Lack of control costs England and Japan

England and Japan both performed beyond expectations at the World Cup, but a lack of composure at key times ultimately prevented them from leaving even bigger marks on the competition… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Sunday 15th July, 2018

Both Japan and England exited the World Cup after some late heartbreak, and aside from that there were plenty of other similarities in the two teams’ showings over the past few weeks in Russia.

The Samurai Blue and the Three Lions both exceeded expectations in progressing to the Round of 16 and semi-finals, respectively, both played some stirring football at times, and both gave their fans back home plenty to celebrate as they ventured into the latter stages of the competition.

However, it was ultimately an inability to manage the flow of the game and cope when put under concerted spells of pressure that did for each side, meaning both left the tournament with plenty of regrets over what might have been.

On Wednesday, England started sensationally against a slightly nervous-looking Croatia in Moscow, going 1-0 up in just the fifth minute after a wonderful Kieran Trippier free kick before threatening on several other occasions. Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard were guilty of missing the best chances though, offering encouragement to Croatia by enabling them to go in with just the one-goal deficit at half time.

Zlatko Dalic’s side gratefully seized upon that encouragement after the break, wrestling control of proceedings from the second half on and slipping steadily into the slick, hypnotic football that can be so pleasing on the eye and so difficult to halt.

Croatia had played 120 minutes plus penalties in both the Round of 16 and quarter-finals but it was England who looked to be running out of steam as the game wore on, with Gareth Southgate’s men struggling to keep hold of the ball or fashion anything approaching a goal-scoring chance going forwards.

While Croatia rode out their tricky spell on the ropes in the first half by sticking to their possession-based approach and trusting in their ability to look after the ball and create space, England lost their composure and reverted to type, frantically hacking balls up into the Croatia half and hoping that Kane – so expertly marshaled by Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida – could somehow get them out of jail.

That always looked like a tall order, however, and the lack of a player in midfield to get on the ball and make something happen meant the Three Lions had no real alternative to their heavy reliance on set pieces.

“The all-round perception was that this is a new-look England who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield, but when we pressed them it turned out they haven’t,” Croatia defender Sime Vrsaljko said.

That was a fair summary of England’s shortcomings on the night, with Trippier’s opener the ninth of their 12 goals in Russia to come from a dead-ball situation – with another of their three from open play Dele Alli’s header from a deep cross to make it 2-0 in the quarter-final against Sweden.

Football Channel, 14th July, 2018

There was certainly more subtlety to some of the team’s play on their route to the semi-finals than those statistics suggest, but in the end there was a nagging feeling that they just lacked the quality and composure in possession of their opponents at the Luzhniki Stadium, and you half expected to see Emile Heskey or Peter Crouch being thrown on at the death as the team grew increasingly desperate and direct.

Ultimately Trippier’s goal was the only effort England managed to land on target over the 120 minutes of the semi-final (compared with Croatia’s seven), and the hurried nature of the team’s late play only served to gift the ball back to Luka Modric and co., who were more than happy to look after it and carve through an increasingly flustered defence. Mario Mandzukic’s winner shattered the dreams of millions of England fans but it had been coming and was richly deserved.

While losing in the semi-final is often perceived as the most painful way to be eliminated from a competition, Japan’s demise was perhaps even harder to take, coming with the last meaningful kick of one of the games of the tournament against Belgium, and just moments after Keisuke Honda had almost decided things in the Samurai Blue’s favour with a wicked free kick.

Like England Japan had also been ahead, establishing a scarcely-believable 2-0 lead inside seven incredible minutes at the start of the second half courtesy of Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui’s strikes, but like England Akira Nishino’s men failed to maintain control of proceedings once in the ascendancy, offering their opponents a route back into the game and unable to stem the flow of the tide once it had turned against them.

It is these narrow margins that separate teams at the very highest level, and the two sides who will battle it out to be crowned world champions on Sunday have shown time and again throughout this competition that they understand and are able to contend with the ebb and flow of the game.

Croatia have conceded first in all three of their knockout ties in Russia but had the wherewithal to emerge victorious from each, while France have remained equally as unflustered as they weathered a brief Argentina storm to come back from 2-1 down in the Round of 16 before ruthlessly disposing of Uruguay and Belgium with clinical and efficient showings in each subsequent round.

