28
Jan
23

Mitomania

As a Brighton native who has spent over a decade covering the J.League, Kaoru Mitoma making global headlines on account of his recent form for an excellent Brighton and Hove Albion has been a rather strange experience… (日本語版)

That is partly because of the ease with which the former Kawasaki Frontale man has adjusted to life in the Premier League, but also because when I was growing up the Seagulls were not a very good team at all.

The club spent the majority of my childhood bouncing around the lower tiers of the English professional pyramid, and I distinctly remember that on school holidays I would attend Albion soccer schools in the park adjacent to their former home, the Goldstone Ground, at the end of which participants would be given a few complimentary tickets to upcoming games against the likes of York City and Hartlepool United in the hope that those of us supporting giants like Manchester United and Liverpool might be tempted to switch our allegiances.

Defeat in the 1990-91 Division Two (now The Championship) play-off final against Notts County was the closest the club came to the top flight of the game in my youth, and they very nearly dropped out of the professional leagues altogether in 1997, ultimately surviving by the skin of their teeth after a nail-biting 1-1 draw away to Hereford United on the final day of the season.

Despite preserving their league status, the following 15 years would bring plenty of other challenges though – predominantly on account of having to survive without a permanent home between 1997 and 2011, first being forced to ground-share with Gillingham (70 miles north of Brighton) and then needing to host games at the Withdean Stadium athletics venue for over a decade.

Since moving into their new home at the Amex in Falmer 12 years ago the club has found far surer footing though, earning promotion to the Premier League in 2017 and then steadily building upon that success in each subsequent season – which is where Mitoma comes in.

Brighton’s recent triumphs have in no small part been built upon intelligent scouting in places other clubs aren’t looking, with the former Frontale man one of many players to have blossomed after being recruited and carefully integrated into the team.

Having established himself as a regular under Roberto De Zerbi after the Italian succeeded Graham Potter as Brighton manager in September last year, Mitoma has consistently showcased the ability that Japanese and Belgian fans were treated to in recent years, seemingly not flustered at all by the fact he is now doing so on perhaps the most demanding stage in the world game.

And for all the statistical analyses and increasingly elaborate breakdowns of his contributions doing the rounds on social media, you only really need to watch Mitoma move around the pitch – both in and out of possession – to appreciate how special a talent he is.

Rarely, if ever, flustered in possession, he is incredibly economical in his use of the ball and there is absolutely no fat to his game – every touch serves a purpose, and he isn’t interested in making any that don’t somehow contribute to progressing his team’s attacks. In addition to that he is also incredibly effective with his final ball, either when teeing up a teammate or, as against Leicester City last weekend, when looking to convert a chance himself.

This was just how he performed during his season-and-a-half with Frontale – although the fact that his time in the J.League coincided with the outbreak of the Coronavirus and restrictions on spectators and media activities means that too few people were able to see or speak to him in the flesh during that period, giving it something of a dreamlike quality when considered now.

Kawasaki announced in July 2018 that the Tsukuba University prospect – who had previously been developed in the club’s academy system – would be joining their 2020 first team squad upon completion of his studies, but while the fresh-faced youngster was highly-rated after announcing himself to the Japanese football world with a sensational solo effort for Tsukuba in their Emperor’s Cup second round victory away to Vegalta Sendai in 2017, nobody expected him to make quite such an immediate impact in J1.

Little did we know.

Mitoma found the net for the first time on just his fourth league appearance – capitalising upon a mistake by Shonan Bellmare’s Hirokazu Ishihara before dispatching coolly from just inside the area 20 minutes after coming on as a replacement for Reo Hatate – and then proceeded to register almost a goal every other game as he struck 30 times in 62 matches across all competitions before departing for Brighton in August 2021.

He wasn’t quite so prolific during an initial year on loan in Belgium, but eight goals in 29 games as upstarts Royale Union Saint-Gilloise finished top of the regular season rankings was a solid return and enough to convince Brighton that he was ready, and his sparkling form since arriving on the south coast has been so good that fans don’t seem especially bothered about the departure of star forward Leandro Trossard for Arsenal. 

What is vital now is that Mitoma doesn’t rest on his laurels on account of the hype swelling around him. In a questionnaire conducted by Frontale ahead of his first season he said the thing he pays most attention to during games is ‘staying calm’ while also listing his motto as ‘practice makes perfect’, so with that and his career trajectory so far in mind it seems there is little danger of the man who spent his first pay-cheque on dinner with his parents losing his focus.

He certainly seems level-headed enough to ignore distractions and concentrate only on that which is important – much like when he is dribbling at full tilt at an opposing full-back – and if he is able to maintain his current level of performance longer term then he quite clearly has the potential to reach even greater heights – perhaps higher than any Japanese player before him.

That would sadly (for this correspondent, at least) ultimately require a move to a richer and more prestigious club than Brighton, but for now it’s fantastic to see both thriving. Long may it continue.

12
Jan
23

The kids are alright

The All-Japan High School Football tournament yet again provided a great start to the new year, with the semi-finals and final serving up three very entertaining games at Tokyo National Stadium complete with some lovely football, a few errors – which always add to entertainment levels – and more than enough drama to ring in 2023. (日本語版)

Eventual champions Okayama showed what they were made of in their semi-final against the highly-fancied Kamimura on 7 January, coming from behind twice to draw 3-3 before maintaining their composure from 12 yards to progress 4-1 after a penalty shoot-out. 

Higashiyama also needed penalties to emerge victorious from their semi-final against Ozu later the same day, drawing 1-1 and then exhibiting similar perfection as they converted all of their kicks to win 4-1 and ensure that either they or Okayama would be celebrating a first ever championship.

