Tiki-taka Tokyo

FC Tokyo have been coasting for the past couple of seasons, but with Albert Puig looking likely to be named their new manager in 2022 things could be looking up for the J.League’s capital city club… (日本語版)

FC Tokyo are expected to announce Albert Puig as their new manager any day now, with the Spaniard set to lead the club into the 2022 season after Tokyo and Kenta Hasegawa parted ways following the humiliating 8-0 defeat to Yokohama F.Marinos on 6 November.

The 53-year-old has spent the past two seasons steadily re-shaping Albirex Niigata in J2, and although he was ultimately unable to deliver a return back to the top flight he made a positive impact in Hokuriku, forming a strong bond with Albirex’s fans on account of his open personality and dedication to an attractive style of play.

The manager’s role in Niigata was actually Puig’s first as the main man in charge, although he had amassed a wealth of experience in the preceding 30 years. Beginning his coaching career in his early 20s, Puig spent 11 years as a scout, academy coach, and academy director at Barcelona, before taking on roles as a technical director or advisor in Gabon, USA, Spain, and Angola, as well as serving as assistant coach at New York City FC for the two seasons before arriving in Japan.

Unsurprisingly for someone who played such a key role at La Masia, he defines his play style as “position, possession, passion”, and under his tutelage Albirex stuck to a 4-2-3-1 formation with plenty of the ball and an assertive, attacking stance.

He found it slightly difficult to instil that philosophy and produce results in his first year in Niigata, with the team struggling to dominate enough games and all too often relying upon a piece of individual skill to decide games in their favour. They ultimately finished 11th in 2020 – 27 points off the promotion places – although the impact of Covid-19 and subsequent lack of time between games to work on the training field will hardly have helped the players adapt to his specific instructions.

The team started this season far more emphatically though and took the early initiative in J2, winning their first five games and scoring 17 goals in the process – including an incredible 7-0 hammering of Tokyo Verdy at the end of March. Albirex’s unbeaten run would stretch to 13 games in the end, but they faded as the campaign wore on and key players picked up injuries.

As well as struggling to adapt to the absence of game-changing talents like Shion Homma, opponents also started to play reactively on account of Albirex’s style and were often content to sit back and limit the amount of space they had to work in.

After the battering of Verdy – which followed 4-1 and 3-1 wins over Giravanz Kitakyushu and Thespakusatsu Gunma in the opening handful of games – Albirex have only gone on to score more than two goals in a game three more times this season, for instance, and to-date they have drawn 13 of their 40 matches this year, failing to find the net on nine occasions as they have struggled to break obstinate opponents down.

Puig, however, is a coach very much dedicated to his approach to the game and refuses to adapt that in order to win by any means necessary.

“Keep the ball, love the ball, respect the ball”, was how he explained his message to the Albirex players ahead of the game against Machida Zelvia on 16 May (which would go on to be their first defeat of the season), and even as the team fell away from the promotion race in the latter quarter of the campaign he has stuck doggedly to that approach.

A quick look at Albirex’s five most recent games perhaps offers the clearest insight into what caught FC Tokyo’s eye. The 1-1 draw against Fagiano Okayama on 31 October, for example, saw Albirex register 65 percent of possession and make 714 passes with an 86 percent success rate. In the final third they took 14 shots at goal, five of which were on target. These figures have also been replicated in each of their subsequent four games:

Jubilo Iwata (0-1) – 57 percent possession, 657 passes (90 percent successful), eight shots, five on target; Matsumoto Yamaga (1-1) – 67 percent possession, 627 passes (85 percent successful), 17 shots, five on target; Ehime FC (2-0) – 62 percent possession, 632 passes (82 percent successful), 16 shots, nine on target; Thespakusatsu Gunma (0-0) –  73 percent possession, 721 passes (86 percent successful), 12 shots, nine on target.

Despite a clear profligacy relative to their domination of the ball, Albirex still go into this weekend’s games as fifth top scorers in J2, having found the net 60 times in their 40 matches. At the other end of the pitch, meanwhile, they have also measured up pretty well and are in possession of the fifth best defence having conceded just 37 times.

His countryman Ricardo Rodriguez, now at Urawa Reds, needed four seasons to get Tokushima Vortis promoted, and If Puig had decided to stay with Albirex next season as well they would certainly have been one of the favourites to be challenging for a place in J1. 

Instead he looks set to be making the step up on his own, and it will be fascinating to see how he adapts to the top tier and how much closer he can get to success with a deeper squad and ostensibly better players at Tokyo.

Results won’t come immediately and he will need at least a season or two to re-shape the team in his image, but if the board and fans buy in and he gets the time and players he needs then Puig could prove to be a very shrewd appointment indeed.


Samurai Blue in need of cutting edge

A slow start to the final round of World Cup qualifiers leaves Japan with a lot of ground to make up, and Hajime Moriyasu needs to make proactive changes to reignite his team… (日本語版)

As we approach the midway point in the third round of qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup finals things are far from straightforward for Hajime Moriyasu.

The 2-1 win over Australia at Saitama Stadium in October was ultimately secured at the death by a slightly fortuitous own goal, but on the balance of play Japan were well worth the three points and it has to be hoped that victory provides a much-needed boost to morale ahead of two more must-win contests against Vietnam and Oman this month.

