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.


Kicking on

With the Tokyo Olympics and WE League both on the horizon 2021 could be a big year for women’s football in Japan, and the former could play a big part in creating enthusiasm for the latter… (日本語版)

As the launch of the WE League draws ever closer, I ventured out to Saitama last weekend to take in the friendly match between last year’s Nadeshiko League Division One champions Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Urawa Reds Ladies and JEF United Ichihara Chiba Ladies.

The game at a drizzly, grey, and unseasonably chilly Komaba Stadium was far more enjoyable than typing out the team names (here’s hoping they can be shortened in due course), with both sides keeping the ball well, moving it about quickly, and always looking to play positively – which was even more refreshing having woken up at 4am to endure England’s overly-cautious contest against Scotland at the Euros a few hours earlier.

A peach of a strike by Urawa’s Yu Endo was sandwiched between a couple of sensational Haruka Osawa goals (Exhibit A; Exhibit B) to leave the hosts trailing 2-1 at half-time, but Mayu Sasaki levelled things up in the 56th minute to ensure the game ended all square.

Despite the rain and the fact that Urawa were without their quartet of Olympic players Sakiko Ikeda, Moeka Minami, Yuzuho Shiokoshi, and Yuika Sugasawa or that JEF were minus either of their recent foreign signings Alexandra Chidiac or Quinley Quezada, a decent turnout of 977 had also braved the conditions for the encounter, demonstrating that there are solid foundations to build upon ahead of the launch of Japan’s first professional women’s football league in September.

JEF manager Shinji Sarusawa was pleased enough with his team’s showing as well, feeling it boded well for the side that finished mid-table in the Nadeshiko League top flight last year as they ramp up their preparations for the start of the WE League.

“Last year Urawa was the toughest team we faced,” he said. “We conceded two goals, but I think we can take a lot of confidence from the game. In pre-season matches some things don’t go as expected, but I think the fact we were able to battle so well here is very big for Chiba Ladies.”

Indeed, while there is still something of a gap between the three leading sides and the rest in the top flight of the women’s game in Japan – although 16 of the 22-woman squad (including back-ups) for Tokyo 2020 play domestically, all but one of them – back-up goalkeeper Chika Hirao of Albirex Niigata Ladies – are at Urawa, INAC Kobe Leonessa, or NTV Tokyo Verdy Beleza – the pre-season matches so far have on the whole been closely contested encounters, with only a handful producing landslide victories.

The fact that teams are at such different stages of development is a key hurdle for the women’s game to overcome globally – internationally as well as domestically, as we have seen with Nadeshiko Japan’s easy friendly wins this year – but if federations and leagues continue to tackle the key issues in front of them then the playing field should level out in time.

With professional leagues in Europe steadily finding their feet and increasingly attracting players from around the world, for instance, introducing a similar competition in Japan was vital for the game here to keep pace. Clubs being required to have at least five players on fully professional A contracts and 10 on professional B or C contracts (with a minimum salary of 2.7 million yen), as well as needing to have short-term plans in place to introduce U-18, U-15, and U-12 teams in the coming years are solid policies that should lead to long-term improvement.

“It will be the first professional league [in Japan], and so we have to make sure as many people as possible see the games,” Urawa’s first goalscorer Endo said of her feelings looking ahead to the WE League’s launch. “That was the case in the Nadeshiko League as well, but I feel there will be a greater sense of responsibility on games now, and think the team not only has to win but has to place an importance on doing so in a way that will make people want to come and watch.”

As well as that helping to build a committed fanbase for the WE League, the division may also benefit as a result of the Olympics having been pushed back a year. 

When addressing the fans in a post-match speech, Urawa’s Sugasawa declared she was in the national team as a result of her performances for and as a representative of Reds, for example, and hopefully things will work in the opposite direction too, with the efforts of the players at the Olympics providing a springboard to raise enthusiasm for the burgeoning new division.

The World Cup win in 2011, for instance, sparked a short-term boom in interest in the women’s game, and if Nadeshiko Japan can achieve some level of success again at Tokyo 2020 then it will surely carry over into the following month and provide a major kickstart for the WE League.


