Rough ride for refs

Managers in Japan rarely, if ever, complain about referees, and while more criticism could help the game grow, the J.League would do well to avoid following the example of the English Premier League… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 12th January, 2018

Sometimes in Japanese football it would be nice if there was some excitement away from the pitch – if coaches and players brought a little bit of emotion to their pre- and post-match interviews to give us something to talk about.

The steadfast refusal of managers to discuss controversial or even clearly incorrect decisions can make the J.League seem rather tame at times, and the media must also share some of the blame for this, demonstrating an unwillingness to raise contentious topics for fear of stepping out of line.

However, having spent a couple of weeks back in England over the Christmas and New Year period, I have to admit the Japanese model is preferable to the almost cartoonish nonsense that goes on in the Premier League.

Barely a day went by without somebody blaming a referee for their team’s failure to win a game, with Jose Mourinho unsurprisingly at the forefront as he looked to divert attention from his Manchester United side’s inability to take more than three points from consecutive draws against Leicester City, Burnley, and Southampton.

“It’s a penalty, like Marcus Rashford against Leicester and Ander Herrera against Manchester City,” the 54-year-old said after Maya Yoshida appeared to handle in the area in the 32nd minute of United’s 0-0 draw with Southampton at Old Trafford on 30 December. “A very good referee, one of the most promising young referees in Europe, had a very bad decision that punished us.

“Jonathan Moss, Michael Oliver and Craig Pawson are good referees, so the referees’ performances in these matches were good – these were unlucky decisions that punished us.”

Mourinho opted for flattery of the officials to water down his complaints and avoid any disciplinary action, but the intention was still to deny responsibility and shift the blame elsewhere; in effect saying, ‘the referee isn’t bad, but it’s his fault (and not mine) that we didn’t win.’

The Portuguese’s long-time adversary Arsene Wenger took a far more direct approach for his attacks on the men in black, earning himself a three-match ban and £40,000 fine.

The Arsenal manager was furious after Mike Dean gave a dubious penalty to West Bromwich Albion for handball in the 89th minute of their New Year’s Eve clash – which ended 1-1 after Jay Rodriguez scored from the spot – describing the decision as “farcical” and even referencing the Yoshida incident by way of comparison.

Football Channel, Friday 12th January, 2018

“That [Yoshida’s handball] was much more a penalty than [today],” he said of the decision against Callum Chambers. “They [the referees] don’t look to have the same rule book.”

The Frenchman then went on to claim that the quality of English referees hadn’t improved since they became professional in 2001, despite an increase in explanatory meetings between officials and clubs ahead of each season.

“The referees should spare that visit to our training ground and stay at home, because they never respect what they say,” a visibly irritated Wenger said. “They gave a clear directive on handball but that changes, always, during the season because they must watch the television and say: ‘Oh, he has given a penalty – maybe next time, I do it.’ They need clear guidance.”

His rant wasn’t restricted to penalty calls either, and the overall management of games also came in for criticism.

“Sometimes I say to the fourth official, when the goalkeeper starts to waste time after five minutes: ‘There are people who pay a lot of money to watch football. You are responsible to make sure football happens on the pitch.’ They have to serve the game, like we do. They have not to be the star.

“It’s not appropriate any more, in 2018, that the referee calls a player and speaks to him for half a minute or a minute. That is the 1950s, where the referee talks to the player and says: ‘If you’re not nice, I might punish you.’ Come on; let’s not waste time. That is not the rhythm of modern society. People want crisp, sharp action and the referee has to make sure that happens. We don’t live in the dark ages.”

‘Mind games’ have long been a staple of Premier League football, and Mourinho and Wenger – two old pros at the tactic – are clearly hoping their respective approaches towards referees will ensure important decisions go their way further down the line.

While discussion of mistakes is undoubtedly important, the constant droning on about perceived slights is becoming tired and out-dated though – rather like the two managers themselves, who are beginning to look like it may be they and not the officials who are being left behind by the modern game.


2017 Japanese football in review

Japanese teams enjoyed plenty of success in international competition in 2017.

Soccerphile, 21st December, 2017

I recapped a triumphant year for the national team and the J.League on the international stage for Soccerphile.


Harsh reality for Halil

The knives were out for Vahid Halilhodzic after Japan ended 2017 by being roundly beaten by South Korea in the EAFF E-1 Championship, but there’s no need to read too much into the loss… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 20th December, 2017

It is tempting, and understandable to an extent, to react with dismay to Japan’s meek 4-1 humbling at home to South Korea on Saturday night.