In some quarters Kamimura and Ozu was perhaps seen as the preferred final pairing because of their star players and pedigree, but on the balance of each 90 minutes Okayama and Higashiyama were worthy finalists. Both were better organised and more rounded teams than their opponents, with Kamimura and Ozu arguably having more talented individuals but lacking overall cohesion – something especially clear in the dichotomy between Kamimura’s slick attack and porous defence.

In Shio Fukuda Kamimura certainly possessed one of the biggest draws in the competition, and the Borussia Monchengladbach-bound striker showcased his full range of abilities on the frontline with some expert hold-up play and a keen striker’s instinct in front of goal – reacting fastest to pounce on a rebound after Okayama goalkeeper Jin Hiratsuka could only parry Reo Kinjo’s shot from the edge of the area to tie things up at 1-1 after the impressive Yuma Taguchi had given Okayama an early lead.

Fukuda went close on a couple of other occasions as well, but ultimately Kamimura paid the price for conceding three and then four minutes after scoring their second and third goals before losing their nerve and missing two of their three penalties to fall at the final hurdle.

There were fewer goals in the second semi-final, but we were treated to an absolute peach by Keita Matsuhashi, whose first touch for his 63rd-minute equaliser was exquisite and left him with the relatively simple task of tucking home from close-range.

Mizuki Sato then stepped up to the plate in the penalty shoot-out, managing to outfox the Ozu kickers without resorting to Emi Martinez levels of gamesmanship and leaving Matsuhashi with the opportunity to pace out his effort and decisively slam home to send his team into the final.

“Mizuki had made the saves, so I felt at ease before I took my kick and just made sure to hit it cleanly,” Matsuhashi said afterwards.

Two days later a moment’s silence was observed for Pele ahead of kick-off, and the Brazilian legend would have approved of plenty of the play over the subsequent 90 minutes, as both teams looked to play proactively and make things happen.

The pitch looked a bit pot-holed after being torn up by the All-Japan University Rugby Championship final on the previous day, and with that in mind Okayama got us off to a fitting start by punting the ball immediately forward from kick-off and having four players charge down their left wing to contest it (a tactic Higashiyama went on to mimic in the second half).

Both teams looked to mix things up between neat build-up play and more simple balls sent directly in behind, and Okayama drew first blood in the 25th minute when Takuto Imai’s cross was turned into his own net by Higashiyama captain Rikuto Shintani.

Higashiyama held their nerve after that blow and gradually worked their way back into the game though, and while Matsuhashi earned a reputation for his long throws during the competition he showed he has much more in his locker than that. The 18-year-old is a little reminiscent of Urawa Reds’ Ken Iwao and is a calm and classy operator in the middle of the park, getting himself out of a tight spot on the right flank at one point with a lovely Cruyff turn that instantly bought him time and space that never looked available.

He mentioned after the semi final that he had dropped into a deeper-lying position after starting his career as a more attack-minded player on account of his not scoring enough goals, and that was evidenced in the 41st minute as he got the execution all wrong on the bobbly pitch and skied high and wide to waste a promising break.

Three minutes later he showed what he can do so well, however, feeding a smart ball in behind for Keijiro Kitamura to tear onto and cut back for Renji Sanada to steer clinically home from the edge of the area and send the teams in tied at the break.

Okayama came out the sharper at the start of the second half though, and after Higashiyama left-back Yuma Nakazato set the wheels in motion for their second goal by rather carelessly heading a long ball from Hiratsuka in-field, possession was worked to the opposite flank and Kyogo Kimura – all 165cm of him – headed home clinically to make it 2-1.

In the 74th minute Higashiyama very nearly pulled level again, but despite arriving in perfect time to meet a Sanada cross and beating Hiratsuka Reiya Sakata saw his header cannon back off the bar, and having survived that scare Okayama wrapped up the win with five minutes to play as Kimura again found space in the box to steer home and seal the title for his school.

Almost every player in blue and black dropped to the turf as the ecstasy and exhaustion overcame them at full time, with match-winner Kimura going on to say he is hoping to turn professional one day. On the basis of this year’s competition, he and several others certainly have bright futures ahead of them.

28
Dec
22

Never-ending story

The World Cup may be over, but football always has plenty of stories to tell… (日本語版)

Lionel Messi finally being crowned as a world champion made for a wonderfully satisfying conclusion to a thoroughly enjoyable 2022 World Cup finals, and seeing the greatest player of his generation – quite possibly the best ever, although this debate is far too subjective to produce a definitive answer – planting a sneaky kiss on the famous gold trophy as he collected his Golden Ball award will have warmed the hearts of football fans everywhere from Auckland to Alaska.

France – and in particular Kylian Mbappe – made Argentina work for their triumph though, and although Didier Deschamps’ side looked down and out for the first 75 minutes or so Les Bleus mustered a spirited fightback to take the game to extra time and then almost steal victory themselves on more than one occasion, producing in the process the most gripping and entertaining World Cup final in recent memory.

While the feats of Messi and Mbappe added to an impressive highlights reel from a month of terrific football, however, for me the biggest takeaway was not so much what happened on the pitches of Qatar but instead the manner in which the stories written there resonated, with football serving as a medium through which to maintain connections around the globe.

During the competition I was in contact with friends or colleagues from almost half of the competing nations, for instance, and while our conversations were ostensibly about the games and players and fans they were also a chance to catch up, to discuss political issues, or talk about family or career developments. Football is not unique in its ability to act as a social lubricant in this way, but it is surely the only sport capable of doing so on such a wide scale – of creating and reinforcing the bonds between people.

