Blue’s play with their regular forwards, and without them.

The Bosnian only arrived in Tokyo a fortnight before his first game, but instantly looked to exert his authority on a Japan side still smarting from its meek exit at the quarterfinal stage of January’s Asian Cup.

The starting lineup in Oita contained just two of the players who began in that loss to the UAE in Sydney — defender Maya Yoshida and captain Makoto Hasebe — and the experimental selection was understandably a little disjointed early on.

The introduction of Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa on the hour mark, soon followed in the 72nd minute by Shinji Okazaki, injected life into the side, though, and Honda was full of praise for his new boss.

“The players who came on during the match were able to produce a result,” the AC Milan playmaker said postmatch. “To me, that shows the quality of the coach.”

Honda received from Kagawa before crossing for Okazaki’s headed opener in the 78th minute, then scored himself after Kagawa’s ball across the box was parried into his path by Tunisia goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifia five minutes later.

There was definitely a sense of Halilhodzic bringing out the big guns with his double substitution, and he left his star players in no doubt as to what was required of them as they replaced the largely ineffective Hiroshi Kiyotake and Kensuke Nagai.

“He expected the two of us to change the game, and we were soon able to do that,” Honda said.

“He wanted me to receive the ball in attacking positions and try to make the rhythm,” Kagawa said about his coach’s instructions.

Fans at Oita Big Eye, Friday 27th March, 2015

The Borussia Dortmund player certainly looked keen to try and create after his introduction — although his end product was occasionally a little rusty — and, like Honda, he is impressed with Halilhodzic’s methods.

“He’s a good fit with us, I think. He demands things intensely, and strength and speed are qualities that Japan has lacked. There are still issues we have to work on, but everyone has an awareness of the kind of soccer the coach wants — precise rotation of the ball, quick buildup, and to switch well between defense and attack.”

Halilhodzic will surely have been pleased with a wonderfully worked second goal, then, which started from a fizzed, low Yoshida ball out from the back in to Honda, who immediately laid off for Takashi Usami.

The Gamba Osaka striker — making his long-awaited debut for Japan — turned possession over to Okazaki, who proceeded to set Kagawa free inside the left of the box. From there he was able, with a little luck, to return the ball to Honda to convert.

Yoshida, who enjoyed a commanding performance at the heart of defense, believes that Halilhodzic’s precise manner of getting his message across will reap rewards.

“He places great importance on his work conveying things to the players,” the Southampton centerback said. “It’s only been a few days, but personally I expect that I will be able to develop a lot by working with him.”

This new start for Japan came just 203 days after the last one, with Halilhodzic’s predecessor Javier Aguirre being removed in February after just 10 games in charge on account of his alleged involvement in a Spanish match-fixing scandal.

Honda, however, brushed off suggestions that the comings and goings had been disruptive.

“Adaptability is one of my strong points,” he said. “The environment can change, the coach can change, many things can change, but one of my strengths is that I am able to cope with that.”

Halilhodzic may implement more changes against Uzbekistan in Tokyo on Tuesday, when he will surely be tempted to use more of his established frontline players from the start.


JFA chief has high hopes for Halilhodzic

Javier Aguirre’s reign as Japan coach was a short-livid and unsuccessful one, and last week I interviewed JFA president Kuniya Daini about the Samurai’s Blue’s second fresh start in six months, as Vahid Halilhodzic takes the reins…

The Japan News, Friday 27th March, 2015

Vahid Halilhodzic’s reign as Japan coach gets under way tonight in Oita against Tunisia, and Japan Football Association president Kuniya Daini is expecting big things of his new recruit.

The Bosnian has been drafted in to replace Javier Aguirre, whose contract was terminated in February after a Spanish court accepted a match-fixing case in which he was named as a defendant, and Daini — as well as JFA technical director Masahiro Shimoda and secretary general Hiromi Hara — took voluntary pay cuts to atone for their roles in hiring the Mexican just last August.

Daini is delighted with the new man in charge.

“He has been able to put teams in order in many different places — France, Cote d’Ivoire, Algeria — and I believe the ability to be able to deal with different nationalities and cultures makes an outstanding coach,” the 70-year-old told The Japan News in his Tokyo office last week.

“He has abilities in many areas. He doesn’t force things, but by working on one issue at a time he is able to play winning soccer.

That, for Daini, was the missing ingredient for the Samurai Blue at January’s Asian Cup, where the team was eliminated in the quarterfinals.

“Japanese soccer has a high technical level and we play good soccer with pretty passing. But when it comes to battling to win, having a fixation on that, I felt a little that, not just in the game as a whole but in individual situations, that was lacking a little.”

Halilhodzic’s Algeria side could hardly be accused of lacking fighting spirit at last year’s World Cup, and eventual winner Germany needed extra time to defeat it in the round of 16.

(L-R) Masahiro Shimoda, Kuniya Daini, Vahid Halilhodzic, Gun Hiwatashi, Tokyo, March 13th, 2015

“It wouldn’t have been at all strange if Algeria had won,” Daini said. ”You saw his ability in the strength of the Algerian team and the organization of individual players. He’s really pragmatic and, looking at the current Japanese players and their organization and ability, he will think about the best way to play in order to win.”

Daini — a former national team player — is impressed that so many of his countrymen are increasingly enjoying success in Europe’s top leagues, but said he would like to see more players establishing themselves in the decisive positions.

“The parts of the pitch in which Japanese players are given chances seems set,” he said. “In midfield, showing good technique, devotion, to never give up, to run for defense and attack, to contribute to the team — that enables the good points of Japanese players to be demonstrated and that is recognized around the world.

“But, if you really think about how we have to become stronger, it is in the sense of being the guy at the front scoring the goals, or being in the center of defense dealing with everything.

“Now Japanese players are getting better in that respect, but we have to develop more players who are scoring the goals and hanging on at the back. However we can, we have to produce those players in order to win against the world’s best.”

Halilhodzic appears keen to leave no stone unturned to unearth the best players at his disposal, and named a bumper 31-man squad for his first two games in charge — plus an additional 12 players as backups.

“That was down to him,” Daini explained. “Until now, unfortunately, he hadn’t seen many Japanese players, and so in the limited time he had available, he wanted to call up as many as possible and cast his eye over them in training.”

Tonight’s game and Tuesday’s clash with Uzbekistan in Tokyo will shed some light on which of those managed to make good first impressions on the new coach, before the real business begins with the second round of World Cup qualifiers in June.

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