Adios Ange

Ange Postecoglou’s drawn out departure from Yokohama F.Marinos to Celtic provided a rare instance of a J.League manager being poached by a bigger club, and the reactions to it from overseas made for interesting viewing… (日本語版)


In football, managers are always changing clubs. A coach is fired or quits somewhere in the world every week, with the J.League’s three divisions already seeing 13 casualties in the 2021 season.

On the whole, these departures are met with one of two responses by supporters: relief, or even happiness, on the part of those who weren’t fans of the outgoing boss; or anger and sadness for those who wanted them to stick around.

Ange Postecoglou’s exit from Yokohama F.Marinos, however, was a little more complex.

Changes in the dugout in Japan are almost always made because results aren’t up to scratch, with clubs wielding the axe or the incumbents falling on their own swords as penance. In the case of Postecoglou and Marinos that wasn’t the issue though, and this was instead one of those few occasions when a manager in the J.League was actively enticed away by an offer from elsewhere, resulting in disappointment and/or resigned acceptance from Marinos supporters.

While reactions on social media are certainly not the best way to gauge the general mood – with debate, if it can even be called that, ultimately dominated by the loudest voices at both extremes, and balanced, nuanced comment nigh-on impossible – responses overseas to the rumours have also been interesting and cast a light on how the J.League is viewed further afield.

On one side of the fence there seem to be a lot of sceptical – to put it politely – Celtic fans unimpressed to have somebody they’ve “never heard of” who “only coaches in Japan” taking charge of their storied club. Writing someone off on these grounds is of course ridiculous – firstly because people you’ve heard of don’t always do well, and secondly because it doesn’t take much effort these days to do a bit of research and see that Postecoglou has been successful at club level in Australia and Japan and also when in charge of the Australian national team – but it does demonstrate the difference in expectation levels and pressure between football in Japan and the UK.

At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, the die-hard fans of ‘Ange-ball’ are delighted to see their man given this chance, and have been hitting back at those belittling him by insisting he is more than a match for one of Europe’s great old clubs. Again, a little more trepidation may be in order here, and while Postecoglou has ultimately picked up silverware everywhere he’s been, it has always come with the caveat of wanting his teams to play in a very particular way, which takes time to implement.

As the reaction of some Celtic fans shows, time is not something he is likely to be given a great deal of in Glasgow,. The club is coming off the back of a miserable season in which their bitter rivals Rangers won the Scottish Premier League at a canter to prevent them making it 10 consecutive titles, and while Postecoglou undoubtedly has the steel and tactical nous to bring the good times back to Celtic Park, if he isn’t given full backing by the club and the players and fans don’t buy into his approach quickly then things could turn sour before any progress is made.

Returning to Japan, meanwhile, the J.League can certainly can be pleased with the fact that its competition is now at the level to serve as a stepping stone for coaches as well as players. If Postecoglou does well at Celtic then the standing of the league will only improve, possibly increasing the chances of more up-and-coming international managers considering the league as a viable option to help build their reputations.

On the flip side, Marinos are of course left facing a dilemma. The club is not only losing a coach that has delivered success and re-established them as one of the J.League’s leading teams, but also one that has re-defined them by installing a distinctive, effective, and entertaining style of play. The involvement of City Football Group, which has an overarching philosophy it wants employed at all its clubs, suggests they will look to bring in a replacement with a similar ethos, but having to do so at short notice in the middle of the season will not be straightforward.

Will they look to swiftly recruit an already-Japan-based proponent of proactive football – Albert Puig of Albirex Niigata, Postecoglou’s former assistant Peter Cklamovski, who recently joined Montedio Yamagata, and ex-Kawasaki Frontale manager Yahiro Kazama being a few names that spring immediately to mind – or instead take their time and look to recruit someone we’ve never heard of from overseas using their vast scouting network?

Whichever it is, the loss of Postecoglou is a big blow to Marinos and the J.League as a whole, and, to borrow a phrase the man himself likes to apply to his work, it will be fascinating to see how he gets on with the next stage of his journey.


