Marinos hit the ground running

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

Football Channel, 14th July, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manabu Saito and Martinus, Getty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Key for Kashima

It is of course goals that win games, but Kashima Antlers’ solid defence was vital to the  club’s J1 first stage title success… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 29th June, 2016

Kawasaki Frontale and Urawa Reds may have been jostling for top spot in J1 from Round 3 onwards, alternating at the summit until Kawasaki lost their nerve away to Avispa Fukuoka on the penultimate weekend of the season, but it was ultimately Kashima Antlers who surged through to seal the first stage title.

While Frontale’s stumble in Kyushu and Reds’ catastrophic run of five games without a win between mid-May and mid-June ultimately cost the pair, nothing should be taken away from Masatada Ishii’s side, who claimed the first spot in this year’s Championship on the back of a six-game winning streak, completed on Saturday with the minimum of fuss against the same Avispa side Kawasaki could only draw with the previous week.

That string of victories closed out a nine-game unbeaten run, during which time Antlers conceded just five times. Indeed, the Ibaraki side ended the first stage with the best defensive record in J1, only letting in 10 goals and keeping nine clean sheets in their 17 games.

That solidity was built on a consistency in the backline, with the same back five of Hitoshi Sogahata, Daigo Nishi, Gen Shoji, Naomichi Ueda, and Shuto Yamamoto starting every game they were available for. Only two other players featured when one of the regulars was injured or suspended, with Yukitoshi Ito filling in at full-back for four games and Bueno slotting into the centre for three.

One of those was the 2-0 win over Avispa on Saturday, when the Brazilian looked alert and confident covering for Shoji, sweeping up well in the early stages when Antlers looked a little shaky and dealing with his physical compatriot Wellington throughout.

“We weren’t nervous but we knew that they were going to come at us from the start and that we couldn’t just sit back and accept that but also had to press from the front,” Yamamoto said post-match.

“That was how it turned out and it was a slightly difficult start to the game for us, but bit by bit we started to control the flow of the game and after we scored the first goal we were really able to play at our pace, I think.”

The full-back’s 27th-minute header certainly settled things down for the home side and took the wind out of Avispa’s sails, and Gaku Shibasaki provided a further insight into Kashima’s staying power.

“There are spells in games when things are going well and those when they aren’t, but during those difficult periods we have a style we can return to and we all know what we have to do,” the Japan midfielder said. “I think because we are all aware of that fact we have been able to put together this run of results.

Football Channel, Wedensday June 29th, 2016 (Shinya Tanaka)

“In particular we have conceded very few goals, and the team as a whole has had an increased awareness of defending together. There is no doubt that from a good defence you can build good attacks. We’re doing well in that respect at the moment, but from now on we want to improve our accuracy even more and I think we are capable of continuing this run of consecutive wins into the second stage.”

One way in which the team could improve is to have the defenders finding the net more often. Yamamoto’s opener against Avispa was just the second time one of them had registered this season, after Nishi’s winner against his former side Albirex Niigata in May, and with Shoji and Ueda both imposing players they should be contributing more from set pieces especially.

That’s not to say they aren’t trying, however, and Ueda’s all-round play has been particularly impressive this season. The Olympic centre-back looks increasingly assured in possession and resembled John Terry at his peak at one point against Avispa, snatching possession in his own half before surging out of defence with the ball, playing it out wide, and continuing his driving run into the opposition penalty area where he almost latched onto the final ball into the box to convert what would have been a wonderful goal.

“We were really focused on picking up the title,” the 21-year-old said when asked about the cut-throat way in which Antlers wrapped up the first stage. “We didn’t lose any of our last games and there was an even stronger feeling than usual within the team that we were absolutely going to win each one.

“We’ve also conceded fewer and fewer goals, and the forward players have contributed a lot in that respect. It wasn’t just down to the strength of the defence, it’s truly been a case of the team coming together and fighting as one.”

They will have to exhibit that even more in the second half of the season with Ueda set to miss several games while he is in Rio with Teguramori’s Under 23 side. While his absence is sure to be a blow, however, Bueno demonstrated the strength in depth Antlers have at centre-back, where they also have another fine player in reserve with Hwang Seok-ho yet to feature in 2016 on account of injury and the fine form of Shoji and Ueda.