Even so, the Samurai Blue are still languishing in fourth place in Group B after already losing to Oman and Saudi Arabia, and the starting 11 looks far from settled with big decisions needing to be made in key positions all over the pitch.

The fact that Eiji Kawashima remains in the squad despite not having featured at all for Strasbourg this season hints at an ongoing stagnation in goal, for instance, and while Shuichi Gonda remains a dependable enough first choice for the next couple of years, at 32 it would be nice to see him given more of a challenge for the No.1 jersey. Kosei Tani is of course a promising prospect, but the fact that Keisuke Osako, Yuya Oki, and Kosuke Nakamura’s progress has stalled enough to prevent them being included is something of a concern.

The end of the line also looks as though it is finally approaching for Yuto Nagatomo, and the lack of a clear successor at left back is an issue Moriyasu will have to contend with sooner rather than later. Yuta Nakayama and Reo Hatate are his two understudies in the current squad, and while the former impressed in patches at the Olympics he doesn’t yet have the same quality in attack as Nagatomo at his peak. Hatate more than matches up in that regard, but as an attacking midfielder by trade he still has a lot of work to do defensively if he is to make the full time conversion to full-back.

In the middle of the park, meanwhile, there is the question of who starts alongside Wataru Endo. The VfB Stuttgart man is now nailed on as one of the first names on the team-sheet for his country, and the combination of him, Ao Tanaka, and Hidemasa Morita was pivotal to ensuring control of proceedings against the Socceroos last month. Of course, persevering with that trio in a 4-3-3 as opposed to the long-preferred 4-2-3-1 would mean again leaving Gaku Shibasaki out in the cold, and despite his costly error against Saudi Arabia the Leganes man remains more than capable of making a difference at this level.

Perhaps the biggest questions linger over Moriyasu’s choices in the final third of the pitch for these two games though, with Japan in desperate need of some cutting edge in front of goal if they are to reignite their hopes of automatic qualification for Qatar.

Kaoru Mitoma, along with his former Kawasaki Frontale teammate Hatate, has finally been given his first call-up to the full national team, and the Brighton and Hove Albion man, currently on loan at Belgian Pro League high flyers Royale Union Saint-Gilloise, should be thrown straight into the starting line-up against Vietnam on Thursday.

The 24-year-old is exactly the kind of player Japan need to add some urgency, unpredictability, and, most importantly, goals to their play, and with Takefusa Kubo again missing on account of injury the team is crying out for Mitoma’s craft at the business end of the pitch.

The same can be said of Kyogo Furuhashi, who is showing no signs of slowing down for Celtic in either the Scottish League or European competition and has found the net 13 times already this season (plus the 15 he notched for Vissel Kobe before leaving in the summer).

Although I remain in the minority in that I prefer him starting out wide in a position from which he can play with the game in front of him, the former Kobe and FC Gifu man has been in scintillating form as the central striker for Ange Postecoglou’s side, and while Yuya Osako has long been established as first choice for the Samurai Blue he only has one goal in his last four games for Japan as well as just two in his eight appearances since joining Vissel as a replacement for Furuhashi at the end of August.

Those figures and their undoubted impact on each player’s confidence means it should be a straightforward choice for Moriyasu as to which one takes to the field at My Dinh National Stadium, but regardless of whether he sticks or twists what everyone can agree on is that six points from six are a must – by any means necessary.


Up for the Cup

Nagoya Grampus and Cerezo Osaka are very evenly matched heading into this weekend’s Levain Cup final, and victory will almost certainly be dealt to whichever side best keeps its concentration at Saitama Stadium… (日本語版)

This weekend’s YBC Levain Cup final looks set to be a tight encounter between two evenly-matched teams on paper, and the result could serve to energise whichever of Nagoya Grampus or Cerezo Osaka emerge victorious.

For Nagoya it would represent a first trophy since they were crowned J.League champions in 2010, and serve as encouragement that the team is moving in the right direction under Massimo Ficcadenti.

In the earlier part of this season Grampus looked like they would be Kawasaki Frontale’s closest challenger for the league title, but back-to-back defeats to Toru Oniki’s side in the spring and then a dip in form in the summer saw them slip down the rankings, and the best they can hope for now in J1 is to match last year’s third place finish and return to the Asian Champions League.

Nagoya were Japan’s last representative standing in continental competition this season, but despite outlasting Kawasaki, Gamba Osaka, and Cerezo in the ACL they ultimately exited fairly meekly to Pohang Steelers of South Korea in the quarter-final. That 3-0 loss on 17 October was a slightly bizarre result after Grampus gave as good as they got in the first half and could even have gone in ahead at the break with slightly better finishing, but they were too flat in the second period and never looked like finding a way back into the game after going behind to Lim Sang-hyub’s goal eight minutes after the break.

Ficcadenti is of course well known for his disciplined approach to the game, with his sides always centred upon well-organised defence and currently in possession of the second best record in that regard in J1 (just 26 goals conceded in 33 games). On the flip side, he rarely authorises his charges to take the handbrake off and really go for opponents, and despite the array of attacking talent Nagoya have at their disposal they have only managed to find the net 37 times in the league this year – just six times more than bottom-placed Yokohama FC.

Cerezo, meanwhile, have been in patchy form all season – and, it could even be argued, for the best part of a decade.