Reds gain great Dane

It is still early days, but with four goals in his first three J1 games for Urawa Reds Kasper Junker looks like he has everything needed to make a real name for himself in Saitama… (日本語版)

All eyes were on Saitama Stadium on Saturday with Vissel Kobe and, fresh from the announcement of his two-year contract extension, Andres Iniesta in town to face Urawa Reds.

The Spain legend completed 90 minutes in the league for the first time since Vissel’s 2-0 home defeat against Shonan Bellmare last November, and despite showing his age in some respects did offer flashes of his enduring brilliance on the ball as he and his side fell to another, slightly unfortunate, 2-0 loss.

The former Barcelona man may have offered up some sublime touches and passes on his return to Vissel’s starting line-up, but his wasn’t the European name on everyone lips come full time, with Urawa’s new signing Kasper Junker again claiming the spotlight.

The 27-year-old was a menace in the final third of the pitch from the first minute to the 90th – when he was substituted off to rapturous applause from the 4,917 fans in attendance – leading the home side’s charge by harrying from the front, instigating attacks with surging runs, and showcasing his intelligent movement by getting into some very dangerous positions. Oh, and, as we are already becoming accustomed to, by scoring.

His goal here, a controlled effort steered home with his left foot from close range after Daigo Nishi’s hopeful lump into the area somehow found it’s way to him unmarked at the back post, was the Dane’s fourth in his first three league games for Reds, already making him the team’s top scorer.

“He’s scoring goals to help the team and getting into the right positions at the right times,” Urawa manager Ricardo Rodriguez said after the game. “It’s not just that though, and his all round performances have been really good.

“New signings need time to adapt, but especially in the second half today we saw he is also doing what is expected of him in a defensive sense as well. It’s really important that he has been able fit in so well with the team, and I’m sure he will keep improving. His goals really help the team and I’m confident he’ll keep contributing in that way.”

For the best part of a decade Urawa’s scoring burden has rested on the shoulders – or, more precisely, in the boots – of Shinzo Koroki. One of the most natural finishers the J.League has ever seen, Koroki has racked up double figures in each of the last nine seasons (eight with Urawa and one with Kashima Antlers), but in the last three years the only one of his teammates to also get beyond 10 goals was Leonardo last year, when the Brazilian led Reds’ ranking with 11. Their second top scorer in 2019 was Kazuki Nagasawa with just three, while Yuki Muto followed Koroki with seven in 2018.

The early signs are that Junker will be more than capable of sharing the responsibility in front of goal though, as well as fulfilling the high-pressing role Rodriguez demands of his forwards.

“I think my strengths are my speed and my positioning inside the penalty area,” Junker said at his unveiling at the end of April. “My left foot shots also stand out, but I don’t just score goals and I think while finding the net myself I will also be able to provide assists for my teammates in order to contribute to the team.

“I think I am at the ideal age right now. As a striker I feel I’m approaching my peak, but I know I still have plenty of room for improvement and am confident I can keep raising the level of my performance as I take this step up. I want to play here for a long time. Football is life itself for me, and I want to keep going for a long time.”

He certainly demonstrated that enthusiasm against Vissel, eagerly closing down Thomas Vermaelen and Ryuho Kikuchi when the visitors’ centre-backs were in possession, urging his teammates forward in support of attacks, and also looking to create opportunities from deeper-lying positions.

Indeed, the chance from which he got his name on the scoresheet actually came about after one of these plays from midfield, and after receiving the ball 30 yards inside his own half he nutmegged Ayub Masika, opened his legs to eat up the space in front of him, and then chipped in behind for Yoshio Koizumi. This pass was ultimately too far ahead of his teammate, but Kobe made a mess of things once in possession and surrendered a soft corner, and after also failing to clear that properly the ball found itself being cushioned home by Junker’s left boot.

He won’t always be handed goals quite so easily, but the clinical way he dispatched the chance served another warning to the rest of J1 that Reds’ new No.7 is the real deal.


Fans United

The protests that saw Manchester United v. Liverpool postponed showed fans do still have a say in the way their clubs are run, they just might need to shout a little bit louder… (日本語版)

In the end, let’s admit it, there was probably more excitement on the Old Trafford pitch on 2 May than there would have been if the inevitable cagey draw between Manchester United and Liverpool had been played as scheduled.