Building from the back has worked for Antlers so far, and it is hard to see those foundations failing as the season progresses.


Kashima focused on big prize after 1st-stage title

Despite winning the first stage of the J1 season at the weekend, Kashima Antlers aren’t getting carried away and  the players are keeping their eyes on the bigger picture…

The Japan News, Monday 27th June, 2016

KASHIMA, Ibaraki — Kashima Antlers won their first league trophy since 2009 on Saturday, but the addition wasn’t a cause for mass celebration.

The most successful club in J.League history wrapped up the J1 first-stage title after Shuto Yamamoto and Shoma Doi found the net in a 2-0 cruise over bottom-placed Avispa Fukuoka, but the players took the triumph in stride and have their sights set on the ultimate prize at the end of the season.

“We’ve won the first stage but you can’t call that a real title,” captain Mitsuo Ogasawara said.

“What we have to do now is also win the second stage and then go on to become overall champions. We can’t be satisfied with just this and need to keep winning from now on, too.”

That was also the way Ogasawara’s central midfield partner Gaku Shibasaki reacted to the success, seeing it as little more than a checkpoint on the way to becoming the yearly champion.

“Of course we’re delighted with this, but we won’t get carried away,” the 24-year-old said.

“I think we are capable of completing the perfect sweep of titles, but every team starts back at zero now and we have to just start working toward winning the second stage title.”

The J.League’s top flight returned to a two-stage format last season, with up to five teams qualifying for a postseason playoff series to battle for the crown as the year’s champion.

By winning the first stage Antlers have secured one of those spots, and Daigo Nishi is confident they can go on to finish the job.

“I think it’s really big for us to have gained a ticket for the playoffs,” the fullback said.

“We know we have an aptitude for knockout football. We’re still not the finished article, but I sense the team is growing bit by bit, and if we can keep going in that vein until the very end then I think we’ll do OK.”

Kashima Antlers lift the J1 first stage trophy - Kashima Saturday 25th June, 2016

Nishi believes that victories over the division’s other big hitters were vital to enabling his side — which only moved top of the table for the first time on June 18 — to pip Kawasaki Frontale to the post by a point.

“Beating Urawa [Reds], [Sanfrecce] Hiroshima, and Gamba [Osaka] was big,” he said. “I think we were able to become the champion because we won those games.”

Naomichi Ueda agreed, singling out the 2-0 win away to Urawa on June 11 as especially key.

“I think every game has been important, but the Urawa match was particularly big for us,” the Olympic centerback said.

“Since I joined Kashima [in 2013] we hadn’t beaten them, and so winning that game gave us real momentum.”

Goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata suggested the impetus for Kashima’s achievement came even further back, citing last season’s Nabisco Cup success — when Masatada Ishii’s side swept past defending champion Gamba 3-0 — as a turning point for the team.

“I think having that experience played a part in enabling us to win the first stage,” said the stopper, who has won the league six times with the club.

“It gave us confidence and now we’ve gained even more by picking up this title. We have to take advantage of that in the second stage.”

Ueda was in full agreement and dismissed claims that the team now has one hand on the trophy.

“What’s really important is to be the champion at the end,” said the 21-year-old, who is likely to miss a handful of games for his club while away with Japan at the Rio Games in August.

“Winning this title doesn’t mean we are the champion, I think everybody understands that. Everyone now wants to switch their focus to the next stage, and we just have to fight to become the second-stage champion now.”

That quest gets under way Saturday, when they welcome Gamba to Kashima as the second half kicks off.


Three Horse Race

The first stage of the 2016 J1 season has almost reached its conclusion, with Kawasaki Frontale, Kashima Antlers, and Urawa Reds in the tussle for the first trophy of the season.

Soccerphile, 15th June, 2016

I spoke to players from a couple of the teams still in the race for the first stage crown for Soccerphile.