Akio Kogiku taking over from Levir Culpi at the end of August represented the 11th managerial change in the 10 years since Culpi ended his second period at the club at the close of the 2011 season (the Brazilian also accounted for two of those subsequent changes after returning in 2012 and at the start of this season), and the longest consecutive spell anyone has had in charge is the two seasons spent at the helm by Yoon Jong-hwan (2017 and 2018) and his successor Miguel Angel Lotina (2019 and 2020).

That period has unsurprisingly failed to produce anything close to consistency for the pink half of Osaka, with the lowest ebb being two years spent in J2 between 2015 and 2016 and the high point a domestic cup double under Yoon in 2017.

Like Nagoya Cerezo do have a wealth of talented players, and claiming a first piece of silverware in four years could serve as a solid foundation from which to build for this squad. On their day Cerezo are capable of beating any opponent – as they showed last weekend against high-flying Yokohama F.Marinos – although the opposite is also true and three points can rarely be seen as a given in their fixtures.

The main issue this campaign has undoubtedly been a lack of a consistent scorer, and even though they have struck more in the league than Grampus (42 times in 33 games), they have similarly lacked an outright goal-getter, with their three top marksmen Tatsuhiro Sakamoto (six goals, none in the last nine games), Yoshito Okubo (six goals, five of which came in the first five games of the season), and Mutsuki Kato (six goals, one in the last 12 games).

As the cliche goes, recent form can of course go out of the window in cup finals and what ultimately decides the victor is which side manages to win its individual battles on the day. This showpiece doesn’t look like being any different in that regard, and there are three head-to-heads that look particularly key to deciding the destination of the Levain trophy.

With both teams craving control of proceedings the eye is immediately drawn to the centre of the park and the match-up between Riki Harakawa and Sho Inagaki. Both are capable of breaking up their opponent’s flow with impeccably-timed interceptions, getting things moving for their own side with crisp passing, and are also no strangers to lashing home efforts of their own from 20-plus yards.

The wide areas will also prove pivotal to the outcome of this contest. It is vital that Cerezo can get their ball-playing wingers in behind to breach Nagoya’s resolute rearguard as often as possible, and with that in mind the tussle between Yutaka Yoshida and Sakamoto promises to be especially fascinating.

Finally, whichever of Jakub Świerczok and Ayumu Seko manages to get the upper hand at the business end of the pitch will most likely be collecting a winner’s medal at full time. The Pole has shown since arriving in August that he is absolutely lethal when given a clear sight of goal – or even half of one – and so Seko is going to need to have a near-faultless game at the heart of Cerezo’s defence to prevent that happening.

With the likes of Takashi Inui, Mateus, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Naoki Maeda, Hiroaki Okuno, and of course Yoichiro Kakitani also in the mix there are plenty of match-winners on each side, however, and things look as finely balanced as they could be heading into what promises to be a gripping final.


Do or die

A dire start to the final round of World Cup qualifiers already has Japan’s automatic qualification hopes in doubt, and if they don’t spark into life against Australia then things will go from bad to worse for the Samurai Blue… (日本語版)

Japan didn’t play well against Saudi Arabia on Thursday night, but on another day they could have shared the points with an opponent that also failed to really shine.

The issue with the Samurai Blue at the moment, however, is that results aren’t falling their way and, let’s be honest, it is difficult to remember the last time they did play well.

If we include the knockout games at Tokyo 2020 – which seems fair, as the majority of those who featured for Hajime Moriyasu at the Olympics are also involved with the full national team – the last six showings blur into one long, uneventful contest in which Japan, at best, are just about in contention without ever really looking like they are going to emerge with the victory.

The results bear this out, with four of those six games ending in defeat (Spain, Mexico, Oman, and Saudi Arabia), one culminating in a penalty shoot-out win (New Zealand), and one a needlessly nervy win over an abysmal China.

Aside from the bronze medal match against Mexico, when Japan were out for the count before half time, the team have put in reasonably steady, professional displays in all of those games, and with the bulk of the squad either plying their trade overseas or, like Hiroki Sakai and Yuto Nagatomo, recently returning to Japan after several years having done so, you can see the players are used to playing in difficult atmospheres against talented opponents.

The problem at the moment is they seem so preoccupied with maintaining balance and keeping their shape in order to avoid conceding that they almost entirely lack the ability to take the game to the opposition and do something unexpected when attacking.

Build up is slow and predictable, and on the rare occasions they do get into scoring positions the team lack the composure to put the ball in the back of the net – although this lack of killer instinct is hardly a new issue for Japan, and will seemingly haunt them in perpetuity. At this level you can’t afford to play in such a passive manner, and the wealth of attacking talent Moriyasu has at his disposal should be given the freedom to play and produce moments out of the ordinary to turn games in their favour.

The manager could quite rightly point to the absence of Takefusa Kubo, Ritsu Doan, and Junya Ito in Jeddah, with that trio all capable of prying open obstinate defences. While the latter did provide the assist for Yuya Osako’s goal against China – the only time Japan have found the net so far in the final round of World Cup qualifiers – the former pair both started every game at the Olympics, however, and can hardly be said to have been given free reign to play to their strengths there or in either of the recent qualifiers against Oman or China.

Meanwhile, Kyogo Furuhashi, who remains the J.League’s third top scorer despite leaving in July and who has added eight goals for Celtic to take him to 24 for the year, was only thrown on with 30 minutes to play against Saudi Arabia, Ao Tanaka was left on the bench even though Gaku Shibasaki was clearly out of sorts and gave the ball away in dangerous positions a couple of times even before the costly error that gifted the hosts their goal, and Kaoru Mitoma – the kind of player this Japan team is absolutely crying out for – didn’t even make the squad.

