Kawasaki on the front foot

Unbeaten in over two months, scoring for fun, and solid defensively, Kawasaki Frontale look set to challenge on all fronts at the business end of the season – including in Asia…  (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 12th September, 2017

Kashima Antlers are currently six points clear at the top of J1 and looking as dogged as ever in first place, but Kawasaki Frontale’s recent displays suggest Go Oiwa’s side will have to maintain their current pace if they are to make it over the finish line in first place.

Frontale have been in sensational form over the past six weeks and are unbeaten in nine games in all competitions, while the only defeat in their last 17 games was a bizarre blip at home to Jubilo Iwata on 29 July when they were stunned 5-2.

During that time Toru Oniki has steered his team up into second place in the table, to the semi-finals of the Levain Cup, the fourth round of the Emperor’s Cup, and the brink of the AFC Champions League semi-finals as well.

Under Oni-san it has become clear what we need to be doing, nobody slacks off, and we are all putting in the running for the transitions between defence and attack,” Kengo Nakamura said after his side’s latest victory over Yokohama F.Marinos on 9 September.

“Of course there are technical skills and ideas as well, but that base is incredibly important for us at the moment.”

There is certainly a solid foundation in place, but technical skill and ideas are far from an afterthought with this Frontale side and some of their football this season has been a joy to behold. Nakamura, of course, is playing as pivotal a role as ever, and his awareness of what is happening around him and unnerving ability to pick out and execute passes is unrivalled in the J.League.

He is given plenty of help in the middle of the park though, and while Ryota Oshima rightfully receives a lot of plaudits as another tricky schemer between the lines it is Eduardo Neto who holds everything together in the centre.

The Brazilian’s reading of the game is exceptional from a defensive point of view and he doesn’t shy away when his team has the ball either, always making sure he is an option for a teammate. A glance at the stats for this season demonstrates his ubiquity to the team’s style, with the 28-year-old involved in all of Frontale’s top five passing combinations in the league, and eight of their top 10.

What really stands out about Kawasaki this year is their depth, with quality players all over the park and also on the bench. There are top class individuals at each end of the pitch in Jung Sung-ryong and Yu Kobayashi, while the likes of Elsinho, Shogo Taniguchi, Shintaro Kurumaya, Akihiro Ienaga, and Hiroyuki Abe have also played key roles. A bench boasting the likes of Eduardo, Yusuke Tasaka, Kentaro Moriya, and Takayuki Morimoto means there are plenty of high-grade replacements available as well.

“At the moment we are able to play our own football whoever is playing – to put in good performances and get results,” Tatsuki Nara, another who has established himself as an integral part of the team, said after the 3-0 win over Marinos last Saturday.

Football Channel, 12th September 2017

The centre back was adamant there is nothing blasé or reckless about Frontale’s approach though, and insisted that a 15th clean sheet of the season was just as important to he and his teammates as the latest goals flying in at the other end.

“[Us defenders] have to focus on contributing more than just defence, but it’s not the case that we are known as an attacking team so therefore we don’t mind if we concede,” he said.

“If we are able to keep a clean sheet at the back then it means the chances of us winning increase, and we don’t think in the way that if we score three then it’s ok to concede one. Our stance right now is to score four or five and also make sure we don’t give the opponent anything at the other end and don’t concede, that’s the mentality.”

Nothing will change heading into Wednesday’s ACL quarter-final second leg against Urawa, where Kawasaki know another clean sheet will guarantee their progression.

“[Urawa] need to score two goals to win, so I’m sure they are going to come out trying to put a lot of pressure on us,” Nara said.

“That doesn’t mean we are going to play defensively though, that’s not our philosophy. We have confidence and if we get one or two goals then they will need five.”

The last time Frontale failed to score was in the 2-0 defeat away to Marinos on 4 June, and their recent nine-game unbeaten streak has seen them find the net 23 times – only failing to score more than once in a game on one occasion, the 1-1 with FC Tokyo on 5 August.