In some ways, the scenes around and inside one of the most famous football venues on earth were also a better advert for the passion of domestic football in England than another tiresome stalemate between these old rivals – seven of whom’s last 11 meetings have ended all square.

Of course violent clashes between protestors and the police aren’t something we’re supposed to condone, but they only accounted for a tiny proportion of the activity in Manchester, and at a time of steady disenfranchisement when we are increasingly viewed less as individuals and more as customers this was a refreshing reminder of the culture and enthusiasm that helped English football to develop into the most popular in the world.

The protests by United fans were ostensibly in reaction to the club’s announcement at the end of April that it was one of the 12 members of the (quickly-folded) European Super League, although as one of the participants in the protests explained in The Guardian the seeds had been sown long before that when the most successful side in the Premier League era fell into the hands of its current owners (one of whom, United co-chairman Joel Glazer, was named as a vice-chairman of the Super League).

“This is all to do with the Glazers,” Jamie of the United We Stand fanzine wrote with regards to the leveraged buyout through which the American family acquired control of the club 16 years ago. “It has been a long time in the making, because we protested in 2005 [when they bought the club], and again in 2010. I can understand people saying: “It’s just because you’re not winning things any more.” But that’s not the point – this is about a football club and a community that surrounds it.

“Will there be more protests? Yes. Maybe not on that scale again because this was United-Liverpool, a worldwide audience, on a bank holiday Sunday, but there will be more.”

And the world really was watching, with the actions of the protestors as they caused the first match postponement on account of fan behaviour in the Premier League era being beamed around the globe. “We decide when you can play” was one of the chants favoured by the supporters as they gathered outside Old Trafford and the Lowry Hotel at which the United players were staying in advance of the game, hinting at another long-running gripe the Super League fiasco had brought to a head.

Match-going fans, whose fervour and cash had initially enabled the English game to elevate itself, have found themselves gradually sidelined as the Premier League behemoth has grown into a global business endeavor, with kick-off times increasingly arranged to suit broadcast partners rather than those attending in person.

The coronavirus has added insult to injury in this sense, with the empty rhetoric of the ‘Football is Nothing Without Fans’ tarpaulins draped over deserted terraces being proven glaringly untrue as the Premier League beast has rolled relentlessly on without them for over a year now.

It is likely that the timing of the Super League announcement was not coincidental either, with those involved perhaps hoping they could force it through without fans being at grounds to voice their opposition. It is fair to say they grossly underestimated the depth of feeling and sense of attachment supporters have with their clubs.

Owners, managers, and players come and go, but fans are the one constant. Those connections are passed on from generation to generation, and the protests that prevented United-Liverpool being played were a defiant roar against the ongoing commodification and sterilisation seeking to take top level football further away from its origins – of which the Super League would have been the latest escalation, featuring the same uber-rich teams playing each other repeatedly in games contested for huge profit but with no risk.

“Of course we’d love to have watched a Manchester United-Liverpool game but ultimately this is much bigger than that,” Jamie added of the protest. “If we get a points deduction we would not care.

“I do get that some people say a line was crossed because it was illegal [entering Old Trafford] but there’s only so much passive resistance can do. You can tweet “#Glazersout” but what good does it do?”

The Old Trafford protests served as a timely reminder that supporters aren’t just consumers who should just blindly cheerlead, but are instead one of the foundations upon which clubs are built.

Fans have voices and shouldn’t be afraid to use them. When they shout loud enough, they are heard.


Best foot forward

Yokohama F.Marinos have been uncharacteristically solid defensively of late, although, characteristically, that state of affairs is being enabled by an all-action front four… (日本語版)

Yokohama F.Marinos under Ange Postecoglou have always been an attack-minded side, and as the Australian himself often likes to say when they’re good they’re very good but when they’re not, well, they can be pretty bad – especially in defence.

Last week’s 5-0 demolition of Yokohama FC again showcased the best Marinos have to offer going forwards, as they rode out a tricky opening 15 minutes or so before going on to swat aside their local rivals with a dominant display that could ultimately have been won by an even bigger margin.