Whichever lifts the famous trophy in Moscow will be a deserved champion of an exceptional tournament, and the likes of Japan and England would do well to learn from them over the coming years.


Confidence the key for Samurai Blue

Japan were ultimately a little fortunate to make it into the Round of 16 at the World Cup, but now they’re there they need to play with confidence… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Monday 2nd July, 2018

If the World Cup has shown us anything, it is once again that in football everything can change in an instant.

When the Samurai Blue made a muted departure from Japan after the 2-0 defeat to Ghana on 30 May, expectations on the team were far from high. The squad looked stale, the mood around the team was negative, and the usual fervour amongst fans – both core and casual – was notable by its absence.

An incredible start to the game against Colombia saw everything turn on its head, however, as Japan were handed a golden opportunity to snatch a hugely unexpected three points. Akira Nishino’s side made it harder than they needed but managed to do just that, and that momentum carried them through the Senegal game as well, as they twice came from a goal behind to secure a point and leave their fate in their own hands.

Ninety minutes on and the mood has swung again though, with Nishino’s personnel and tactical choices against Poland creating much debate, and the manner in which they ultimately dragged themselves over the line drawing criticism both domestically and overseas.

The coach himself admitted to feeling uneasy about ordering his players to essentially stop playing for the final 10 minutes in Volgograd despite being 1-0 down, but countered that he only did what he felt was necessary

It was a very tough decision, of course,” he was quoted as saying by The Guardian. “We conceded a goal, but with the time passing the other match moved. When I put on [Makoto] Hasebe I told him what was in my mind: ‘Do not go for any high risks.’ I told him not to concede any yellow cards, go 4-1-4-1, defensive, and then I told him to tell the team to ‘stay put’. We could not concede another goal.

“I’m not too happy about this but I forced my players to do what I said. We did not go for victory, but we just relied on the other match. I view that it was slightly regrettable but I suppose at that point I didn’t have any other plans. The World Cup is such that these things happen. And we went through. Therefore it was perhaps the right decision.”

And as unsavoury – not to mention nerve-wracking – a way as it was to progress to the Round of 16, he was right; in hindsight it was the correct decision. Just.

Football Channel, 2nd July 2018

The 63-year-old had no option but to gamble after his player rotation and shift to a 4-4-2 formation hadn’t worked out, but in a matter of days everything will blow over and this episode will be consigned to the history books, especially if Japan can put in a positive showing against Belgium on Monday.

The Red Devils were one of only three sides to pick up maximum points in the group stage – along with Uruguay and Croatia – and in Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku they have a trio of the best attacking players in the world. Roberto Martinez also had the luxury of being able to rest the bulk of his first choice eleven in their final group game against England, and so they will come into the clash well rested as well as confident.

Japan are yet to keep a clean sheet in Russia and, realistically, it looks unlikely that they will be able to do so against the tournament’s top scorers. Therefore, what better way to erase the memory of that uncomfortable ending in Volgograd than by coming out all guns blazing and taking the game to Belgium?

The team have looked at their best thus far when playing proactively, and in the second half against Colombia and for spells in the second period against Senegal the likes of Gaku Shibasaki, Takashi Inui, and Yuya Osako caused plenty of problems in the final third. Further to that, Keisuke Honda has demonstrated that he has no objections to being used as an impact sub – characteristically full of confidence that he can make a difference and backing it up with a vital goal and assist.

The likes of Iceland, Switzerland, and South Korea served up shock results in the group stages against Argentina, Brazil, and Germany, and Japan should be using those performances as motivation heading into this clash.

The odds are undoubtedly stacked against them, and if they were to win in Rostov-on-Don it would constitute one of the upsets of the tournament. They shouldn’t surrender to the inevitable though, but instead make Belgium win the game. Be confident on the ball, commit men forwards, take risks.

And if that’s still not enough then at least they will exit the competition in style. The performance is almost more important than the result, and if Japan can deliver on that front then the mood will be positive again, win or lose.


Time for Samurai Blue to Make Their Own Luck at World Cup 2018

A look back at Japan’s group stage exploits in Russia, ahead of Monday’s Round of 16 clash against Belgium.