They have also recorded some healthy wins over their closest rivals already this season, beating Kashima 3-0 away on 19 May and Reds twice – 4-1 in the league on 5 July and then 3-1 in the quarter-final first leg on 23 August – before cruising 3-0 past Yokohama this past weekend.

“Scoring three goals against Marinos, who had the best defence in the league, gives us a lot of confidence as a team and individually, and lets us know we aren’t making any mistake with the type of football we are playing now,” Nakamura said. “I think (this performance) embodied our play style.

“We have to put aside the result from the first leg (against Urawa) and fight in the second. Of course we need to get our heads set for the game, but what we have to do doesn’t change – the fact that we need to go and get an away goal is still the same. It’s very important for us to keep going with the style of football we are playing at the moment.”

If they are able to do that then it is hard to see Urawa inflicting Kawasaki’s fifth defeat of the season on Wednesday, and in this vein of form there won’t be many sides in Asia wanting to square off against Frontale.


Challenger Shinada follows her own path

An interview with Ayaki Shinada, who, frustrated with certain restrictive aspects of Japanese culture, moved abroad at 18 to further her career and this summer signed for Spanish First Division side RCD Espanyol…

24歳で海外4ヶ国でプレー。エスパニョールで挑戦する“品田彩来”という生き方【INTERVIEW】 https://japan.football-tribe.com/2017/08/31/9260/

Football Tribe, 30th August 2017

Japanese players usually only earn the chance to play overseas after building a reputation domestically, but every so often one takes the initiative and secures a move of their own accord.

Ayaki Shinada is one such player.

The 24-year-old recently signed for RCD Espanyol in Spain, the latest development in a career that has already taken in stints in the USA, Finland, and Sweden.

As is the norm for female players, Tokyo native Shinada took her first footballing steps by playing alongside the boys before spells at Nippon TV Menina and then Sakuyo High School in Okayama. Finding herself frustrated at the more restrictive aspects of Japanese football – and culture in general – she decided upon graduation that a move overseas was the best option, and after participating in a tour to play against teams in the US in 2011 she caught the eye of a coach at Lindsey Wilson College, Kentucky, who recruited her on a scholarship.

“We all held a much bigger space in the game,” Shinada says of her initial impressions of playing in the States. “In Japan, especially for women’s football, we make it a very narrow space and often make short passes – no one really makes long passes and it’s very different. But in the States we had the space you have to work in.

“Also, when we defend in Japanese football we defend together. That’s how Japanese do it, but (in the US) it was more like one versus one situations; you have to do it, you’re going to have the responsibility to stop the player, or go around the player in front of you. I’d say that was one of the biggest differences.”

Taking the plunge into such a different environment would be a daunting prospect for most people, but Shinada, then just 18, thrived in her new surroundings.

“Actually it was better for me because I like to be clear what’s wrong or what’s correct,” she explains.

“That’s another way I didn’t fit in with Japanese football. Sometimes it was not your fault but the people watching who have more ‘right’ to say decide who was wrong. There were many times I disagreed. Or maybe they explained it to me but I still felt like I saw it a different way. So when I got to the States it was much clearer – what is my job and role and everything, so that was just perfect for me.”

One thing that is slightly more ambiguous is Shinada’s position, and she umms and ahhs when asked where she plays.

“That is kind of a hard question for me, because I play everywhere – but not goalkeeper. Well, once, but not very good! I would say my best position is the anchor; defensive middle, in front of the centre-backs.”

As well as embracing a new style of play and clearer sense of accountability on the pitch in the US, the wider variety and more open culture of discussion and exchange also appealed to Shianda’s inquisitive personality.

Ayaki Shinada, Getty Images

“There are so many people that come from other countries, so sharing information about what’s really happening in the world, talking about more things like what you think is good in your country, and what’s not good – that also made me think what’s good in Japan or not good.”

That desire to keep learning and developing led to a move to Sweden after graduation from Lindsey Wilson, followed the next year by a switch to Finland. Two years in Scandinavia, which Shinada says helped her adapt further to the speed and strength aspects of the game, then saw her agree the move to Espanyol in June this year.