Vahid Halilhodzic’s side burst out of the traps and took the lead almost instantly courtesy of a Yu Kobayashi penalty, but for the remaining 87 minutes they were totally outclassed all over the pitch by a fine-tuned opponent and punished for some very poor lapses in defence.

However, while such an emphatic loss at home to your biggest rivals is never easy to swallow, the projections of doom being cast looking ahead to the World Cup as a result of it are a little over the top.

“This is the biggest defeat we have had since I took over, so I’m very sorry to end the year in this way,” Halilhodzic said at his post match press conference.

“However, this is the kind of match that showed us a great deal and will enable us to learn a lot of things. Looking at the true current situation of Japan I know what is waiting for us at the World Cup. We should learn from this kind of thing to make improvements.”

The East Asian Cup is essentially a friendly competition which can be ranked alongside the Kirin Cup – perhaps even below it, seeing as 90% of the regular squad are unavailable for selection – and in friendly games learning about limitations and problems is always more important than winning or losing.

“I won’t be taking today’s squad to the World Cup,” a slightly exasperated Halilhodzic added after being told by one reporter that the Japanese people were in despair as a result of the defeat.

“I wanted to check possible reserve candidates for the World Cup, and 21 players got onto the pitch. Of course if you only focus on today’s match you will be disappointed, maybe even depressed – I’m sorry we didn’t achieve a better result. But within 10 minutes of this match kicking off I was able to observe many things and see that the Korean team was better than this Japanese side in all aspects.”

Some may be unhappy with such frankness, but there are times when you have to hold your hands up and admit you were outplayed.

When the squad was announced for this tournament there was little by way of excitement or expectation, yet three games down the line – two of which, admittedly both rather fortunately, were won – the overriding mood is one of shock and concern.

The truth, however, is that this was not the Japan national team but more of a ‘J.League Selection’. Again, that doesn’t mean fans shouldn’t feel the pangs of a defeat to South Korea just as keenly, but at the same time it doesn’t mean projections need to be made about the team’s World Cup hopes, which considering things calmly are only average at best anyway.

Football Channel, Wednesday 20th December, 2017

“After the first match (against North Korea) I said maybe I shouldn’t be too tough on this team, as I don’t know how much better a performance this squad could show us,” Halilhodzic said.

“For this championship there were 10 or 11 players I wasn’t able to call up even if I’d wanted to, but even if we’d had those 10 or 11 players with us I think this match against South Korea would have been very difficult. Maybe it’s difficult to accept but that is a kind of truth we have to recognise.”

The 65-year-old was probably just looking to protect his dazed and confused understudies with this claim, and while Korea were impressive a full strength Japan would surely have given a better account of themselves.

Kim Shin-wook, despite being almost two metres tall, managed to elude his marker for both his goals, Jung Woo-young arrowed home an unstoppable free kick, and a fourth was added after a deflection from another set play. Japan undoubtedly deserved to lose this game, but on another day the margin could have been smaller, even with the same players. Indeed, after changing to a 4-2-3-1 set up late on the side started to look slightly more threatening – although they were certainly helped by an increasingly retreating Korea backline.

The vital thing now is that Halilhodzic learns from this loss and begins to formulate clearer ideas of his options for Russia – both in terms of personnel and tactical variations.

He need only consider the man in the opposing dugout on Saturday to see how a proactive response to a painful defeat can pay dividends in the long run.

In the final qualifiers for the Rio Olympics we played against Japan and were leading 2-0 but they came from behind and we lost 3-2,” Shin Tae-yong recalled after his finest night so far as coach of the Taeguk Warriors.

“Because of that I know that even if we are winning it is possible for us to lose, so I always have a simulation in my head of what might happen in the match. Today we conceded first but we already had a scenario of how to come from behind.

“In Doha (at the 2016 AFC U-23 Championship) Japan came from behind and we lost 3-2, which was a good lesson for me. That was a painful loss but became an asset to me and I learned from it. Today we had big pressure on us, but using the experience from the past helped me to overcome that pressure.”

If Halilhodzic can use this rough experience as similar fuel next summer then the defeat could ultimately prove to be a key turning point for him and Japan.


East is least

Japan play China tonight in their second game of the 2017 East Asian Cup – a slightly half-hearted competition which seems to lack any real purpose or place… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 12th December, 2017

The EAFF E-1 Football Championship ground slowly into action over the weekend, with the opening four matches across the men’s and women’s tournaments providing a fitting introduction to a rather odd competition.