Along similar lines, let us consider the scenes on the pitch at the Lusail Stadium ahead of the official trophy presentation. As the preparations for the show – which is becoming an increasingly over-organised and sterile process with every tournament, detracting from rather than adding to the celebratory mood – took place, thousands of camera lenses focused on the Argentina players and staff as they drank in the first few moments of their success with each other and their fans. 

After a few minutes Messi could be seen beckoning eagerly to the stands for someone to come down and join him, and not long afterwards he was grabbed from behind by an excited figure in an Argentina shirt. His initial look of surprise, possibly even frustration – did he think Fifa had perhaps set the influencers loose early, and that he was already being accosted by the insufferable Salt Bae? – dissipated instantly as he broke into a wide grin and shared a tight embrace with the interloper – his mum.

At that moment Messi the GOAT, the brand, the deity of Argentinian football disappeared and we were reminded of his humanity, the fact that, regardless of what he is capable of doing with a football he is mere flesh and blood – that while to many he is a superhero to others he is simply a son, a husband, and a father, and that his journey to the ultimate glory wasn’t one he had taken alone.

Such human tales could be seen throughout the competition, with Morroco’s Sofiane Boufal dancing with his mum on the pitch after the Atlas Lions stunned Portugal to become the first African side to reach the semi-finals, Louis van Gaal thriving after his recovery from prostate cancer and planting kisses on his unsuspecting players at will, and the outpouring of affection from the football community after American journalist Grant Wahl tragically passed away while covering the Netherlands-Argentina quarter-final.

Further to this, victories for Tunisia and Morocco over their former colonisers France and Spain provided moments of joy for both nations, while the likes of Saudi Arabia and Cameroon also claimed huge scalps as they defeated South American giants Argentina and Brazil in the group stage, providing their players and supporters with memories that will last a lifetime.

And, of course, there was Japan, who sent shockwaves of their own around the world by coming from behind to defeat both Germany and Spain in the group stage, before falling agonisingly short once again in the Round of 16.

As Argentina partied after the final Ryuzo Morioka, working as a pundit for NHK, commented that he hoped one day to see the Samurai Blue experiencing such joy. While that day is surely a long way in the future, what shouldn’t be forgotten is that such moments aren’t just reserved for the biggest stage of all, and that sport has the power to provide connections between players and their fans in this way every weekend.

Football isn’t just tactics and statistics and physical resolve, it is played by people with their own lives, personalities, and struggles away from the pitch. Hollwood-esque pay-offs like the one Messi enjoyed in Doha are of course rare, but each of these stories can be just as satisfying once you buy into the narrative.

That is why I love the game, and with the World Cup done and dusted I can’t wait for the new J.League season to get underway so I can get in amongst the drama set to unfold at stadiums across the country in 2023. The faces change, but in football the story is never-ending.

10
Dec
22

Eternal challengers

There remains a divide between the challengers and the champions at the World Cup, and for the former to bridge it they have to break down the mental barrier they’re in part responsible for building… (日本語版)

Japan’s defeat to Croatia in the Round of 16 at the World Cup in Qatar was hugely disappointing, but when looked at in the cold light of day it of course can’t be considered a surprise.

Teams like Japan, Senegal, and the USA aren’t supposed to still be around in the latter stages of the competition, and the fact they were all eliminated at the first knockout hurdle – along with fellow upstarts Australia, Poland, Switzerland, and South Korea – was only in keeping with the natural order of things at this level.

At least, that’s how the established nations look at things, and this difference in attitude is perhaps the biggest obstacle countries looking to break into the very top bracket of the world game need to overcome.

Since 1986 only eight non-European or South American teams have progressed to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, with South Korea (when co-hosting in 2002) the only one of them to have gone one step further and reached the semi-finals since 1930 – when USA made the last four of a 13-team tournament.

The European and South American hegemony is itself also a pretty exclusive club, and aside from South Korea only 15 countries from UEFA and CONMEBOL have made it to the semi-finals of the competition since 1986.

Coaching, player ability, and tactical approaches all naturally play a part in this, but at the highest level of the game such differences are incredibly fine and what it ultimately comes down to is attitude. The ‘smaller’ nations all too often don’t approach games considering themselves as equals but instead challengers, instantly handing their opponents the initiative and thus encouraging the cycle to perpetuate.

While teams like Japan become preoccupied with setting new checkpoints to tick off, those at the next level consider anything other than tilt at the title as failure.

“Are we excited about being in a quarter-final? Of course. But when you’ve just been to a final and a semi-final it feels a little bit different to the first quarter-final,” Gareth Southgate’s right-hand man Steve Holland said ahead of England’s quarter-final clash against France, for instance. “I’m not being arrogant. We want more.”

You could see this difference in assuredness as Japan’s Round of 16 tie wore on against Croatia, and especially during the penalty shoot-out. Croatia had been there before, seen that, and done that. For Japan this was their moment, the game in which they would either achieve their oft-cited target of a first ever quarter-final appearance or fall at the same hurdle for the fourth time.

This in turn produced a situation whereby Japan’s players looked utterly wracked with nerves as they stood on the brink, while the Croatians remained serene and looked fully in control – to an almost unnerving degree, as if they already knew the outcome.

And, in a sense, they did. The rarified air of the quarter-finals and beyond at the World Cup belongs to a select band of teams – they are one of them and Japan are not.

Of course, this set of circumstance isn’t only true for the Samurai Blue, and plenty of other countries also find themselves experiencing a mental block once they arrive at a certain fork in the road. Mexico famously exited at the Round of 16 at seven consecutive tournaments before being eliminated in the group stage this year, for example, while Switzerland’s hammering by Portugal in Doha was their fifth exit at the same juncture in six appearances since 1994.