This game wasn’t only notable for the goals going it at one end of the pitch, however, and it also served to further highlight a newfound stringency Marinos have discovered at the back. In the entirety of the 2020 season Marinos only managed to keep six clean sheets in J1, but the shutout in the derby was their fifth of this year already – all of which have come in the last eight games, a run during which they have conceded just three goals.

“I think one ties into the other,” Postecoglou said when asked about the non-stop running of his forwards and the team’s current solidity in defence. “I think the reason we’ve been better defensively is that our front players work really hard – they’re our first line of defence.

“We work on it all the time, but it’s got to be in the players too. It’s the reason we brought these players in. If you want to play as a striker in our team you’ll get an opportunity to score a lot of goals, but you have to work hard in a defensive sense.

“I think today that was the real key for us, because we knew Yokohama [FC] weren’t going to be too expansive in terms of being too open, so our best moments might come when they lose the ball in [their] half. We wanted to try and win it back and put them under pressure again.”

When you have the likes of Daizen Maeda, Marcos Junior, Elber, and Ado Onaiwu at your disposal you certainly aren’t going to be wanting for willing runners in that sense, and once Yokohama FC’s early enthusiasm had fizzled out that quartet were a constant menace – hounding, harrying, and hassling from the front to ensure the visitors had no time at all to get comfortable in possession.

Maeda epitomised Marinos’ work-rate out of possession, and the speed with which the 23-year-old moves across the turf really is remarkable. Lining up on the left of what was essentially a front four the former Matsumoto Yamaga man was a bundle of pace, aggression, and energy from the very first whistle, and while his finishing let him down on occasion his enthusiasm never waned.

The majority of J.League teams tend to allow the opposition keeper time on the ball when it finds its way back to him, for instance, but Maeda, Onaiwu, and Elber didn’t give Yuji Rokutan a moment to relax in possession, forcing him to play out with urgency and, in turn, more often than not resulting in the ball being turned back over to the hosts.

The attackers weren’t afraid to work backwards either, with Tatsuki Seko and co. not only finding themselves closed down by the Marinos’ midfielders or defenders in front of them but also having to fend off challenges being made by one or more of the host’s returning forwards – or, quite often, both at the same time.

On one such occasion in the 52nd minute Maeda pressed back to dispossess Seko but then over-hit his pass for Elber, but neither that nor another missed opportunity to get on the scoresheet 10 minutes later caused his head to drop, and he was to get his just rewards in the 71st minute.

Despite Jun Amano misplacing his pass infield, Maeda was too flight of foot for the sluggish Maguinho and got his toe to the ball first, and after possession was recycled quickly forwards he was on hand to tuck home Marinos’ fourth from close range after Takahiro Ogihara’s ball across goal a mere 13 seconds later.

Finally finding the net didn’t cause him to let up either, and five minutes later he was tearing in behind again to latch onto a Kota Mizunuma ball over the top, although he couldn’t quite get the ball under control in what turned out to be his final contribution of the afternoon before making way for debutant Leo Ceara – who himself went on to score less than a minute after taking to the field.

“We still have a very heavy programme, so we need those players,” Postecoglou said of the wealth of options he has to choose from in attack.

“Our front players are very important to us as, as has already been mentioned, they have to work very hard, so it’d be very difficult for them to play every game. We’ve got Leo in now, which is great, so we’ve got some more depth in that front third, and hopefully [Teruhito] Nakagawa’s not too far away, a couple more weeks – we’ll need him as well.

“I think it’s not so much that there’s competition [between players], it just means that we’re able to maintain a good level every game. Because that’s what we were missing last year – we were very inconsistent. When we played well we were good, but when we played not so well we were very poor. We’ve tried to adjust that this year, and it’s good that all the strikers are scoring goals. Ado and Daizen were great today and I thought Elber was fantastic. Marcos Junior is getting to full fitness, he’s not quite there, so it’s good for us.”

Good for them it may be, but there can’t be many defences looking forward to coming up against Marinos’ front line right now, whichever players it’s comprised of.