Japanese heavyweights recognise need for change

Keisuke Honda was typically forthright about the need for change in the development of Japanese players after the Samurai Blue’s 2-1 loss to Bosnia-Herzegovina last week, and Japan’s all-time top goalscorer Kunishige Kamamoto is in full agreement with the AC Milan star…

Football Channel, 11th June, 2016

Vahid Halilhodzic wasn’t in the best of moods after Japan’s 2-1 defeat to Bosnia and Herzegovina on Tuesday night, and he sent out a warning loud and clear to the players who were found wanting as Mehmed Bazdarevic’s side flexed their metaphorical and literal muscle in Suita.

“If players want to be in my first team, including those based overseas, they need to be in good physical shape,” he said. “If they can’t prepare 100% then I won’t call them for the final round of qualifiers. They won’t get 100 chances.”

Much of Halilhodzic’s chagrin was reserved for the lack of physicality in the team – in terms of the nous to use your body to win free-kicks in dangerous positions as much as not being so easily intimidated by a team of Bosnia’s size – but the mentality of the side was once again a topic of discussion post-match.

With a knee injury keeping him out of this game and the 7-2 drubbing of Bulgaria, Keisuke Honda watched both matches from the bench with his coach, and while he had some words of praise for debutant Yuki Kobayashi – who looked undaunted and confident in his 16-minute cameo in Osaka – the AC Milan man had some choice words about the situation in youth development in Japan.

“Personally, I think that if there aren’t many more players like Yuki coming through the system then Japanese football can’t make it to the world class level,” he said.

“Japanese development – not soccer coaching, we have to think about it on a wider scale – if programs aren’t fully implemented to help with the development of people, not just in football but in all Japanese sports, then those players won’t emerge. In Brazil, in Africa, in Italy there are many players like that.”

The day after the game I had the opportunity to speak to Kunishige Kamamoto, and he shares Honda’s concerns.

“I often say this, but the fundamental difference between Japanese and European people is the difference between agricultural people and hunters,” Japan’s all-time record goalscorer said.

“If we don’t have many players coming through who have a strong motivation to score goals and win games – players like Keisuke Honda – then ultimately we won’t be able to beat the strongest teams in the world.

“In Europe, in South America, in Africa, people were originally hunters. They didn’t have things in their homes and so had to go and find them. I’m not talking about now, this is a long time ago; it’s in their blood.

“Japanese people, on the other hand, were able to grow vegetables and so on in their gardens or the fields outside their houses. The rains would water them and the sun would nourish them. And if the weather wasn’t good today you could always do it tomorrow.

Kunishige Kamamoto, Osaka Wednesday 8th June, 2016

“But for people in Europe and so on, you had to hit it now [acts as if he’s aiming a bow and arrow]. You have to go for it yourself. That’s the difference between agricultural and hunting peoples. Fundamentally the way of the thinking, the blood, is different. There are very few players like that in Japan, players like Keisuke Honda.”

Kamamoto feels that this ingrained mentality is not helped by the fact that competition is not encouraged at a young age in Japan.

“Losing makes you want to do better, but Japanese children don’t really think too much about winning or losing. You know school sports day in Japan, they have races but no winners and losers. That’s how children are raised in Japan, and that way of thinking is already implanted in people by the time they are adults at 20 or 25.

“If you win you should be applauded, but if you lose you should be admonished. If you don’t have that then it’s not possible to compete against the best teams in Europe.”

Such a non-competitive culture is what the 1968 Mexico Olympic bronze medal winner thinks caused Takuma Asano to opt to pass rather than shoot when the chance to equalize fell his way right at the death against Bosnia.

“If there’s someone else there then they pass – if there was no-one there he’d have gone for it,” the 72-year-old added.

Halilhodzic was likewise stunned that the Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker didn’t go for goal himself.

“I think Asano could have scored that chance easily, but he chose to look for the pass,” he said. “He’s still only 21 but he had other chances too. Perhaps it’s just a lack of experience, although in the Bulgaria game that wasn’t the case.”

The Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker is entitled to an off night, and we shouldn’t forget that he has demonstrated a ruthless streak in front of goal several times already in his fledgling career – for both club and country. As Honda and Kamamoto suggest, this is about more than just one player and a fudged split-second decision, though, it is about a deep-seated and recurring issue.

“The score was 2-1, but Japan also had plenty of chances,” Kamamoto concluded. “The biggest problem is when you don’t convert those chances, and that is a problem which has been around for decades.”