Japan Forward, Sunday 1st July, 2018

Lady Luck has been shining on the Samurai Blue so far, but now it’s time for them to make their own luck…


Do or die for the daihyo

Japan finally picked up a win in their last warm-up game ahead of the World Cup, but with Colombia up next improvements are still required all over the pitch… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Saturday 16th May, 2018

In England there is a saying that a team is ‘already on the beach’. It is used towards the end of the season when a side has nothing to play for and knows it can’t win any trophies or be relegated, and implies that while the players are on the pitch in body their minds are already elsewhere, focused on the surf and the sand and topping up their tans.

In the second half in Innsbruck last Tuesday Paraguay were very much ‘on the beach’, as Gustavo Morinigo’s men sleepwalked through the second 45 minutes of their friendly against Japan and allowed the Samurai Blue to pick up a much-needed, morale-boosting 4-2 win in their final warm-up ahead of the World Cup.

However, English football also has the maxim that, ‘you can only beat what’s put in front of you’, and the fact that Japan were able – just about – to overcome their disinterested opponents was just what the doctor ordered after a miserable few months.

The dark clouds hanging over Akira Nishino’s squad haven’t been blown away completely by a victory assisted by some questionable goalkeeping and an own goal, but a win is a win and the players have at least remembered what it feels like to bask in the glow of victory ahead of today’s vital opener against Colombia.

At the same time, the side should certainly not be getting too carried away, and the fact remains that they still face an uphill struggle to make any kind of impact in Russia.

The first 45 minutes against Paraguay were as uninspiring as the earlier losses to Switzerland and Ghana, with the team devoid of any real spark in attack and continuing to look susceptible defensively. There were far too many unforced errors, with possession surrendered cheaply and accuracy once again lacking with final balls and shots, and while things improved in the second period that was as much down to Paraguay switching off as it was to Japan clicking up a gear or two.

After the miserable 2-0 defeat to Ghana on 30 May Makoto Hasebe was attempting to remain positive, pointing out that the team knew which areas they had to improve in.

“I think it’s big that the two goals we conceded came about as a result of our mistakes, not being broken down,” the captain said.

Football Channel, Tuesday 19th June, 2018

“We need to correct those kind of errors, but we weren’t really opened up by the opponent. We still have a lot to work on, plenty of issues are cropping up, but we are in the middle of the process so I don’t feel things are especially bad.”

The concern, however, is the very fact that the team was still in the middle of the process on the eve of the competition. Three years of work under Vahid Halilhodzic were thrown out the window at the eleventh hour, and although the starting eleven doesn’t look like it will be hugely different to that from Brazil four years ago, the ongoing lack of cohesion in the side is a big worry.

“Everyone is talking about ‘veterans, veterans’, but personally I still think of myself as young and feel like I’m in the best condition of my career, including mentally,” Yuto Nagatomo said at the team’s pre-tournament training camp in Chiba, three weeks before attempting to prove his youthfulness with a hugely questionable new hairstyle.

“I don’t feel the years at all, but there are still many things that us players with plenty of experience can pass on to the younger players. That isn’t just in terms of speaking with them, but also demonstrating things on the pitch. In that respect I want to become a player who leads by example.”

That is certainly vital in the cauldron of the World Cup, but a cursory glance at Japan’s 23 raises the question as to which youngsters exactly the wise old heads will be guiding in Russia. Just two of the squad are aged 24 or under, and they are third choice goalkeeper Kosuke Nakamura and fourth choice centre back Naomichi Ueda.

Who will inject some life into the team’s attacks? Where is the fearless tyro willing to try something different in a tight spot? Where are the young legs to charge around and see out a win or chase down lost causes? The Keisuke Honda against Cameroon in 2010? The Yosuke Ideguchi against Australia in 2017?

Ultimately, those are the things that settle games at the World Cup, and while the win over Paraguay will have offered the team a little encouragement they are going to need to perform at a significantly higher level at the competition proper. The question is: does this group of players have it in them?


Samurai Blue hoping to exceed expectations at World Cup

Japan get their sixth consecutive World Cup campaign underway on Tuesday, when they take on Colombia in Saransk.

Japan Forward, Sunday 17th June, 2018

I took a look at the side’s preparations for the tournament for Japan Forward, considering how large the spectre of Vahid Halilhodzic will loom over the Samurai Blue’s campaign.