Tosu turning it on

For several years Sagan Tosu have been seen as J1’s ‘safety first’ team, but things are changing down in Kyushu and Kim Myung-hwi’s side are currently one of the most entertaining to watch in the first division… (日本語版)

A couple of weeks ago Sagan Tosu were receiving plenty of attention for their sensational defensive form, which had seen them avoid conceding in any of their first six league games.

While they were unable to make the record they share with the 1996 vintage of Yokohama Flugels their own after a 1-0 loss to Cerezo Osaka on 2 April however, sight shouldn’t be lost of the incredibly good job Kim Myung-hwi is doing down in Kyushu.

Tosu’s solidity at the back has of course been impressive, but the manner in which they are approaching games has also been just as worthy of note, with the team eschewing it’s traditional safety-first approach and playing far more proactively – bossing possession irrespective of the opponent.

Let us take the defeat against Cerezo, for instance. Despite being away from home, according to the Football LAB website Tosu had 58 percent of the ball – including an astonishing 61 percent in the final 15 minutes despite being a man down after Hwang Seok-ho’s 77th-minute sending off – made 566 passes to Cerezo’s 373, and entered Cerezo’s penalty area 15 times (Cerezo made it into Tosu’s just four).

The players weren’t satisfied with having put up such an impressive showing though, insisting that they should have taken more from the game.

“It’s not the case that you will win games just by having the ball, you have to score goals,” Daichi Hayashi said. “Today we had more of the ball but if we had one player capable of making the most of a chance like Cerezo took theirs then we would have won the game.”

Breakout star Shinya Nakano was similarly disappointed with the final score, which followed a 0-0 in their previous league game at home to Avispa Fukuoka.

“Today the opponent dropped back and we just moved the ball around at the back,” the 17-year-old said. “We have to aim forward more, put in more crosses, take more shots. If we don’t increase the frequency of those things then we won’t score goals.”

Such comments could of course be construed as mere platitudes – almost every team in the world insists they are trying to win every game, even when the evidence clearly suggests otherwise – but Tosu’s commitment to their new positive approach was firmly driven home in their next game away to all-conquering Kawasaki Frontale.

Of late, when you play Frontale you know you are going to spend the bulk of the game on the back foot, forced to cede possession and hope you’ll get the chance to capitalise upon an error or break quickly at some point. Tosu, however, refused to follow that script.

The Football LAB stats for the first half had Tosu with more of the ball (52.3 percent), while the DAZN figures for the live broadcast showed that the visitors took six shots to Kawasaki’s five (three on target versus two), as well as making marginally more passes than Frontale (291 to 284) in the first 45 minutes.

Indeed, the individual player breakdown illustrated just how intent Tosu had been to take the game to the reigning champions and runaway league leaders, with central midfielders Daiki Matsuoka (31 passes) and Toshio Shimokawa (26) making more passes than their opposite numbers Yasuto Wakizaka (25) and Ao Tanaka (21).

There can’t be many teams who have left Frontale in the shade in that manner in recent years, and it was a theme Tosu built upon emphatically at the start of the second period when they racked up an incredible 62.7 percent of possession in the first 15 minutes of play.

Unfortunately for them they had a centre-back sent off for the second game in a row at the end of this fruitful spell, and after Masaya Tashiro was given his marching orders in the 57th minute Kawasaki were able to wrest control of proceedings from Tosu’s grasp, and got the only goal of the game through substitute Daiya Tono eight minutes later.

Tosu were the only team to avoid defeat in the league by Kawasaki last season – taking a point from both games – although the corresponding fixture on the opening day of the 2020 campaign saw them rack up just 41 percent of possession while being out-shot 24 to five and out-passed 658 to 314 on the way to a fortuitous 0-0 draw.

There were certainly signs of a shift to a slightly more adventurous style in the 1-1 towards the end of last year’s long and draining campaign, but few expected at that point that Tosu would continue to pursue such a cavalier approach. Matsuoka’s comments after the recent loss to Frontale suggests it is a process they won’t be ditching any time soon though.