It is all a far cry from the exciting early days of Moriyasu Japan, when Shoya Nakajima, Doan, and Takumi Minamino formed a pacey, incisive, and clinical triumvirate behind the team’s central striker.

In the interim the team has lost its sparkle and grown stale though, and it looks increasingly as though the manager is approaching games with the initial aim of not losing them rather than trying to win them.

That approach can work on occasion, but without a guaranteed source of goals – or creative players being given the freedom to play in a way that enables them to fashion plentiful chances – you will always be vulnerable to sucker punches like those delivered by more wily, ruthless opponents like Oman and Saudi Arabia.

All this has produced the situation whereby Japan now need to come out swinging against an in-form Australia on Tuesday. If they look to try and contain the game and eke out a narrow victory again then the Socceroos are more than capable of serving up another defeat for the Samurai Blue. That would almost certainly spell the end for Japan’s chances of securing automatic qualification for Qatar, and quite possibly Moriyasu as well.


Omiya oh my

Omiya Ardija were punching above their weight in J1 for over a decade, but since their second relegation in 2017 things have gone from bad to worse for the Saitama side… (日本語版

In 2016 things were as good as they’ve ever been for Omiya Ardija.

After being relegated two years previously Hiroki Shibuya’s men instantly returned to J1 as 2015 J2 champions, and they didn’t lose any momentum as they surged to a fifth place finish in the overall rankings back in the top flight.

Akihiro Ienaga and Ataru Esaku top scored with 11 and eight goals, respectively, for the Squirrels, and after losing just one of their last 11 matches they recorded their best ever finish in the first division. 

Fast forward five years and things aren’t going anywhere near as well for the Saitama club though. They capitulated after their 2016 exploits and were relegated the following season, and after a couple of near misses in the race for promotion they slumped to a worst ever J.League finish of 15th in the second tier last year and are scrapping for survival at the foot of J2 again this season.

Omiya were unbeaten in their three league games in September of 2016 after wins against Sanfrecce Hiroshima (1-0, Esaka) and Kawasaki Frontale (3-2, Ienaga 2, Esaka) and a 1-1 draw with Sagan Tosu (Ienaga), and they mirrored that by picking up seven points this September too (albeit from four matches instead of three). In contrast to those high-flying days in the top tier, however, the draw with Ehime FC (3-3) and wins over Tokyo Verdy (2-1) and, most recently, fellow strugglers SC Sagamihara (1-0, thanks to a sensational Kazuaki Mawatari free-kick 13 minutes from time) have served only to move them tentatively out of the relegation zone.

Things weren’t any better under current Sagamihara boss Takuya Takagi last season, and his replacement Ken Iwase also endured a torrid three months at the helm, delivering just two league wins in 15 games on the NACK5 bench before being put out of his misery after the 3-1 defeat away to Giravanz Kitakyushu on 23 May. That loss was Ardija’s eighth of the campaign – in the halcyon days of 2016 that was the amount they lost all year, the last of which came on the final day of the season.

Iwase departed with Omiya second bottom of the table on 11 points, and only above Sagamihara on goal difference (Omiya -5, Sagamihara -11). After stunning everybody – including, possibly, themselves – by making a late surge for the second automatic promotion spot last year, Sagamihara’s struggles on their J2 debut have been far less surprising, and their season has actually followed a very similar curve to Ardija’s.

Like Iwase, Fumitake Miura only managed to lead his team to two victories in the first third of the season and was moved on after a 2-0 defeat away to Montedio Yamagata on 30 May, with Takagi installed as his successor. Despite getting off to a slow start and losing his first three games at the helm without finding the net, Sagamihara’s performances and results gradually started to improve and they came into the clash with Omiya, Takagi’s 15th in charge, unbeaten in three games without conceding and having lost only two of their last 10.

Some smart work in the loan market has been key to that resurgence, with young, talented, confident ball players like Hikaru Naruoka (19, Shimizu S-Pulse), Seiji Kimura (20, FC Tokyo), Yuan Matsuhashi (19, Tokyo Verdy), Reotaro Kodama (19, Sagan Tosu), and Yudai Fujiwara (19, Urawa Reds) adding some youth and hunger to complement the experience and goals of a resurgent Jungo Fujimoto (37), who has found the net five times in Sagamihara’s last 10 games.

There has been no such freshening up at Omiya though – in fact, they went the opposite route in the summer and added even more experience to a squad already bursting with it, with their two acquisitions being goalkeeper Yuta Minami, 42, and striker Atsushi Kawata, 29 – and it is difficult to see what the long-term plan is.

Masahiro Shimoda, who was installed as Iwase’s permanent replacement in the middle of June, has plenty of talented individual attacking players at his disposal – including Atsushi Kurokawa, the raw Masaya Shibayama, and gifted but injury-prone Kanji Okunuki – but they have struggled to spark consistently going forwards while the defence always looks to have a mistake or two in it.

The fact they have several players capable of providing moments of quality like Mawatari’s gem against Sagamihara means Omiya should ultimately have enough to steer themselves away from the trapdoor this year, but considering the heights they were hitting not so long ago the club should be aiming for far more than that.