First of all Asako Takakura’s Nadeshiko Japan slogged their way to a back-and-forth 3-2 win over South Korea on a bitterly cold and wet Friday night in Chiba, before Vahid Halilhodzic saw his side make even harder work of their opening game in Tokyo 24 hours later, as they needed a 93rd-minute Yosuke Ideguchi thunderbolt to deliver a 1-0 win over North Korea in a match they could – and probably should – have lost.

The other two fixtures were similarly low-key, with North Korea’s women outdoing a disjointed China outfit to pick up a 2-0 win and South Korea and China’s men sharing the spoils after a clunky and fragmented 2-2 draw.

This slightly underwhelming fare was watched by less than 25,000 fans all told, demonstrating that supporters, as well as the associations and players, are hesitant to place too much importance on the four-way, round-robin event which has been an almost-bi-annual fixture since 2003 (following on from the formation of the East Asian Football Federation in 2002).

While the coaches and players talk a good game heading into the competition it always seems like something of an afterthought for those involved, and is treated more as a chance to test out second- or third-string options rather than as an opportunity to beat regional rivals to some meaningful silverware.

The far from settled timing of the contest – the previous two editions were held in Wuhan and Seoul in the summers of 2015 and 2013, whereas the last time it came to Japan was in the freezing February of 2010 – not to mention the fact it is re-badged more often than the beers on offer in your local convenience store (previous incarnations saw it known as the East Asian Football Championship (2003-10) and then the EAFF East Asian Cup (2013-15)) hardly help it establish itself as a significant addition to an already heavily congested calendar, and the apparent lack of enthusiasm this year is unsurprising with it being tagged onto the end of a long J.league season.

Of course, while they don’t necessarily make for the most exciting football there are benefits to tournaments that enable coaches to try new things out. As well as being able to give previously unconsidered players minutes in competitive action, for instance, positional and formational tweaks usually only possible on the training ground can also be tested, with Takakura reiterating that she wants her players to be comfortable in more than one position after giving left back Aya Sameshima a run-out at centre back in the absence of Olympique Lyon’s Saki Kumagai for the Nadeshiko in their opener.

Football Channel, Wednesday 12th December, 2017

Halilhodzic was also eager to stress the positives after the narrowest of narrow victories over a dogged and dangerous North Korea on Saturday night, justifiably singling Kosuke Nakamura out for compliments after the 22-year-old put in an excellent display between the posts on his first start for the full national team, as well as praising his Kashiwa Reysol teammate and fellow debutant Junya Ito for a positive and direct showing off the bench.

It was ultimately down to two players already established in the national team picture to deliver victory for both Japan sides though, with Mana Iwabuchi – who is remarkably still only 24 but already has over 40 caps for the national team after making her debut at the 2010 East Asian Cup as a 16-year-old – and Ideguchi finding the net late on to secure all three points.

The biggest positive to be gleaned from the opening round of matches, however, probably came off the pitch.

In the midst of a whole host of non-football related issues swirling around relations between North Korea and their three fellow participants – and despite pleas from the organisers to keep all coverage to strictly sporting affairs – Vahid Halilhodzic responded eloquently when asked about the importance of Japan taking to the field against the North Koreans in the current climate.

“We are not here to talk about politics,” the 65-year-old said.

“Through football we like to communicate friendship and good feeling. The players of both teams greeted each other and shook hands, and I shook hands with the opponent too.

“The world is strange but by playing football we can enjoy the best parts of it, which are joy and friendship. In Europe, in Africa, in Japan, everywhere there are rivalries. Rivalries in the sporting world are a good thing, and in today’s match there were many tough duels and some aggressive play, but nobody was playing in an unsportsmanlike manner so I’d like to compliment both sides.”

Such common sense will sadly never make it into the political sphere as well, but if the rest of the tournament can progress in a similarly amicable fashion then it will have certainly served a purpose in that regard.


Frontale finally get their hands on some silverware

Kawasaki Frontale finally shook off their tag as the perennial bridesmaids of the J.League on the final day of the 2017 J1 season, as they lifted the first division title.

Soccerphile, 6th December, 2017

I provided a summary of the dramatic finale for Soccerphile.


Diamonds shining bright again as Asian champions

Urawa Reds are back on the throne as kings of Asia, and looking back at their 2017 ACL campaign as a whole they certainly deserve to be there… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 28th November, 2017

The ACL final wasn’t a classic by any means, but Urawa Reds held their nerve admirably and deserved their late moment of jubilation when Rafael Silva slammed home his winner with an effort eerily similar to that despatched by Yuichiro Nagai 10 years earlier when the club won its first Asian crown.