“In training the coaching staff and players have all been paying real attention to and vocalising the need to be looking forward proactively (on the pitch),” he said of his team’s enterprising display at Todoroki. “For me personally, I feel that if I’m not able to make those kinds of passes then I can’t become a central midfielder that opponents fear.”

Yokohama FC certainly didn’t enjoy their afternoon against Matsuoka and co. in Tosu’s next game – with the 19-year-old amongst the assists as they found their scoring boots again in a 3-0 cruise on 11 April – and if they keep up this level of performance then Tosu will undoubtedly be one of the teams to watch as the season progresses.


The Future is Now

This week sees the full and Olympic Japan national teams back in action, with the Samurai Blue at risk of being overshadowed by their younger counterparts… (日本語版)

The full national team and its Olympic counterpart (currently re-badged as the U-24s after Tokyo 2020 was delayed by 12 months) are usually considered as two separate entities, but the quirk of the scheduling for both teams’ upcoming matches has seen them sharing the limelight somewhat in recent days.

Indeed, JFA Technical Director Yasuharu Sorimachi was even having to field questions about the U-24 team on the day the full national squad was confirmed, and while he reasoned that the two announcements had been arranged for separate days in order to ensure the Olympic selection didn’t miss out on media coverage, he really needn’t have worried.

If anything, it could be argued that the JFA staggered the squad announcements because they didn’t want the full national team missing out on column inches at the expense of the up-and-comers, with the appetite for news on the younger squad equal to, if not greater than, that for updates on the Samurai Blue at the moment.

While that state of affairs is of course largely down to the fact that Japan are set to participate as hosts of one of the most discussed Olympics of recent times in the summer, there is undoubtedly more to it than that. As well as there being plenty of crossover in the coverage of and conversation about the full and U-24 teams, for example, there is also a lot of convergence when you look at the respective players in each side.

A full 14 players in the original U-24 squad already have experience for the Samurai Blue, for instance, (a lot of which, admittedly, did come at the East Asian Cup or Copa America, when Japan took their Olympic squad), while seven of the players initially called up to take on Argentina in back-to-back contests are already playing overseas. On the other hand, the full national team called up eight debutants for the upcoming friendly against South Korea and World Cup qualifier against Mongolia, meaning in some ways they look the comparatively less experienced group of players.

Add to this the fact that the name on everyone’s lips at the moment, Kaoru Mitoma, was included in the U-24 squad and not given an eagerly-anticipated first call-up to the Samurai Blue, and that Takefusa Kubo and Ritsu Doan likewise found themselves in the younger selection and it is clear to see why there is so much intrigue swirling around the U-24s right now.

And on the whole, that is a hugely positive thing for Japanese football. While the players themselves will all understandably be desperate to make it into the squad for the once in a lifetime experience of playing at a home Olympics, their focus should really be longer term than that, and they should instead be targeting a place in the full national team for the next World Cup and beyond.

A look at the potential starting 11s for each team in this week’s friendlies highlights a few areas where there may be opportunities to challenge on that front, starting, clearly, with the three supporting forward roles.

Ordinarily you’d have to assume that Kubo, Doan (who ultimately had to withdraw from the squad), and, if he maintains his current trajectory, Mitoma, are prime candidates to feature for Hajime Moriyasu as he looks to make sure of a place in Qatar next November, and there wouldn’t be many defences in the world looking forward to having to deal with that trio scheming and creating in the final third.

At the other end of the pitch, too, Keisuke Osako is developing into an authentic option between the posts for his country. The 21-year-old is not only a terrific shot-stopper but he carries real presence and commands his area as well, and most of Japan’s current goalkeepers the wrong side of 30 there is an opportunity for him to get involved with the full set-up sooner rather than later.

Then there are the likes of Yukinari Sugawara, Ko Itakura, and Yuta Nakayama, who are all settled abroad and should be pushing the established players in the first team, as well as youngsters like Ayumu Seko, Reo Hatate, and Ao Tanaka, who are currently excelling in the J.League and looking more than ready to up their game on bigger and better stages.  

“They have great technique and a lot of creative players, but they’re also not afraid to put in the dirty work and battle aggressively to make sure they win the 50/50 battles,” coach Akinobu Yokouchi said of Argentina when announcing his squad. “This game will be a great opportunity to see just how well we can cope when challenging for possession against such an opponent.”