Right now games look as though they are being taken on an as-they-come basis though, with Minami saying after the Sagamihara match that the focus had been on getting the win by any means necessary rather than worrying about the quality of the performance. If that remains the case and a clear playing style can’t be established, however, then another return to J1 looks an increasingly long way off.


Here WE go

The fully professional WE League launches this weekend, and marks a huge step forward for women’s football in Japan… (日本語版)

It’s fair to say things didn’t go as well as many had hoped for Nadeshiko Japan at Tokyo 2020, with the team never really clicking into gear and being eliminated with relative ease by eventual silver medallists Sweden in the quarter-finals.

Manager Asako Takakura’s spell in charge came to an end after the competition and the JFA is now at a crossroads as it looks to appoint her successor, with rumours swirling behind the scenes that a foreign coach may be considered to try and restore the women’s national team to its former glories.

Another stepping stone on that journey is the establishment of the fully professional WE League, which is set for its much-anticipated launch this weekend – furthering the impression that 2021 represents a critical juncture in the development of women’s football in Japan.

This new division brings with it plenty of opportunities but also represents a leap into the unknown, and it is vital that the enthusiasm swirling around the start of the season can be converted into something longer term as the players and clubs adapt to their newly professional status.

Terms like ‘strengthen’ and ‘generate excitement’ were thrown around a lot in the various media activities ahead of the maiden season – which kicks off with 10 of the 11 founding members in action on Sunday – and while many factors will ultimately determine how successful the division becomes, the initial responsibility rests largely on the players and coaches and how well they perform out on the pitch.

The fact that all matches are being broadcast on DAZN will ensure the league is able to reach a far larger audience than the relatively niche following the women’s game has enjoyed to date in Japan, and the first priority must be to establish a connection between the competition and those watching it. The more established teams of course already have core fanbases, but the move to professionalism means they will need to amplify them while the newer clubs have to work to position themselves in their local communities and attract as many supporters as possible to provide themselves with a steady footing.

Star players are one surefire way to gain and keep attention – particularly from the more casual strata of fans needed to help move the women’s game into the mainstream – and it is vital that clubs pull out all the stops to ensure the limelight stays on the league.

Time, money, and effort need to be dedicated to marketing efforts off the pitch, while requisite support needs to be provided behind the scenes to ensure the conditions are right for young local talent to develop and establish themselves as the faces of the competition. The women’s game in Japan is very highly regarded around the world, and if the right professional environment can be established that would increasingly attract players and coaches from further afield, whose arrival in Japan would then in turn add to the WE League’s appeal.

There are positive signs in this regard with the signings of Alex Chidiac and Quinley Quezada at JEF United, Sarina Bolden at Chifure AS Elfen Saitama, and Rosnani Azman at INAC Kobe Leonessa, and if these players can make positive impressions then it is only natural that other clubs will be tempted to follow suit and expand their scouting horizons. The Olympics showcased some of the best female players in the world, and it is a slight shame that WE League clubs didn’t capitalise upon the opportunity of having them playing on their doorsteps by putting out some feelers for potential recruits. The bigger stars of that competition would of course have been beyond the financial means of the WE League clubs – and the ongoing Covid-19 entry restrictions make international signings extra complicated – but it does look like something of an opportunity missed.

As demonstrated by England’s burgeoning Women’s Super League (WSL), perseverance, increased visibility, and financial backing are key ingredients to success. The WSL is now into its fourth season as a fully professional competition having been semi-professional since 2011, and its growth in recent years has led to greatly increased media exposure, an influx of some of the world’s best players – including Nadeshiko Japan stars Mana Iwabuchi at Arsenal and Yui Hasegawa at West Ham United – and, from this season, a broadcast deal worth a reported £8 million a year.

The WE League of course has plenty of obstacles to overcome before it can hope to be in such rude health, but if the first steps can be taken confidently then the future of both the domestic game and national team should be bright.


Business picking up

After six months of games in hand and provisional tables the J1 standings finally reflect the true state of play, and all signs point towards a thrilling climax to the 2021 season… (日本語版)

For perhaps the first time all season we have a J1 table that actually tells us something about what there is to play for, and who’s playing for it, in the Japanese first division.

Just as in 2020, Covid-19 has caused huge disruption to the calendar this year – both as a result of outbreaks causing fixture postponements and also the centralised ACL group stage requiring Japan’s participants to front-load their domestic schedules – meaning the standings have been skewed in various directions since pretty much the third week of the season.

At one point Kawasaki Frontale were 18 points clear on paper and seemingly cruising towards consecutive titles, for instance, while just a few weeks ago Gamba Osaka were slumped down 19th place and looking like they had a real battle for survival on their hands.

That of course didn’t reflect the reality of the situation and vastly different number of matches played by each club, and the ironing out of those creases over the Olympic break has presented us with a very different picture of proceedings heading into the final third of the campaign. 

Frontale are now top by just a single point as a result of Yokohama F.Marinos’ extraordinary run of form – unbeaten in 13 with just two defeats all season – while Gamba picked up enough points in their make-up matches to lift them up into the almost-safe region of lower mid-table alongside neighbours Cerezo Osaka on 30 points.

A proper relegation dogfight looks to be brewing beneath them though, with Oita Trinita, Yokohama FC, Vegalta Sendai, Tokushima Vortis, Shimizu S-Pulse, Shonan Bellmare, and Kashiwa Reysol all embroiled in the battle to avoid being one of the four teams demoted to J2 come December.