“Technique wise (Spain) is so much better than any other country I’ve seen,” she says of her new home.

“It’s different technique to Japanese. Japanese is more like without movement – simple passes and simple touches are very good – but Spain was more like making something different. You can dribble while juggling the ball, or if you pass it very strong everyone still has a soft touch. It’s more interesting, I would say.

“I really like it. Now in Spain I can get something new. It’s more like, ‘Oh, you’re passing that way? Ok!’ or, ‘You can make that pass or that shot from here or maybe cross like this…’ it’s just I get so many more ideas here.”

Despite having spent her entire professional career outside of Japan Shinada still harbours the hope of being involved with the Nadeshiko, but knows she has to keep improving with her club to achieve that aim.

“That is definitely one of the objectives for everyone, to play for your country. I’ve had it from a very young age, when I started I was thinking that would be amazing. However, I think that playing for the national team is not my main goal – it would be nice to go through on my path, but my objective right now is more to play in the Champions League and play for a good team. Yes, that would be great (to play for Japan), but it is not my current objective – I am more focused on different goals and know I need to keep working hard.”

For the time being the priority for Shinada is to establish herself in Spain and make the most of the stimulating environment she is now playing in.

“For me I kind of get bored doing something similar or just following orders, but in Japanese football you’ve got to do it simple always, or follow what everyone believes. Nobody wants to make any mistakes. You can technically, but not everyone is pleased if you try. But it’s so different in Spain – everyone tries. I don’t know, I feel so comfortable here.

“I’m just a challenger. I might make it and I might not make it, but I don’t really care. If I make it I feel lucky.”

That outlook has proved more than effective for Shinada so far, and such a positive approach will surely see her keep going from strength to strength over the coming years.


Urawa with history-making chance to rescue their season

Urawa Reds have disappointed in the league in 2017, but the AFC Champions League offers the players a chance to write their names in history… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 23rd August, 2017

It would be something of an understatement to describe Urawa Reds’ season to date as a disappointment, and the side many – including this correspondent – considered favourites for the J.League title sit seventh in the table, 13 points behind leaders Kashima Antlers with 11 games to play.

Mihailo Petrovic received his marching orders back on 30 July after delivering just three wins in 12 league games from the end of April, with long-time coach Takafumi Hori handed the reins until the end of the season as the club look to rescue a campaign that was steadily slipping away from them.

The 49-year-old will struggle to mount a serious revival in J1 in that time – despite going unbeaten in his first three games after Saturday’s 2-1 win over FC Tokyo – but he could do his prospects of landing the job on a more permanent basis the world of good if he can navigate his way to success in Asia.

Reds face Kawasaki Frontale in the first leg of their AFC Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday, and the players are fully aware that continental competition gives them a huge opportunity to rescue their season – and reputation.

The legacy of becoming an Asian champion was on full display last month as the bulk of the triumphant 2007 ACL side reunited for Keita Suzuki’s retirement match, with the likes of Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Robson Ponte, and Washington being treated to reverential returns to Saitama.

The fact it has been a decade since that triumph – and that Reds have failed to add any major silverware since – was also driven home though, highlighting not just the pressure on this year’s players but also the possibly-once-in-a-career opportunity they have before them.

“Last year we finally won the Levain Cup but if we don’t win the league or ACL then we can’t build a good reputation,” Satoshi Horinouchi, now employed behind the scenes at Reds and a regular in the 2007 ACL campaign, said.

“Of course we don’t do it in order to earn praise from others around us, but you saw with Keita and everyone today that winning titles gives everyone the opportunity to feel real joy.

“It would have been great to have won [the ACL] once or twice since [2007], to give more joy to the fans, but that’s the reality and this year we’re still in it and have Kawasaki next. From now it’s the turn of the current players, staff, and supporters to achieve the same results as at that time.”

Tomislav Maric wasn’t involved in the ACL winning squad but also knows what it takes to deliver glory for Reds, having struck the 73rd-minute winner in the 2005 Emperor’s Cup final against Shimizu S-Pulse. The 44-year-old feels that winning titles often comes down to psychological strength.