How to change it is something that has to be addressed if Japan truly wants to challenge at the highest level of the game.


England in the sights of killer Wales

England and Wales come face to face at the Euros next week, and Chris Coleman’s side head into the game against the country with whom they share more than just a border holding no fear… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Saturday 11th June, 2016

Euro 2016 kicks off this weekend, and with the tournament having expanded to 24 teams for this year’s edition countries like Albania, Iceland, and Northern Ireland, who have never participated before, will all be joining the party.

Wales are another side to have qualified for the competition for the first time, and they have been given a tantalising draw for their first major finals appearance in 58 years, being placed in Group B with neigbours England.

The only previous time Wales made it to an international tournament was way back in 1958, when they were knocked out in the quarter-finals of the World Cup by Brazil 1-0 – a 17-year-old Pele scoring his first World Cup goal for the winner – but despite not being regulars on this stage the Dragons are quietly confident of making their mark in France.

The presence of Gareth Bale in the side is of course a key source of that optimism – with any team boosted by having a player with such unique ability in their ranks – but being able to call upon the world’s most expensive footballer isn’t the only reason Chris Coleman’s side fancy their chances of reaching the knockout rounds, with the likes of Swansea City stalwart Ashley Williams and Arsenal star Aaron Ramsey also adding quality to the side.

Twenty-one of Wales’ 23-man squad play their football in England (the two who don’t are Bale, of Real Madrid, and third-choice goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams, of Scottish Premiership side Inverness Caledonian Thistle), adding extra spice to a game which is sure to be played in a fantastic atmosphere.

In fact, nine of Wales’ squad were actually born in England, with captain Ashley Williams, James Chester, Jonathan Williams, David Edwards, George Williams, Andy King, Simon Church, Sam Vokes, and Hal Robson-Kanu all qualifying to play for the Dragons by virtue of a Welsh-born parent or grandparent.

Robson-Kanu perhaps provides the best illustration of the close football links between England and Wales, having played for England’s under-category teams before opting to represent the country of his grandmother’s birth. In 2008 he lined up alongside Ryan Bertrand for England U19s, while the following year he was in the same England U20 team as Jordan Henderson. He will be on the opposite side to that pair in Lens on June 16th, though, now sporting a red dragon instead of the three lions.

As nations who share a border there is of course a rivalry between England and Wales when it comes to sport – especially rugby union, which is hugely popular in Wales – but it is not quite as heated or fierce as those that England share with Scotland, Northern Ireland, or Republic of Ireland.

The recent history of armed conflict in Northern Ireland obviously adds an unwanted edge to England games against the sides from north and south of the Irish border, while a long and bloody past with Scotland – and the fact that, in football terms, the two used to be considered as similar in quality – makes for a heated, often unsavoury, atmosphere when the ‘Auld Enemies’ meet.

Football Channel, 11th June, 2016 (Getty Images)

In general there is less antagonism between England and Wales (except, again, when they clash in rugby) and the tabloid coverage in England has not really developed much beyond light-hearted digs at their ‘Battle of Britain’ opponents (the Sunday Mirror’s headline was “England v. Bale (sorry, we mean Wales)”, for instance).

There is still sure to be a frenzied atmosphere when the teams come head to head for the first time at a major finals, though – the consumption of alcohol has been banned in Lens city centre on the day of the game, for instance – and neither set of fans or players will want to be on the losing side.

In a football sense, however, both sides appear reasonably happy with the draw – especially the fact they play each other on the second matchday.

With more teams in the competition now it is not so difficult to secure progression from the group stages, and four points is likely to be enough to make it the round of 16. If England and Wales can pick up positive results in their opening games against Russia and Slovakia, respectively, then, a draw may suit both when they come head to head.

“I think we’ll get a result against England, I really do,” former Wales striker Craig Bellamy was quoted as saying by Wales Online.

“If their full-backs bomb on and centre-backs come forward, we have players who can expose that. When you’ve got the pace of Gareth Bale you know you can cause problems for anyone.

“My only concern is Slovakia because I’ve watched some of their games and I can see that they typically like to sit in and we don’t have the sort of offence to break them down easily.”