Petrovic impressing in Sapporo

Consadole Sapporo have been one of the surprise packages in J1 so far this season, with Mihailo Petrovic showing once again that he knows exactly how to get a team working as a unit… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Wednesday 23rd May, 2018 11th May, 2018

Sanfrecce Hiroshima are clearly the surprise package of the J1 season as we head into the World Cup break, and the turnaround Hiroshi Jokuku has brought about in last season’s 15th-placed side to leave them nine points clear at the top of the table has been remarkable.

He is not the only experienced manager to have made an instant impression at his new club, with Kenta Hasegawa also slipping straight into his groove at FC Tokyo and ensuring they are the side closest to the Purple Archers after 15 games.

The work of Mihailo Petrovic at Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo is equally impressive though, and the 60-year-old has not wasted any time instilling his possession-based football in a team that was sitting 15th on just 12 points after 15 games of the 2017 season.

Shuhei Yomoda ultimately steered the club comfortably to their joint-best finish of 11th last term, and he seemed a little harshly treated when Consadole decided to replace him with Petrovic ahead of the 2018 campaign.

With Yomoda kept on as head coach alongside Petrovic, however, the team have gone from strength to strength this year, and despite a 4-0 humbling away to Kobe last weekend – their first defeat in 12 games, and one suffered with nine men after the sendings-off to Kim Min-tae and Hiroki Miyazawa – they sit fifth in the standings, level on 26 points with Cerezo Osaka and just one behind reigning champions and third-placed Kawasaki Frontale.

The players know there’s still a long way to go though, and talismanic striker Jay Bothroyd made it clear after the 0-0 draw away to Tokyo on 13 May that the team have no intention of resting on their laurels.

“I think there’s still another level we can play at,” the Englishman said after making his return from a two-month injury lay-off.

“I don’t like to get too carried away, it’s only 13 or 14 games so there’s another 20 games left and this is not the business part of the season – the back end is, the middle is – and that’s when we need to be in this kind of form.”

The 36-year-old was quick to acknowledge the impact Petrovic has had in building on last year’s success, but was keen to stress that the team’s improvement actually started at the end of the previous season.

“Of course he’s brought in a different mentality – we’ve got a different strategy, a different style of play. But I know at the back end of (2017), the last 13 games we won 10, drew one, lost two [actually won seven, drew three, lost three].

Football Channel, 24th May 2018

“We know we’re a good team, but this year Misha’s got us playing out from the back, attacking football, and I think it’s improved players individually. Last year we were more direct whereas this year we’re building up well, making chances, doing link-up play.”

A key reason that modified approach is working so well is the continued improvement of Chanathip Songkrasin, with the 24-year-old going from strength to strength after arriving in Sapporo at the same time as Bothroyd last summer.

“Last year we played on the counter from defence, whereas this year we don’t only play defensively but also in an attacking style by building passes,” the Thailand star said after the Tokyo game. “You could possibly say there’s more of an attacking ‘switch’.

“In the first year maybe my teammates didn’t expect quite so much of me, but this year there’s increased trust and I get more of the ball, and I think I’ve been able to do reasonably well in terms of making chances.”

As well as that the diminutive playmaker has also found the net three times, although he insists that’s an area he wants to improve further upon.

“I think my weak point is still scoring goals,” Songkrasin, who suggested he would be keen to make his loan from Muangthong United permanent next year, added. “From now on I want to work hard in order to contribute more goals.”

As always in a Petrovic side, however, the results are ultimately a team effort, with every player fulfilling an important role and seeming to relish carrying it out for their manager.

The Serbian has always been a popular figure amongst those who play under him, and it is hard to find any who have a bad word to say about the man who lay the foundations for Sanfrecce’s success and then delivered Urawa Reds’ first piece of silverware for nine years.

Yoshiaki Komai, who also played under Petrovic in Saitama, has four assists to his name since joining him in Hokkaido, for instance, while Koji Miyoshi has three, as does Akito Fukumori – who seems to have been given the ‘Makino’ role as an attack-minded defender, as well as posing a real threat from dead ball situations.

Petrovic once commented while under pressure at Urawa that he would never quit, and that if he was fired he would not waver in his philosophy but merely continue playing the kind of football he believed in at another club – laying the foundations and convinced it would reap rewards over time. It is still early days at Sapporo, but the manager shows no signs that he has given up on that aim, and the players under his guidance appear as trusting of his methods as ever.