Yokohama FC were bottom of that pile for a long time but were certainly proactive about turning things around in the summer transfer window, bringing in a handful of new foreign signings – including one of Germany’s goalkeepers at Tokyo 2020, Svend Brodersen, which first impressions suggest was a very shrewd piece of business – and their win over Gamba on Wednesday served the huge psychological boost of moving them off the foot of the table.

Whether they will have enough in the tank to complete a great escape remains to be seen, but with the teams around them struggling to put together runs of form the seven points to safety don’t look insurmountable if Tomonobu Hayakawa’s side can keep grinding out the odd win here and there.

Indeed, things are incredibly tight in the lower third of the table with only 10 points separating the bottom seven sides, and as the finish line draws within range and the pressure begins to build it will come down to which sides are best able to hold their nerve and remain focused on the job at hand.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Avispa Fukuoka, and Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, meanwhile, occupy a kind of no-man’s land in the middle of the rankings – too far back to make a push for the ACL but with enough points in the bank to be all-but assured of a place in the top flight next year – and above them there’s a six-team mini-league in progress, with competition for the third and final Champions League spot incredibly fierce.

Here, too, teams are packed together like commuters on the Marunouchi Line (despite the state of emergency, they’re still very much there), and setting aside outside bet FC Tokyo on 39 points, the handful of Urawa Reds (44), Sagan Tosu (44), Kashima Antlers (44), Nagoya Grampus (46), and Vissel Kobe (47) are all bunched within three points of each other between third and seventh place.

Sagan aside – who are very much punching above their weight considering their current financial difficulties – all of these clubs will have come into the season targeting at least a place in Asia’s premier club competition next year, and so we should be set for a thrilling back-and-forth battle over the coming weeks as they duke it out for the one berth remaining.

The reason there are only enough spoils for one victor in that contest is because way out at the top of the rankings and going mano a mano for the J1 shield we find reigning champions Frontale and the team they dethroned last year, Marinos.

The league leaders have been absolutely sensational again this season, averaging over two goals per game and only conceding 17 times so far on their way to 63 points. They are, however, in the midst of an uncharacteristic dip in form and followed draws against Reysol and Sanfrecce with a 1-0 loss to Avispa in midweek, driving home just how important Ao Tanaka and Kaoru Mitoma were to the side after both completed moves to Europe over the summer.

Marinos also lost a key figure just before Tokyo 2020, although if things were supposed to come tumbling down after Ange Postecoglou’s switch to Celtic nobody appears to have told the players. They haven’t missed a beat and have won five and drawn one under new boss Kevin Muscat, overtaking Frontale on goals scored after finding the net 14 times in their last three games and setting up what is sure to be an absolute humdinger of a title race over the coming weeks.

The ebb and flow of all teams playing matches in tandem is part of what usually makes league competition so enjoyable, and while the disruption of the past year or so has been unavoidable here’s hoping some semblance of normality can be resumed in that respect next season. The last 12 rounds of 2021 will serve up a whole range of drama, but how nice it would have been to have had nine months of twists and turns instead of just three.


Fatigue, Humidity, Sluggishness – Together

The football competitions at Tokyo 2020 combined the brutal heat of summer, a packed schedule, and coronavirus prevention measures to ensure the participants had absolutely no respite from the first to the last whistle… (日本語版)

There was a tension weighing over Nissan Stadium as the clock ticked down in the second half of regular time and heavyweights Brazil and Spain gamely threw everything they had left at each other, trying desperately to land the knockout blow that would deliver them Olympic gold.

The thickness in the air wasn’t only caused by the humidity or magnitude of the occasion though – these, after all, are players used to playing on the biggest stages and in front of tens of thousands of expectant fans – but as their increasingly frustrated voices echoed around the 70,000 empty seats in the vast Kanagawa bowl it was clear that these young, supremely fit professional athletes were absolutely shattered. 

Indeed, even in the hours ahead of kick-off there was a general sense of fatigue lingering in the bowels of the stadium, with venue staff, volunteers, and media personnel frazzled at the end of a brutal schedule and sleepwalking towards the finish line rather than charging towards it with the feeling of excitement and expectation more usually associated with these kinds of events.

Everyone was so very, very tired.

The previous day Japan had stumbled as well, manager Hajime Moriyasu repeatedly referring to the tiredness and fatigue his players had been battling against – as well as a ruthless Mexico side – after they were roundly beaten 3-1 to miss out on the podium, just as they had done under Takashi Sekizuka at London 2012.

Whereas the group stage encounter against Mexico had seen Japan burst out of the traps and move 2-0 ahead after just 11 minutes, this time they could barely string a couple of passes together and as the game moved into the 11th minute here they were already up against it after an uncharacteristically sluggish challenge from Wataru Endo gifted Jaime Lozano’s side a penalty.

Endo’s overall performance against Mexico summed up the general trend of the latter stages of the football at Tokyo 2020, with one of Japan’s outstanding players of the past year looking out on his feet and struggling to keep up with the flow of the game, let alone dictate it. He was at fault for the second goal in the 22nd minute as well, losing track of Johan Vasquez at a free-kick and allowing the Mexican to tuck home with disbelieving ease from close range.  

Of course, this is meant in no way to single Endo out for criticism, and the same lethargy had also been on display four days earlier as Australia and Sweden did battle in the women’s semi-finals. Two of the the most dynamic teams in the competition saw the second half of their contest drop almost to walking pace at times as the players’ exertions in the heat and humidity of the Japanese summer over the preceding two weeks began to catch up with them.