Previous generations of young Japanese players may have been a little unaccustomed to such darker arts of the game, but with so many of this crop already used to competing against and alongside such players every week for their clubs they are made of sterner stuff and such matters shouldn’t be such an issue for them.

The fact that the U-24 squad boasts so much talent and commands such high expectations is a testament to how effectively and prolifically Japan is continuing to produce players capable of playing at the highest level, and if they can continue to develop at the same rate then, Olympics success or not, that bodes incredibly well for the next stage in the evolution of the full national team.


Shi-on the edge

Shion Homma is one of J2’s most highly-rated talents, and while his tackling sometimes leaves a bit to be desired he shouldn’t be asked to eliminate the spikiness from his game… (日本語版)

As Takumi Nagura wriggled free in midfield and looked set to spark a dangerous attack, you could just see what Shion Homma was about to do.

Having made up four of the five yards between himself and the V-Varen Nagasaki forward, Homma realised he wasn’t going to close the rest of out in time to get to the ball before Nagura released it and so opted instead to launch unceremoniously into the back of him. It was more cynical than malicious, but after allowing play to continue referee Futoshi Nakamura unsurprisingly called Homma over and issued a yellow card.

The Albirex Niigata number 10 looked a little relieved that was the extent of his punishment, but it would ultimately only prove to be a stay of execution and after failing to heed the warning he was handed his marching orders 12 minutes into the second half after another rash challenge.

This was also one you could see coming before the event, and after enthusiastically bounding back to slide in and stop Seiya Maikuma from breaking down the right flank and then getting his head to Maikuma’s attempted pass down the wing Homma’s exuberance got the better of him as he flew foolishly into Round 3 with Maikuma with a high boot and his studs showing.

Truth be told, this challenge was probably worthy of a straight red card on its own, although Albirex manager Albert Puig, in close attendance on the touchline and no more than 10 yards away from the incident, wasn’t in agreement and gestured furiously at Nakamura after seeing his team reduced to 10 men.

“Football is a spectacle,” Puig said in his press conference after the game. “Supporters pay money to come and get their fill of football, and I think therefore we have to protect technically gifted players like Shion. With that in mind, I think there is certainly room for discussion about his second yellow card today.”

It’s not especially surprising that Puig would publicly leap to the defence of his boy wonder, but privately he will surely have accepted that a sending off was the correct decision. Despite his tender years this is already the second time Homma has been sent off in J2, and he was also forced to take an early bath against Renofa Yamaguchi last season after receiving a second yellow card for a similarly reckless lunge into Hikaru Manabe when he had very little chance of winning the ball.

Bearing that in mind, Puig may even have taken Homma aside and had a quiet word in his ear about looking to curb that side of his game a little – although personally I hope not.

At 164cm and 59 kilograms Homma is far from an imposing specimen, but the fact that the 20 year old doesn’t shy away from the physical side of the game is part of what sets him apart from so many of his peers. What he can do with a ball is of course the main reason he is developing into one of the most sought after players in the J.League, but that extra edge to his play when not in possession is what could see him develop into a truly top class talent.

His Albirex teammates will of course hope his rushes of blood to the head don’t leave them a man short too often, but his red card against Varen may actually be looked back on as a blessing in disguise as the season progresses. A man down against the team that only just missed out on promotion last year Albirex were forced to show real resilience for the final half an hour, and the fact they were able to see out their 1-0 win in those circumstances should only add to the team’s belief as they aim to return to the top flight.

“I just said to the players that the reason they were able to defend even with a player less was because this team is firmly united,” Puig said. “I think if we had continued to play 11 v. 11 in the second half then those watching would have been able to enjoy our play even more. In that sense, the sending off was a real shame.”

Of that there can of course be little argument, and for Albirex fans and neutrals alike games will always be more enjoyable with players of Homma’s quality on the pitch. We shouldn’t forget that possession of a certain edge is often what enables them to perform at such high levels though, and Homma shouldn’t be asked to blunt his if we want him to reach his full potential.

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Back Catalogue

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July 2021