Reds had struggled to play as they would have liked in either leg against Al Hilal, with several players commenting after Saturday’s second leg that they wanted to pose more of an attacking threat.

Their opponents played the neater, more confident football for long spells, and you have to feel some sympathy for the Saudis, who were tasting defeat in the final for the second time in four years after being edged 1-0 on aggregate by Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014.

Ultimately, though, what matters in finals is winning them, and it is rare to see one in which both teams are able to give true accounts of themselves. There are nerves, expectation, and, above all, the fear of a year’s hard work going to waste. More so than technical aspects, on these occasions mental strength is key, and in that respect Urawa deserve huge praise.

In the first leg away in Riyadh on 18 November Takafumi Hori’s side were incredibly lucky to escape with a 1-1 draw, after a combination of sloppy finishing, superb goalkeeping, and luck prevented Al Hilal from converting more than just one of their 20 attempts on goal.

Speaking to the Reds players ahead of the second leg they were confident and relaxed though, knowing not only what that they had to do but also, vitally, that they were more than capable of doing it.

Heading into the final the team had beaten every opponent they’d faced in this year’s competition, winning all six of their home fixtures, and there appeared little fear in the camp that that run would be coming to an end on the club’s biggest night for a decade.

The team started brightly, too, almost opening the scoring after just 30 seconds when Kazuki Nagasawa had a half-sight at goal, and it was clear they were targeting a repeat of their previous three ACL games, in which they found the net early in the first half and were then able to relax into their passing game.

Al Hilal proved a different prospect to any of their previous opponents though, with Zlatan Ljubijankic describing them as the best team Reds had come up against in this year’s tournament.

That, of course, is unsurprising for a final, and some of the visitors’ combination play – not to mention individual tricks and flicks under pressure – was wonderful to see.

Whereas in previous years Reds may have crumbled in the face of such quality, however, the team is now made of sterner stuff and for all of Hilal’s possession and tidy football they only managed to muster one shot on target all game – four less than Reds.

That confidence was built up over the course of a truly magnificent campaign, and few could argue that Reds weren’t deserving of the title after looking back over the tournament as a whole.

In the group stage they were at their free-flowing, goal-scoring best – especially at home, where they found the net 12 times in their three games – before running their fans through the mill in a dramatic knockout stage with a couple of sensational comebacks.

Football Channel, Tuesday 28th November, 2017

First of all Ryota Moriwaki rounded off a remarkable recovery with a 114th-minute winner in the Round of 16 second leg against Jeju United – making it 3-0 to send Reds through after they had lost the first leg 2-0 in South Korea – before a scarcely-believable all-J.League encounter with Kawasaki Frontale in which they came from 4-1 down on aggregate to progress to the semi-finals after goals from Shinzo Koroki, Zlatan, Rafael Silva, and, with just four minutes to play, Toshiyuki Takagi.

It is in this respect that Reds’ achievement should be commended, and accordingly the contributions of everyone involved deserve praise.

The likes of Moriwaki and Takagi, for instance, have faded a little from the first XI, while the work of Mihailo Petrovic should also not be forgotten. The 60-year-old first led the club into the competition after finishing top of the overall J1 rankings with a record points tally last year, and then steered them into the quarter-finals, from where Hori has done a masterful job of tweaking things to deliver glory.

The introduction of Takuya Aoki and Nagasawa to the first XI by the new man in charge was vital to Reds’ form late on in the tournament, with the former adding a much-needed shield in front of the back four and latter looking like he could develop into a very good player indeed, with quick feet, confidence on the ball, and physical strength in abundance. Tomoaki Makino has also excelled in defence since the switch to a back four, and seems to be relishing his role as the side’s physical presence in the back line.

After the rollercoaster rides against Jeju and Kawasaki Reds were far more regimented in their new set-up in both the semi-final and final, picking up identical results in each with impressive 1-1 draws away to two of the strongest teams in the continent in Shanghai SIPG and Al Hilal, before finishing the job off back at home with 1-0 wins courtesy of Rafael Silva goals.

The Brazilian has been outstanding this season, playing with a real calmness and style as well as adding a ruthless touch in front of goal, and his nine strikes in the competition remarkably came from just 10 shots on target. Yosuke Kashiwagi, meanwhile, picked up the tournament MVP award and consistently rose to the occasion when needed, demonstrating a real maturity as he grows into his role as Urawa’s elder statesman in the centre of the park.

That pair still have plenty to offer Reds over the coming seasons, of course, but their places in the club’s folklore have now been cemented.