Pouring forward under Postecoglou

Yokohama F.Marinos have been one of the most assertive sides in J1 this season, and while they haven’t picked up as many points as plaudits things look sure to improve as the players adapt to Ange Postecoglou’s methods… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Friday 11th May, 2018

They may be hanging around at the wrong end of table in 15th after last Saturday’s 1-1 draw away to Nagoya Grampus, but Yokohama F.Marinos’ start to 2018 has certainly been eventful.

Whether it’s been seven-goal first-half rollercoasters, 17-pass moves producing goals, or their sweeper-keeper being lobbed from 50 yards, the Nissan Stadium side have provided plenty of entertainment thus far in the 2018 season.

Points-wise they have picked up just 13 from their first 13 games, and uncharacteristically they have the second-worst defence in J1 having conceded 21 times already (they only let in 36 in the whole of the 2017 J1 campaign), but on the flip side the attacking style introduced by Ange Postecoglou has seen them score as many as league-leading Sanfrecce Hiroshima and reigning champions Kawasaki Frontale (17).

“It’s a bit disappointing,” Postecoglou said of his team’s failure to hold on for the win after scoring first against Grampus.

“In the first half I thought we controlled the game, and although we let them back into it a little in the second we had three or four good chances at the end and it’s disappointing we couldn’t take them.”

Placing a focus on the attack epitomises the 52-year-old’s approach to the game, and his early-stage Marinos have certainly lived up to the expectations placed on him to introduce the possession-based, positive style he employed in his previous job in charge of the Australia national team.

While Marinos have only managed to win three games so far opposing players have been full of praise for the way they are playing, with Atsuto Uchida expressing his awe at the way 40-year-old Yuji Nakazawa operated such a high line in Kashima Antlers’ 3-0 loss on 28 April, while another former J1 champion was hugely impressed after his side took on Nakazawa and co. earlier in the season, commenting, “that is football!”.

The always-forward-thinking stance has, of course, played a part in several of the goals the side have conceded so far – most glaringly Taishi Taguchi’s second from distance in Jubilo Iwata’s 3-1 win on 2 May – but at the same time it has led to left back Ryosuke Yamanaka being the team’s biggest assist provider with four.

It always looked like they would need time to adapt to Postecoglou’s particular style, and the manager himself was eager to stress before a ball had been kicked that he would initially need to focus on laying new foundations.

Football Channel, Thursday 10th May 2018

“If you look over the last three years, they’ve really changed the squad tremendously,” he said at the J.League’s pre-season press conference.

“The age demographic has come down considerably – it was a fairly ageing squad and now it’s a fairly young squad – so I think there’s a good foundation there for us to continue to build on.

“We want to be an aggressive, attacking team and to do that you’ve got to be fit and play at a certain tempo, so we’ve concentrated on that in training. That’s the foundation and from that we’ll build and give the players more idea tactically of how we play.”

They certainly haven’t been helped too much in that aim by the heavy schedule in J1 so far this year, and it’s far from surprising that a team getting to grips with such a high pressing style has struggled to produce consistently positive results when playing two games a week every week.

Postecoglou dismissed fatigue as a factor in the defensive errors that produced the hectic 4-4 with Shonan Bellmare on 21 April, but you have to think things will become easier once the schedule calms down a little. After the break for the World Cup there will be a handful more midweek games in July and early August, but the final third of the season will be far less strenuous, and with a full week to recover from and prepare tactically for each game they shouldn’t have any trouble climbing up the table.

First up they have a couple of home games against fellow slow starters Gamba Osaka and J1 new-boys V-Varen Nagasaki to close out the pre-World Cup section of the season, and they’ll want to head into that break in as good a position as possible in order to attack the second half of the campaign in a positive frame of mind.

Postecoglou could, of course, have been heading to Russia himself with the Socceroos. He was adamant ahead of the season that he had no regrets about stepping down before leading his country at a second World Cup, however, and was now fully focused on leading his new team to glory.

“I felt that was the time for me to move on and try a new challenge,” he said. “I didn’t know what that challenge was going to be – as a coach you leap into the unknown and you kind of hope it all works out – and from my perspective it’s worked out really well. I’ve landed in a good place and who’s to say the next four years can’t be better than the last four?”

If he’s given that long then Marinos certainly look like they will have every chance of adding to the A-League and Asian Cup titles already in Postegoglou’s cabinet.

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