Are these targets helpful, then? Probably not. Maybe instead of building them up in the minds of the players it is instead better to just adhere to the age-old stereotype of taking one game at a time and focusing on how to beat the opponent in front of you irrespective of the stage of the competition you’re at. After all, why does it really matter what your fellow countrymen did 20 years ago when football was a very different game and none of the same players were on the pitch?

Indeed, Morocco made it to the quarter-finals for the first time in their history by backing themselves from the first to the last whistle against Spain and then dispatching their penalties with icy composure – none more so than Achraf Hakimi, whose audacious panenka beyond Unai Simon with the decisive kick will be replayed for decades to come.

That’s how you do it. You need conviction. You have to believe you belong there, that this is your stage as much as it is Spain’s or Belgium’s or Croatia’s.

There’s no easy solution to this conundrum – if there was the situation wouldn’t exist – and it is of course something of a chicken-and-egg situation. Once you’ve overcome a hurdle it loses its aura and becomes easier to clear again. Getting beyond it for the first time is less about formations and pass completion rates and xG and more to do with attitude though – and that is something which is incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible, to teach. It is instead ingrained through experience. Not just in the cliched sense players spout about “learning from this defeat”, but long beforehand.

In order for Japan to move up to the next echelon the focus shouldn’t just be on who coaches the team or who pulls on the blue shirt or what system they play. It needs to go deeper than that. It comes from how players and coaches are raised – in a footballing sense and as people – how they approach challenges, and how they carry themselves every time they step onto the pitch. They need grit and drive and arrogance from the very first time they kick a football.

Until they have that, they will keep being edged out by those that do.

26
Nov
22

Mori-yes!

Hajime Moriyasu has struggled to win over fans of the Japan national team, but the Samurai Blue manager is deserving of more respect and showed once again in Wednesday’s historic comeback win against Germany that he knows what he’s doing… (日本語版)

The key to achieving success in high pressure situations is having the ability to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs.

And while plenty of fans, media (this correspondent included), and even some of his players were guilty of the latter during Japan’s opening World Cup contest against Germany on Wednesday night, Hajime Moriyasu maintained his composure to mastermind a sensational comeback and claim the unlikeliest of three points for the Samurai Blue.

With his team on the ropes for almost the entirety of the first half Moriyasu shifted from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-2-1 at the break, before further tweaking things just before the hour mark by bringing on Kaoru Mitoma and Takuma Asano and then introducing Ritsu Doan in the 71st and Takumi Minamino in the 75th minutes.

All four of these players made telling contributions to Japan’s historic win, with Doan first slamming home the equaliser after some fine build-up play on the left from Mitoma and Minamino, and then the much-maligned Asano sealing the three points with a sensational winner eight minutes later.

“Three of Japan’s substitutes were involved in that goal. Hats off to Hajime Moriyasu!” Scott Murray wrote in The Guardian’s minute-by-minute coverage of Japan’s equaliser, before heaping more praise on Japan’s manager at full time.

“It’s all down to Hajime Moriyasu’s slew of substitutes, all of whom made an impact. A managerial masterclass … and his players aren’t half bad either!”

Moriyasu came in for his fair share of criticism from Japan fans ahead of the tournament, with grumbles in particular about his player selection – especially the absence of Yuya Osako and Kyogo Furuhashi and inclusion of Asano, who Moriyasu helped develop during his time at Sanfrecce Hiroshima but who had been out injured since September – but he remained unflustered in his preparations and continued to insist that he believed he had put together a squad capable of progressing to the quarter-finals for the first time in the country’s history.

That target is of course still a long way off, and we shouldn’t get too carried away with one win – Moriyasu certainly won’t be – but it is perhaps about time that the man with the notepad is given his dues.

This, after all, isn’t the first time he has engineered a turnaround in his team’s fortunes, and as well as composure in heated situations being a hallmark of successful individuals so too is recognising your mistakes and correcting them.

It hasn’t just been in his personnel selections and substitutions that Moriyasu has shown his talent, but also in his ability to foster a togetherness in the squad and transmit exactly what he wants to his players at crucial junctures.

After two defeats in the first three games of the final round of Asian qualifying it looked like his job was on the line, for instance, and the usually reserved manager had tears in his eyes during the national anthem ahead of the crucial home clash against Australia in October last year.

That emotion clearly transferred to his players who, in a slightly re-jigged 4-3-3 formation, claimed a 2-1 win at Saitama Stadium – Asano again the hero late on – turning things around and kickstarting a run of six straight wins to secure their place in Qatar – capped off as Mitoma, on as a sub, of course, struck twice late on in the return fixture against the Socceroos.

And he achieved the same at Khalifa International Stadium, bringing about a change in attitude and intent in his players to secure the largest scalp the Samurai Blue have ever claimed.

“Hajime Moriyasu’s in-game management was the biggest reason Japan won today,” Zach Lowy of breakingthelines.com tweeted on Wednesday night. “When Germany took the lead, he didn’t tighten the bolts to prevent them from racking up the goals — he went for broke and took control of the game via attacking subs like Kaoru Mitoma and Takuma Asano.”

Of course, the fact Japan were so outclassed for long spells has still produced criticism of the manager, and the team certainly rode their luck at times and could have done with more composure on the ball in the opening hour.

The argument that he should have started the likes of Mitoma and Doan is slightly disingenuous though, and we have no idea how that game – or any of the infinite other hypothetical games – would have gone. The whole point of having substitutes is in order for them to change the game in your favour, and in the only contest that actually happened against Germany Moriyasu ultimately played his cards perfectly.

That triumph will never be taken away from the manager or his players, and now he will focus on blocking out the noise again in order to claim another victory against Costa Rica on Sunday. Maybe this time we should believe he can do it.