“It’s getting to the point towards the end of the tournament where everyone’s tired, everyone’s played a lot of minutes,” Australia striker Sam Kerr said afterwards. “It was a hot one today. I don’t know, I feel like this is the hottest game we’ve played since we’ve been here. But it is what it is. Everyone’s feeling tired, they [Sweden] feel the same, they’ve played the same minutes.”

Indeed, her opponent Hanna Glas was in full agreement.

“Especially the last 20-30 minutes, it was really tough because of the humidity and a really tough schedule,” the Bayern Munich defender said. “We only get two rest days, and that’s not what we’re used to in the World Cup or the Euros.”

Such a compact fixture list is always a feature of the Olympics, but the various coronavirus prevention measures meant Tokyo 2020 added an unprecedented mental strain on the athletes (and overseas media and staff) as well, offering them no time or space to decompress between matches. 

“Obviously it’s been tough,” Glas said of the restrictions. “We knew that before we came here – that that was one of the big challenges, together with the warm weather – so we came prepared, but even though you know it it’s still hard.”

Megan Rapinoe of the USA concurred after scoring twice to help her side to the bronze medal against Australia in Kashima on 5 August.

“It’s really hard – I’m sure every team would say that, too, it is really difficult,” the 36-year-old said.

“If it’s a World Cup you have a lot more days between games, but, you know, you can [also] see your family. But [here] we’re just there staring at each other the whole time, and there’s only so much we can do or talk about. We don’t want to talk about soccer all the time, but there’s nothing else going on.

“So I think that part has been really hard. It’s been hard for everyone, just to not sort of have that break has been the most challenging part – probably more challenging than the schedule, to be honest.”

Back in Yokohama, as had been the case 24 hours earlier when Sweden and Canada went the distance in the women’s final, the contest between Brazil and Spain couldn’t be settled inside 90 minutes, and it ultimately took a turbo-charged burst from Malcom – one of the freshest players on the pitch, who had played just 142 minutes before coming on at the start of extra time – to secure consecutive golds for the Seleção with a 2-1 win.

Sport is the pursuit of excellence, of testing boundaries, and while the exhaustion of these Olympics will fade over time and leave only the positive memories, slickly-edited highlights packages, and plentiful history-making achievements, there can be absolutely no doubt that Tokyo 2020 pushed each and every one of its participants to their mental and physical limits – on and off the field of play.


Crowded out

The Olympics are underway at last, but minus a key ingredient the postponed Games feel more like an obligation than a celebration… (日本語版)

Tokyo 2020, which was starting to feel like it was just just an illusion, a mirage on the horizon that would never actually take place, is finally upon us.

The Olympics are finally happening, athletes are finally in Japan and finally competing with each other for some of the most coveted titles in the world of sport. And yet, something is lacking.

The Games have begun, but there’s an air of incompleteness, a sense of something not quite being right. Without spectators this just doesn’t feel like the Olympics. 

“We can only go faster, we can only aim higher, we can only become stronger, if we stand together – in solidarity,” IOC president Thomas Bach intoned at the opening ceremony at Tokyo National Stadium on 23 July, seemingly unaware of the irony of his words echoing around a stadium empty except for the athletes and the thousand or so members of the ‘Olympic Family’ afforded entry.

“This is why the IOC has adapted the Olympic motto to our times: faster, higher, stronger – together. This feeling of togetherness – this is the light at the end of the dark tunnel.”

And while we have already seen plenty of sensational performances – Yuki Horigome claiming the first ever skateboarding gold for Japan, 18-year-old Tunisian Ahmed Hafnaoui triumphing in the men’s 400 metre freestyle, Uta and Hifumi Abe being crowned Olympic champions within an hour of each other – the lingering feeling is disappointment that fans cannot be in the venues to revel in these triumphs along with the victors.

There was a similar sensation during the opening ceremony, a slow and mostly sombre affair which was closed to the public but which resulted in thousands gathering a few hundred metres away anyway to either experience the moment as best they could or protest against the Games, depending on their perspective on the event.

Things have been very much the same at the football, with the swathes of empty seats at the cavernous stadiums sucking energy out of proceedings and making everything feel flat. 

Mana Iwabuchi’s audacious equaliser against Canada would have taken the roof off Sapporo Dome, Takefusa Kubo’s strikes against South Africa and Mexico deserved a wall of sound, and Ritsu Doan’s penalty rippling the Saitama Stadium net should have torn the tension apart and sparked scenes of jubilation. Instead, Blur’s ‘Song 2’ and the shouts of the players and team staff were all that could be heard.

“It’s really weird with no crowd, really weird,” British swimmer Adam Peaty said after his 100m breaststroke heat on 24 July. “But that’s the psychological thing we need to adapt to. I had no idea how it was going to feel out there.

“It doesn’t feel like an Olympics. It’s not the same, of course it’s not. So it’s about controlling all of those emotions and performing when it matters.”

Covid-19 has of course thrown the world into turmoil, and the sight of tens of thousands of maskless fans piled on top of one another at the Euros was certainly jarring when cast against the restraint being shown by so many others around the world as they wait for vaccinations and life to return to normality.