I was fortunate to spend a couple of days working with 2007 hero Nagai as part of the official coverage of the final, and it was remarkable to see just how revered the man who scored the decisive goal and was voted as MVP last time Reds won the ACL still was by the club’s fans.

Moments like this truly create history for clubs and players alike, and every member of Reds’ staff deserve praise and congratulations in their moment of glory.


Timely test for Japan tyros

Japan have the rare chance to play some friendlies against truly top opposition this week, and Vahid Halilhodzic is right to use the occasion to try some untested players at this level… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 10th October, 2017

Most of the headlines ahead of the upcoming friendlies against Brazil and Belgium focused on Vahid Halilhodzic’s decision to leave out Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Okazaki, with doubts increasingly swirling as to whether the previously untouchable trio could be shock omissions from the World Cup squad next summer.

While the absence of three of Japan’s biggest names is certainly worthy of note, it is probably best to avoid reading too much into Halilhodzic’s team selection for this pair of games though, with the Bosnian already knowing what Kagawa, Honda, and Okazaki can (and can’t) do – especially in the case of the two Shinjis, both of whom are playing well and regularly at the highest level for their clubs.

There is certainly more of a question mark over Honda, with the 31-year-old having played a much less central role for his country over the past year and still settling into the Mexican Liga MX after only fairly recently completing his, rather surprising, move to CF Pachuca.

Again though, Halilhodzic is fully aware of what Honda does and does not bring to the table, and there seems very little point flying him halfway round the world for these games when fringe players can instead be tested against two of the sides tipped to do well in Russia next year.

The Samurai Blue boss recently claimed that only five or six players are certain of their places in the final 23, but if we assume he is bending the truth a little in order to keep his players on their toes then we can probably guess that around half the squad is already in pen in the 65-year-old’s notebook.

Eiji Kawashima, Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo, Makoto Hasebe, and Yuya Osako look like certainties, while Gotoku Sakai, Hotaru Yamaguchi, and Genki Haraguchi are also safe enough bets. If we add Kagawa, Honda, and Okazaki that takes us to 12 names (or 11.5; Honda may well be in thick pencil rather than pen), leaving a full 11 spots up for grabs and a huge pool of players competing to fill them.

The standout inclusion in goal this time is of course Shusaku Nishikawa, who is returning to the national team fold for the first time since he was dropped to the bench for the World Cup qualifiers against UAE and Thailand back in March.

Football Channel, 10th November 2017

The 31-year-old has had a difficult campaign marked with some fairly high profile errors, but Halilhodzic has clearly been impressed with his displays as Urawa Reds have progressed to the Asian Champions League final and he will be keen to show he is still the same goalkeeper who was No.1 for the side that completed the second round of Asian qualifiers without conceding a single goal in eight games (Kawashima and Masaaki Higashiguchi also contributed one clean sheet apiece).

In front of him the defence looks three-quarters set, although it is still far from clear who will partner Maya Yoshida at centre-back, with neither Tomoaki Makino or Gen Shoji having been able to install themselves as a must-pick in the absence of Masato Morishige. We should know a lot more about whether either/both have what it takes after testing themselves against the likes of Neymar and Romelu Lukaku.

The other three new faces in the squad are the players who seem to have been called up in place of Kagawa, Honda, and Okazaki.

Ryota Morioka, Kazuki Nagasawa, and Shinzo Koroki have all been playing well for their clubs of late, and it is far more beneficial to see if they can replicate that form in games against some of the best teams in the world rather than, for instance, calling them up for last month’s disappointing showings against New Zealand and Haiti.

Morioka has seven goals and eight assists in 14 league games as an ever-present for Waasland-Beveren of the Belgian first division, while Nagasawa has shone since being given more starting opportunities at Urawa after Takafumi Hori took over from Mihailo Petrovic – especially in the Champions League, where his experience of playing two years in Germany has been especially evident and he has looked perfectly at home physically and technically.

His Urawa teammate Koroki has also stood out yet again in J1 this year, making it to double figures for the sixth straight season and scoring 20 times in the league for the first time in his career, despite the fact that Reds are hovering around in mid-table and clearly now focusing the bulk of their energy on continental success.

All three are certainly options for Russia next year, but if they can’t hold their own against the likes of Brazil and Belgium then there is very little point giving them seats on the plane, as that is the level Japan will be up against next summer.

If they are able to perform, however, then Halilhodzic will have further options up his sleeve – although only he will know for sure if that is instead of or as well as Kagawa, Honda, and Okazaki.

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