12
Nov
22

Drawing closer

Kyoto Sanga and Roasso Kumamoto will square off to decide who gets the final place in J1 for the 2023 season on Sunday, and while the hosts start as clear favourites they won’t have things all their own way… (日本語版)

With Hajime Moriyasu having announced his 26-man Japan squad at the start of the month attention is steadily turning towards the World Cup, but the 2022 J1 season still hasn’t quite concluded and this weekend Kyoto Sanga and Roasso Kumamoto will square off to decide who takes the final spot in the Japanese top flight next year.

While for a spell it looked as though a big-hitter like Vissel Kobe or Gamba Osaka may suffer the indignity of relegation (or at least a relegation/promotion play-off) it was instead Sanga – as high as ninth in the middle of the season – who slid quietly down into 16th place after winning only two of their last 15 games.

A pair of 0-0 draws to close out the regular season pretty much summed up the characteristic solid, hard-running, hard-working approach of their manager Cho Kwi-jae, and while Sanga never lost more than two games in a row all season they also only managed to emerge victorious on eight occasions.

Defensively rigid, Kyoto had the joint-third best defence in J1 (with Avispa Fukuoka) after conceding just 38 times, while Naoto Kamifukumoto can count himself a little unlucky not to have been named in the yearly Best 11 after frequently pulling off some spectacular stops as he kept a respectable eight clean sheets.

At the other end of the pitch the team carried a distinct lack of scoring threat though, and after veteran Peter Utaka struck the eighth of his nine J1 goals on 3 May Sanga only found the net 16 more times all year to finish as joint-second lowest scorers (with Nagoya Grampus) on just 30 goals. Their paucity in this regard is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that their second top scorer after Utaka was Kosuke Taketomi, who put up just three goals.

Indeed, Sanga failed to score on 12 occasions over the past eight-and-a-half months, including their last two games against Cerezo Osaka and Jubilo Iwata, when a solitary goal would almost certainly have ensured their J1 status for another year.

“For me as a coach this will be my first time taking part in the play-offs,” Cho said after the stalemate away to Jubilo on the last day of the season.

“We shouldn’t be timid in the game, and I want us to put in a better performance than we did today – I feel we were a little too stiff. Now what’s important is to make sure the players are ready to move on to the next stage.”

Roasso have also drawn their last two games, although thanks to the J.League’s bizarre play-off format those results were enough to book them a place in Sunday’s decisive contest at the expense of Oita Trinita and Montedio Yamagata, both of whom finished below them in the regular J2 season rankings and so needed to win inside 90 minutes away from home to progress at Roasso’s expense – something Roasso themselves now need to do in Kyoto.

While victories may have been a little hard to come by of late, however – Roasso have won just one of their last six games – they certainly shouldn’t be underestimated ahead of this contest, and Takeshi Oki’s side have been one of the most expansive and enjoyable teams to watch in J2 this year.

“Just do the same as always,” was the manager’s characteristically to-the-point reply when asked how how wanted his team to approach the biggest game in Roasso’s history, and continuity has certainly been a theme for the side this year.

Oki, as ever, has stuck to a core of trusted players as his team took straight to the second tier without missing a beat after returning as 2021 J3 champions, with eight players averaging over 75 minutes a game as Roasso cruised past several more fancied opponents to finish fourth.

That has included standout performers in all areas of the pitch, and if Roasso don’t make it to J1 next year – and even if they do – it will be interesting to see if the likes of Masahiro Sugata, So Kawahara, and Toshiki Takahashi are still pulling on the red shirt in 2023.

Alongside those central figures a host of other players have also made stellar contributions, with Naohiro Sugiyama and Koki Sakamoto constant threats in behind top-scorer Takahashi, mid-season arrival from FC Tokyo Rei Hirakawa slotting effortlessly in to the team’s slick passing style, and Kohei Kuroki and Osamu Henry Iyoha flanking Sugata perfectly in the back three.

“It’s the last game of the year so there are many things to keep in mind, but we just have to do the same as always, to make sure we don’t forget what we’ve been doing from game to game throughout the course of the season,” Iyoha said after his goal helped Roasso past Montedio last weekend.

“The opponent will also place a focus on being strong in the duels, but I think if we play with confidence we can achieve a good result.”

Whether that will be enough to secure a first ever promotion to J1 remains to be seen, but what can be said for certain is that Roasso will push Kyoto all the way for the right to play in the first division next year.

28
Oct
22

2022 J2 Team of the Year

The regular J2 season came to an end on Sunday with Montedio Yamagata sealing the final spot in the play-offs, where they will join Fagiano Okayama, Roasso Kumamoto, and Oita Trinita.

The second tier served up plenty of terrific football in 2022, with several players as ever standing out from the crowd and looking like they have very bright futures ahead of them.

Here, then, is my J2 Team of the Year. Goalkeeper aside, I wanted to pick players 25 or under who still have the potential to move on to bigger and better things in the coming years – either with their current clubs or by heading to pastures new. (Those from automatically promoted Albirex Niigata and Yokohama FC or on loan from other clubs were not considered for selection.)

GK: José Aurelio Suárez (Tokushima Vortis, 26)

On just his second appearance for Vortis, Suárez frustrated V-Varen Nagasaki with a series of improbable saves to preserve a 0-0 draw for his side – the second of 13 clean sheets he would keep all season after also shutting Renofa Yamaguchi out on his debut. The Spaniard ultimately established himself as the best shot-stopper in the second tier, and any coach would love to have him as their last line of defence. 

RB: Daiki Fukazawa (Tokyo Verdy, 24)

An all-action full-back, Fukazawa has looked equally at home on the right or left for Verdy this year. As well as not shying away from physical battles on the deck or in the air the Tokyo youth product who signed professional terms after graduating from Chuo University in 2021 is also positive in possession and confident in the final third, notching three goals and two assists in his 32 appearances this year. 