Another Welsh legend, goalkeeper Neville Southall, similarly identified the Slovakia game as the one to be wary of.

“There is a lot of pressure on that one,” Wales’ record cap-holder told The Mirror. “The first game is vital, whether you get a draw or a win – you can’t afford to lose that.

“I’ve forgotten we’re playing England — let’s worry about that game when it comes along. I think everyone outside of Wales expects England to win, and that’s a good position for us to be in – the more pressure on England the better, as far as I’m concerned.”

Pressure was something that another ex-Wales international chose to highlight, suggesting that Bale and co. have nothing to lose.

“Wales is very much looking forward to this as a nation: we’ve waited 58 years,” former Arsenal forward John Hartson told the BBC. “The pressure will be on England who are coming off a terrible World Cup. With Wales, it’s pressure off.”

Indeed, with the bragging rights and a historic win up for grabs Wales will be desperate to beat Roy Hodgson’s men, who know that defeat by their Welsh neighbours would certainly take a long time to live down.


Japan Learns from Bosnia Loss

Japan have had things all their own way for the past year or so, but were served a reminder of their deficiencies against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Tuesday night…

The Japan News, Wednesday 8th June, 2016

SUITA, Osaka — Tomoaki Makino believes Japan’s 2-1 Kirin Cup loss to Bosnia-Herzegovina on Tuesday night was just the tonic to prepare the Samurai Blue for the final round of World Cup qualifiers, which get under way in September.

Vahid Halilhodzic’s side cruised through the second round of qualification for Russia 2018, topping its group without conceding a goal, and just four days before the reverse against Bosnia it chalked up a baseball-like score by downing Bulgaria 7-2.

Despite taking the lead through Hiroshi Kiyotake’s 28th-minute strike, however, Japan didn’t have things all its own way in Osaka, and a Milan Duric brace dealt Halilhodzic his first home defeat as Japan boss.

Urawa Reds defender Makino wasn’t despondent after the loss though, and thinks that conversely it will help the team in the long run.

“Today, although it didn’t produce a positive result, I think the team gained something big from the game,” he said.

“We were able to experience things we don’t often get. From now on we have to display the mentality to show resilience and bounce back. [In the final round of qualifiers] we have games against Australia, teams from the Middle East, and difficult away trips, so we have to have that mental resilience.”

Makino started the game on the bench, replacing Yuto Nagatomo for the final 20 minutes, and felt that gave him an extra sense of perspective on proceedings — particularly considering with whom he was viewing the game.

“Watching with [Keisuke] Honda and [Shinji] Kagawa, we were talking about the best way to defend against this kind of team,” the 29-year-old said of the Bosnian side with an average height of 187 centimeters.

Bosnia-Herzegovina celebrate winning the 2016 Kirin Cup

“Of course, when it comes to playing against physical and tall opponents, there is no point trying to match them. Instead you need to try and take up better positions and anticipate things.”

Makino’s fellow defender Masato Morishige agreed.

“They had power and it wasn’t for us to try and counter that with power,” the FC Tokyo centerback said.

“Playing to suit the opponent’s style is what they hope for, so we have to think about exhibiting our own strong points. Of course there will be times in the game when the opponent is controlling the flow, and at that time we have to be able to stand strong.”

For Kagawa — who didn’t make it off the bench for this game but did score twice in the rout over Bulgaria in the previous match — the expectation is not for Japan to merely go toe-to-toe with the better teams it faces, but that it comes out on top.

“We have to win against this kind of opponent,” the Borussia Dortmund star said. “When the game became a little congested, I feel we lacked a clear idea of what we needed to do to get that second goal. It’s the same issue we always have: we aren’t able to change the rhythm when the game stalled, and then conceded on the counter.”

Honda was unable to play any part in either the Bulgaria or Bosnia games on account of a knee injury, but has no doubt about which of the recent friendly results are more beneficial for Japan.

“Absolutely the Bosnia game,” the AC Milan midfielder said. “When you lose, it brings with it a sense of danger, which the players now have to pay attention to. Now we have to start looking ahead.

“Speaking frankly, everyone thought we would beat Bosnia, including me. But soccer is not as simple as that. There are many things in the air and during the game they change, meaning the line between victory and defeat is paper thin.”

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