Football Channel 23 August 2017 : Getty

“Urawa Reds must think about every year [being] champion and this sometimes is mental,” the former Wolfsburg and Hoffenheim striker said.

“To be champion or not be champion is sometimes [about whether] you are strong in the head or not. Sometimes this is important. When you see in Europe, the Champions League, when Real play Juventus this is a high, high level but sometimes in the game you win in a mental situation. You win one situation in one against one and maybe this is the situation that will win you the match.”

Yuichiro Nagai did just that back on 14 November 2007, setting Reds on their way to glory by putting them 2-1 up on aggregate in the 22nd minute of the ACL final second leg against Sepahan, and is as surprised as anyone that Reds were unable to build on that triumph.

“It seemed like that would be the start of something, but for one reason or another it didn’t happen,” the current Thespakusatsu Gunma striker said. “But it’s difficult, that’s football. This year they have a chance. In 2007 we won the ACL and the in 2008 we played Gamba and lost, with Gamba going on to win the tournament.”

Nagai thinks beating their domestic rivals spurred Gamba on to success that year, and believes Reds could gain a similar boost if they are able to overcome Kawasaki this time around.

“Maybe it’s more difficult to play a team from the same country as you know each other very well. Of course teams are always scouting so you know about every team, but the level of familiarity is totally different (when playing a team from the same country). That aspect means it will be a really difficult game, but if you can win that kind of match then it can really help to push you higher – that momentum can be very important.”

Tulio, meanwhile, felt the energy from the stands was pivotal for Reds 10 years ago, and is perhaps something they are lacking now.

“Saista was full every time and, speaking completely honestly, I feel that if you compare it to now there is a difference in the voltage of the supporters,” the former Japan star, now playing for second division side Kyoto Sanga, said.

“When the fans and team truly become one I think the opponents feel it too – coming to Saitama they can’t win. Standing on the pitch with those guys I really felt respect as a player. For that kind of team to materialise is not easy, and I think that even after 100 years everybody will remember those players and that team.”

That is beyond doubt, and if this year’s players can achieve the same feat then the disappointments in the league will be whitewashed as they write their names into the club’s history.


Community spirit

The Premier League is the most marketable division in the world but more and more English fans are tiring of the money and hype and returning to the community roots of the game…  (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 16th August, 2017

This past Saturday my hometown team Brighton and Hove Albion contested their first ever match in the Premier League, losing 2-0 at home to Manchester City at the American Express Community Stadium.

The Seagulls’ route to the top tier of the English game was long and dramatic, and they finally achieved promotion as runners-up in the Championship last year after losing in the play-offs in three of the previous four seasons. Looking a little further back they almost dropped out of the four-league professional pyramid entirely 20 years ago, only preserving their status amongst the top 92 teams on goals scored thanks to Robbie Reinelt’s 62nd-minute equaliser against Hereford United on the last day of the 1996-97 season.

While Brighton’s return to the big time – they previously played in the old first division between 1979-1983 – has of course created a real buzz in the city and positive headlines around the nation, a growing number of fans in England are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the corporate and money-driven Premier League and instead re-establishing connections with what is often referred to as ‘proper’ football.

The day after Neymar completed his world record transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain for around £200 million, for example, I visited Lewes FC – a community club in the eighth tier of the English football pyramid which is doing things a very different way.

Just a five-minute train ride through the South Downs from Brighton’s Falmer home, Lewes are steadily building a reputation as a club that exists in order to provide and maintain bonds with the local community.

In the 2007-08 season Lewes edged one step closer the dream of most non-league clubs when they secured promotion to the Conference National (now National League), just one division away from the professional ranks. The following day almost all the coaching and playing staff had their contracts terminated though as the owners, who worked in construction, had lost a huge amount of money in the global financial crash and were no longer able to pay the bills.

There was a real risk of Lewes having to fold after 123 years at its picturesque Dripping Pan home, but half a dozen fans clubbed together and were able to rescue them from extinction, reforming The Rooks as a community club – meaning the fans own and fund it, and that it makes no profit whatsoever.