CB: Masahiro Sugata (Roasso Kumamoto, 25)

While his fellow defenders Kohei Kuroki and Osamu Henry Iyoha are given more of a license to roam forwards, Sugata remains the rock at the back for Roasso and played a vital role as Takeshi Oki’s team followed up on their title winning 2021 J3 campaign with a push into the J1 play-offs. Like a proper old-school centre-back he also poses a threat at attacking set-pieces, from which he scored four goals this year.

CB: Seiya Baba (Tokyo Verdy, 20)

Baba featured as a centre back for Japan at the U23 Asian Cup in Uzbekistan in June, but showed over the course of another typically inconsistent season for Verdy that he can also comfortably play in central midfield or at right back. For the purposes of my formation I’ve chosen him as a centre-back for his physicality in the duels and confidence on the ball, but his ability to perform a range of roles would provide a real asset to the team.

LB: Kento Hashimoto (Renofa Yamaguchi, 22)

An exciting talent who has good defensive awareness and is also a threat moving into the final third. Hashimoto made 35 appearances this year as he firmly established himself as first choice irrespective of whether Yoshihiro Natsuka opted for a three- or four-man backline. The Yokohama native also showcased some quality at the business end of the pitch, scoring twice and providing four assists.

DM: So Kawahara (Roasso Kumamoto, 24)

Like Sugata, Kawahara has been an irreplaceable part of Roasso’s starting 11 this year, playing every minute of every game as the central pivot in the team’s unorthodox 3-1-3-2-1 set-up. The former Ozu High School and Fukuoka University player is excellent in and out of possession and provides the perfect bridge between defence and attack, allowing the rest of Takeshi Oki’s attack-minded team to express itself with confidence.

CM: Masaki Yumiba (Oita Trinita, 20)

An energetic presence in the middle of the park, Yumiba is a smooth operator who looks equally comfortable winning back possession, moving the ball on to a teammate, or making decisive contributions in the final third. The Trinita youth product was preferred by Takahiro Shimotaira to veterans Yuki Kobayashi and Eduardo Neto as his first professional season progressed, also finding the net three times and providing a pair of assists.  

CM: Shunto Kodama (Tokushima Vortis, 23)

Another classy presence in the middle of the park, Kodama’s quick feet and equally quick footballing brain made him a firm favourite of Daniel Poyatos this year. While he will want to add more of a clinical touch in front of goal after failing to find the net in the league he is far from ineffective in the final third, contributing an impressive nine assists as Vortis narrowly missed out on the play-offs.

AM: Naohiro Sugiyama (Roasso Kumamoto, 24)

Another key figure for Roasso this year, the left-footed Sugimoto primarily causes problems on the right side of the team’s attack, from where he is always looking to play with intent and cut sharply inside to get quick shots or crosses off. That approach saw him score nine goals and set up a further four for teammates in 2022, and he will undoubtedly be one to keep an eye on in the play-offs and beyond.

AM: Yudai Tanaka (Fagiano Okayama, 22)

At just 162cm Tanaka is short in stature but big in influence, and the tricky playmaker instantly earned Takashi Kiyama’s trust in his first professional season after joining Fagiano from Waseda University. The Kanagawa native scored on his J.League debut, missed just three league games all season, and as well as keeping opposing defenders permanently on their toes also contributed a solid five goals and one assist to Okayama’s promotion push. 

CF: Toshiki Takahashi (Roasso Kumamoto, 24)

A powerful centre-forward who led the line terrifically for Roasso this year and notched 14 goals as his side cruised into the play-offs. As well as remaining cool and calm when the chances come his way, the former Kokushikan University man is also more than capable of playing a role in deeper positions by bringing teammates into the game with an array of classy tricks and flicks.

Subs: Yuma Obata (Vegalta Sendai, 20), Shunsuke Nishikubo (JEF United, 19), Hiroto Taniguchi (Tokyo Verdy, 23), Yuto Nagamine (Zweigen Kanazawa, 22), Kodai Sano (Fagiano Okayama, 19), Yohei Okuyama (Iwate Grulla Morioka, 22), Ko Miyazaki (Tochigi SC, 23)

11
Oct
22

One door at a time

Yokohama F. Marinos were dealt a surprise reverse at the weekend, but the way they dominated Gamba Osaka means there’s no need for panic at Nissan Stadium… (日本語版)

That Yokohama F. Marinos were going to take all three points at home to Gamba Osaka on Saturday appeared to be a foregone conclusion.

Marinos had lost just one of their last 16 games and were in with a chance of being crowned champions, while the visitors had tasted victory just twice in 13 matches and remained embroiled in the scrap to avoid relegation. 

Instead of the encounter playing out according to the form book, however, Kevin Muscat’s men were dealt a first home defeat of the season as a dogged Gamba stood firm to win 2-0.

“You could sense that everybody in the stadium today was having the same thoughts about, ‘If we win, if this happens, if that happens’…” Muscat said after seeing his side fall victim to a smash-and-grab on their own turf.

“I think it’s our responsibility to give hope to our supporters, and for our supporters to dream. We should not stop that. But the reality is, for me, I didn’t think once about what could happen ‘if this result and that result…’ – I hadn’t thought of it once. And I won’t be thinking about it on Wednesday either (before the game against Jubilo Iwata).

“You can only open one door at a time. You can’t open the fourth door before walking through the first one.”

Marinos certainly started with real intent against Gamba, tearing out of the traps at great speed as they looked to seize the initiative. More than once in the opening exchanges Kota Mizunuma flew across looking to take a quick corner as the home side sought to take the lead that would allow them to play the game at their pace.