But sport in Japan has shown for the past year that it can safely manage supporter presence at stadiums, and allowing limited numbers into venues provided they follow safety precautions would have added so much to these Games – for the athletes, for the organisers, and of course for the fans themselves.

”I think a lot of people’s tax money is going to hold these Olympics,” Maya Yoshida said in widely reported comments after Japan’s final pre-tournament friendly against Spain. “Despite that, people can’t go and watch. So you wonder about who the Olympics is for, and what it is for. Of course athletes want to play in front of fans.

“It’s not just the players who are competing, but the family members, every one of them. So if they can’t watch the match, well who and what is that match for?”

Of course, everybody knows who and what it is for, and why the Olympics are being forced through despite all of the difficulties and opposition to them. The ban on fans merely serves to underline that fact, and further drives home the feeling that an event which is supposed to be a communal celebration of teams and individuals pushing themselves to be the best they can be is instead little more than an obligation.


Leading by example

England aren’t only in the final of the European Championship for the first time ever, but they have been led there in style by a man who oozes class… (日本語版)

England fans aren’t used to this.

There is always hype ahead of international tournaments, always optimism that this could be the team that achieves glory, that football will finally be ‘coming home’.

Then the players ‘fall short’ – or, more accurately, make it about as far as their quality can carry them – and the recriminations begin, blame is apportioned, scapegoats are made, and the cycle continues.

Since Gareth Southgate became England manager, however, that narrative has started to change, and this is very much a team carved in his image.

The former Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, and Middlesbrough player originally joined the Football Association as head of elite development at the start of 2011, before being appointed Under-21 head coach in August 2013 –  during which time he worked with several of the squad now at this summer’s European Championship, including Jordan Pickford, John Stones, and Harry Kane. 

Southgate initially ruled himself out of the running for the full England job after Roy Hodgson departed following Euro 2016, only to then reluctantly take over on an interim basis when Sam Allardyce was forced to step down after a scandal in September 2016. He immediately impressed in charge of the Three Lions, however, not only with the results he delivered on the pitch but also the manner in which he carried himself off it, and his contract was made permanent a couple of months later.

Always composed and respectful, Southgate has earned praise for his dignity and erudition during a time of division and conflict in England – whether because of Brexit, social justice protests, or Covid-19 – all while guiding England to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia and now this weekend’s Euro 2020 final against Italy.

“The standard of leaders in this country in the last couple of years has been poor,” former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville, now a television pundit, said after England’s 2-1 win over Denmark on Wednesday night. “Looking at that man there, that’s everything a leader should be. Respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine. He’s fantastic, Gareth Southgate. He really is unbelievable, and has done a great job.”

The conduct of the manager has also shone through in that of the players too, and this is one of the most united and likeable England teams in recent memory. All too often in the past players were assured of their places on account of their reputations, and while undoubtedly talented individuals the star names never seemed like they were capable of gelling to form a team worth as much as the sum of its parts.

Southgate’s interpersonal skills have enabled him to avoid any such issues, however, and while the general public have been crying out for him to give more starts to the likes of Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho, the players themselves seem fully understanding of their manager’s decisions.

“I see some stuff sometimes about me and Gareth but we have a great relationship,” Grealish said before the quarter-final against Ukraine. “He does with all the players. He’s a brilliant man-manager.

“You have got six players that play either side of Harry [Kane] that, in reality, could play for most clubs in the world. Myself, Jadon [Sancho], Marcus [Rashford], Raheem, Phil Foden and Bukayo [Saka]. It’s scary how good us six are. That’s not being big-headed or nothing. That is just the truth.

“He can’t play all six of us but one thing he’s done really well is make people think that they are still involved. He still speaks to everyone on a daily basis.”

As well as maintaining positive relations within the camp, Southgate has also been eloquent and firm when dealing with issues swirling around the team, including their decision to take a knee before games in order to highlight racial inequality and discrimination. There were audible boos from some sections of the crowd as they did so ahead of the pre-tournament friendly win over Austria in Middlesbrough at the start of June, for instance, and instead of avoiding the matter the manager instead approached it head on.

“I was pleased it was drowned out by the majority of the crowd but we can’t deny it happened,” he said.

“It’s not something on behalf of our black players that I wanted to hear because it feels as though it is a criticism of them. I think the most important thing for our players to know is that all their team-mates and all the staff are fully supportive.”

Sections of the England support – including some portions of the media – continue to detract slightly from the enjoyment of following the national team, whether as a result of their arrogance, the booing of opponents’ national anthems, or other jingoistic behaviour, and the fact that Southgate has managed to stay true to himself and his beliefs in the face of such things and still deliver results on the pitch is worthy of huge credit.

“He is such a fundamentally decent man, but so exposed also to anger and hostility, it is easy to fear that this might finally get to him,” Barney Ronay wrote of the 50-year-old after England beat Germany in the Round of 16. “Most of the time he sounds like the last sensible person left in the country.”

For all the entitlement that gets attached to the refrain ‘football’s coming home’ these days, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the song was originally written as a tongue-in-cheek treatise on the disappointment football fans experience ninety percent of the time. Whether Southgate – whose missed semi-final penalty against Germany is inextricably tied up with the Euro 96 tournament for which the song was released – is able to deliver one of the rare occasions when England fans are able to celebrate remains to be seen. Win or lose against Italy, however, his efforts at bringing them to this point, and the manner in which he has done so, deserve nothing but praise.

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December 2021