Instead, Gamba opened the scoring in just the eighth minute when Juan Alano headed home from close range after Dawhan had nodded a corner back into the danger zone.

That produced a situation whereby the visitors were able to pack their defensive ranks and then look to counter at pace, while Marinos bossed possession but just couldn’t find a way through the resolute massed white ranks and a defiant Masaaki Higashiguchi in the Gamba goal.

“The biggest thing today was the first goal,” Muscat said. “If we take the first goal – we had one or two good opportunities to score the first goal – it’s a completely different game. They scored the first goal off a corner, and that gave them more encouragement – they had something to hold, so they dropped deeper.”

Gamba certainly clung resolutely to their advantage, pressing eagerly in numbers to close down the space for Marinos in key areas. Dawhan was especially enthusiastic in this regard, snapping into tackles in the middle of the park and picking up a booking after 30 minutes. The Brazilian could have had another not long afterwards as he arrived late on Marcos Junior, but referee Ryo Tanimoto chose to be lenient and instead let him off with a warning.

According to the DAZN half-time stats, Marinos racked up 67 percent of possession in the opening 45 minutes, with 88 percent of the play taking place in midfield or Gamba’s defensive third of the pitch. On top of that, the hosts mustered 13 shots – nine of which were on target – and had 10 corners in the first period. Gamba, on the other hand, had two shots (one, Juan Alano’s goal, on target) and a solitary corner.

Despite dominating the ball Marinos had a little difficulty carving out clear-cut opportunities as the game progressed though, with Muscat feeling his players struggled to choose the right option for the right situation at times.

“In moments I thought today maybe we crossed the ball too early, maybe we should take more passes,” he said. “On other occasions, maybe the earlier ball could have been played. So decision making is key.

“I want to take risks,” he added when asked if he regretted replacing defensive midfielder Kota Watanabe with Leo Ceara with 14 minutes to play and Marinos 1-0 down. “That’s the way we play, that’s the way I play.

“I thought this afternoon, if I’m honest, we weren’t aggressive enough in our desperation to get behind them. We were a little bit passive. That creates a little bit of doubt in the ball-carrier, the passer of the ball. If we’re really aggressive it makes the mind up of the ball-carrier.”

Despite being disappointed with the result, the Australian insisted he saw no reason to panic ahead of the clash against another relegation-threatened opponent in midweek, instead emphasising the importance of drawing first blood – and listening to his players’ opinions about what held them back.

“Also, from their perspective, find out how they were feeling out there, because it’s important,” he observed. “I’m sitting on the sidelines, it looks easy. But they’re the guys out there, so we’ll take some feedback from them.

“We were in control from minute one, let’s be clear, it was obvious. The first goal does make a huge difference. We created some openings, we created some chances before we conceded. So firstly, be ruthless in taking those opportunities, under stress, under pressure.”

They were dealt a blow at the weekend, but the title is still very much Marinos’ to lose. If they can dominate Jubilo the same way they did Gamba, then it is hugely unlikely lighting will strike twice in a week.

26
Sep
22

Falling into place

Hajime Moriyasu has all the pieces he needs for his puzzle, and it increasingly looks like he knows how best to put them together… (日本語版)

For all the talk ahead of the game about the Americans possessing superior physicality and speed, Japan laid down a marker from the first whistle against the U.S. in Düsseldorf on Friday, assuming control of proceedings with an aggressive and energetic pressing game and not taking their foot off the gas until referee Felix Zwayer brought the game to a halt after 90 minutes had elapsed – the German seemingly realising no amount of stoppage time would change the outcome of the match.

Daizen Maeda starting as the lone striker raised a few eyebrows but the Celtic man put in a tireless shift in the front third, chasing down every cause and striking the fear of God into the American defenders, who repeatedly panicked as the 24-year-old’s shaved head tore towards them and duly gifted possession to one of his blue-shirted teammates.

It wasn’t only Maeda buzzing around for the Samurai Blue though, and Hajime Moriyasu had similarly eager lieutenants all over the pitch.

Wataru Endo and Hidemasa Morita must be a horrible duo to come up against in the middle of the park, for instance, with the pair indefatigable as they constantly harried and hustled in the engine room, with one (or both) always on the spot to make an interception, cut off a passing angle, or snatch possession from the toe of an opponent before looking to launch a swift break.

In defence, too, Japan didn’t look remotely troubled physically, and with the exception of Jesús Ferreira heading over a glorious chance after a slack piece of marking in the seventh minute the imposing quartet of Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Takehiro Tomiyasu, and Yuta Nakayama had more than enough for what the Americans threw at them.

It is going to be especially interesting to see just where Takehiro Tomiyasu’s ceiling is, with the 23-year-old having steadily impressed every year since establishing himself in Avispa Fukuoka’s first team at the age of 18 and showing no signs of slowing down in his progress just yet. Equally confident in duels, foot-races, and when in possession of the ball, the Arsenal man is evolving into the total defender and looks set to become Japan’s main man at the back for the next decade.

Yuta Nakayama is also developing impressively, becoming bolder and more resilient as he grows in those unquantifiable areas of the game that can’t be taught, and if he can maintain such unshakability over the next couple of months then you have to feel he may finally have edged Yuto Nagatomo as first choice at left back.

Of course, for all the positives of the performance there was still criticism from some fans about Moriyasu’s selections, with the usual complaints about Player X not starting or Player Y being left on the bench. This is an inevitable part of football discourse these days, but the fact of the matter is that real sport is nothing like a video game. You can’t just throw the players with the best fantasy stats together and expect them to slay all before them, and the coach instead has to meld together human beings – each with their own minor niggles, off-the-field concerns, or intra-personal gripes – to form a coherent whole.

Player Z may have gone viral with a YouTube-friendly trick for his club last week, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is going to slide seamlessly into a different team, alongside different teammates, playing different tactics, under a different manager, against different opposition this week. 

The manager has to pick the team they believe will stand the best chance of winning against that day’s opponent. In the modern game the idea of a ‘Best 11’ is increasingly fading away, with teams now comprised of larger squads of more varied options, each of whom can serve different roles depending on the opponent and in-game situation.

Five substitutes are also now permitted, meaning a coach can literally change half of their outfield players as and when they want or need to. With that in mind, if you have a player who has consistently shown they can make an impact off the bench, then why not keep letting him do that?

Ritsu Doan and Kaoru Mitoma are two fantastic attacking talents, but so too are Takefusa Kubo and Junya Ito. Takumi Minamino and Kyogo Furuhashi can play a bit as well. As can Ao Tanaka and Reo Hatate. And what about Daichi Kamada and Ayase Ueda? Japan is currently blessed with greater depth than it has ever had, and while plenty of observers have vested interests or agendas as to why they think Player A should start ahead of Player B, they aren’t the manager, Hajime Moriyasu is. And, for the most part, he has got things right.

Germany, Costa Rica, and Spain at the World Cup will obviously pose a tougher challenge than a youthful America in a friendly game, but if Moriyasu continues to trust in his players and allows them to play to their strengths then Japan can certainly cause opponents problems in Qatar. The manager has a huge pool of talented players at his disposal, and all the signs are that he knows how to get the best out of them.

07
Sep
22

Tempering expectations

The pressures of top-level football mean players and managers are constantly having to either reassure fans or keep their demands in check, but from time to time it would be nice to hear a bit of boasting and bluster… (日本語版)

Professional sport is fundamentally about winning.

Rightly or wrongly results are how players and coaches are ultimately judged, and the financial pressures at the very top mean the margins are becoming increasingly fine.

This consequently leads to managers receiving less time to instil their methods and players being given fewer opportunities to prove themselves, and a handful of games without a win or couple of bad performances can quickly get blown out of proportion. 

At the same time, even victory isn’t always a sure-fire way to keep everybody onside, with teams increasingly expected to win in style and those that don’t coming in for criticism from opponents, the media, and even their own fans.

This set of circumstances is a by-product of both the ongoing evolution of the game – like everything else football now is expected to be better than football before – and the prevalence of social media – whether qualified or not, anyone can send their thoughts directly to any club or player, with the public nature of these statements ensuring they then become part of the ongoing narrative.

Having to be wary of such knee-jerk reactions means that as well as needing to offer reassuring words when teams are going through tough spells, on the flip side players and managers can also on occasion feel inclined to temper the expectations of their supporters when things are going well, and instead of riding the waves of victory or stoking the fires of optimism the key protagonists instead look to downplay situations and prevent people getting carried away.

While making sense against the current backdrop, the fact it is so difficult to just live in the moment and cathartically enjoy positive results means elite level football can sometimes feel like it lacks a little fun.

Take, for example, Erik ten Hag’s comments after Manchester United beat old rivals Arsenal 3-1 on 4 September to record their fourth straight victory in the Premier League.

“I understand fans are dreaming, the standards of Manchester United have to be good. [But] we’re at the start of a process, we’re still far away, we have to get doing things much better than we do,” the Dutchman, who three weeks earlier was thought to be in the middle of a crisis after losing his first two games in charge of the Old Trafford club, was quoted as saying in The Guardian. “That [will happen by] an investment, we have to do this together every day, bring those high standards to Carrington [training base].

“We have to get better if you want to win trophies in the end. We have to win every game, they [supporters] have to see that is the attitude: that we have to [want to] win games. We live those high standards and values and when you show discipline in that you create a winning culture, that is what we have to work for. I’m not thinking we’re there but we’re on our way in a good direction. We have to keep this process going.”

The same weekend similar comments were being made in the J.League, as FC Tokyo and Yokohama F. Marinos played out a fascinating 2-2 draw at Ajinomoto Stadium.

The hosts found themselves 2-0 down at the break but fought back impressively in the second half, and while both teams had chances to win the game a point apiece was probably the fairest outcome.

“Of course, the ideal for us is that we are always in possession of the ball, but the team isn’t at the stage where it can do that yet,” Tokyo boss Albert Puig said after the breathless contest. “We’re still improving. You have to be a realist and see the reality in front of you.

“I’d love to have the likes of Xavi and Iniesta playing in a way where we don’t give the ball away, but I don’t have those players in this squad. We have a lot of the same players as last season. If we are able to recruit well and bring in more effective players for next season I’m confident we will be able to keep the ball for longer and play the way I am aiming for.

“We brought in three very good players this summer, one of whom scored two goals today, and their arrival is helping the team already. If we can bring in more suitable players ahead of next season the team will improve even more.”

His opposite number Kevin Muscat was similarly keen to stress the fact that he and his team are also playing the long game.

“Right now it’s difficult for me to not feel disappointed, but I honestly don’t because I focus and drive myself to analyse performance over results,” the Australian replied when asked for his thoughts on his team surrendering a two-goal lead and how that may impact the title race.

Both managers are overseeing impressive projects at their respective clubs and, assuming they both remain in place, their teams will undoubtedly be worth keeping an eye on in the seasons ahead. While it is understandable they are hesitant to make too many brash claims, however – we certainly don’t need boxing- or UFC-levels of bombast or trash-talking in football – it would be nice to also see coaches and players enjoying the moment from time to time, as well as allowing fans to dream a little.

Pragmatism is all well and good, but a little hype can go a long way.




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