We currently have around 1,200 active owners paying a minimum of £30 a year,” Kevin Miller, Lewes’ Commercial Manager and one of only three full time members of staff, told me ahead of the team’s pre-season friendly against Burgess Hill.

Interested parties can pledge their support to the club and become owners, and regardless of the amount paid no individual can own more than one share as Lewes strives to remain a community entity.

“Being very open, a mutual benefit society, all of our finances are posted online and our turnover is there,” Miller explains of the structure. “One week’s wages for Neymar would take the entire turnover of the club.”

Football Channel, 16 August 2017

Preserving the culture whereby everyone is working together for the enjoyment of football rather than profit means there are no grand plans to mount another challenge for professional status – although the women’s team, which the club recently announced will be paid the same as the men from this season, a first in professional or semi-professional football, are steadily approaching a place in the Women’s Super League.

“At this level the FA rules state that you can still take alcohol onto the stands,” Miller says of Lewes’ vision for the men’s team.

“If you go up to the Bostik Premier (the next division up) that’s still allowed; if you go one (more) up it’s still allowed but there are restrictions, but any higher than that and you change the complete complexion of the football club – which means you have to have a club bar, no alcohol outside, and that changes the dynamic of the club and I don’t think we want to do that.”

Manager Darren Freeman previously played for Lewes after a professional career that took in spells at Fulham, Brentford, and Brighton, and is another to have bought into the club’s approach.

“We’ve got great facilities and we’ve got a great fan base, who are fantastic and cheer the lads on week in week out,” the 43-year-old told me after his side came from a goal down to beat Burgess Hill 3-1.

“When you get a group of youngsters going out there and trying to do the right things they will make mistakes and we understand that – there’s people that get paid £250,000 that make mistakes. We believe in our youth, and if they can do a job then we utilise that, that’s important to us.”

As well as looking to further entrench the team in the local region by bringing players through the youth set up, which starts at Under-5 for boys and girls, Freeman insists his players socialise with supporters in the bar after games, win or lose. For the former striker such openness is vital to building an authentic community culture.

“I’m always open to fans coming up and speaking to me, not hiding behind a computer having a pop at everyone,” he explains.

“I’m here every game and what I say to them is that if they’re not happy then come and speak to me, I’d never not speak to someone. But in general the fans here are fantastic. I’ve wanted to come to this club for many years and manage them, so for me it’s an honour and a privilege to come here and I really feel that we can move Lewes into the right place where they should be.”

For Miller there is a clear idea of just where that is, and while growth on and off the pitch is vital to the club’s continued existence, success in the traditional sense is not being targeted at the expense of Lewes’ welcoming and inclusive atmosphere.

I think long term if we can stay in the National League South, so the sixth tier of English football, mid-table, crowds of 1,500 to 1,800, the odd play-off chase, the odd cup run, that’s perfect – for the men anyway – that’s sustainable,” he says.

“That means we’ve got genuine income and we can attract decent players. That’s a good level, getting good crowds, and would be absolutely perfect for us – and we’re only a couple of years away from that, I think.”

Down the road Brighton will be doing – and spending – all they can to keep their Premier League dream alive, but simpler pleasures and the enjoyment of football for football’s sake provide all the motivation Lewes and its fans need.

To become an owner of Lewes FC for a minimum of £30 (4,300) a year click here.


Leandro Domingues adds extra punch to Yokohama FC’s fight

Several J2 sides have made mid-season reinforcements as the battle for promotion heats up, with Leandro Domingues’ arrival at Yokohama FC the standout acquisition… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 28th July, 2017

The J.League – seemingly unable to stick with all of its formats for more than a couple of years without feeling the need to tweak something – is set to re-jig the promotion system again from the 2018 season, meaning this year marks the last chance for sides to achieve a place in J1 via the current play-off format.

Despite last season’s play-off winners Cerezo Osaka sitting top of J1 just past the half-way point, a further hurdle is set to be introduced next year with the winner of the post-season play-offs then required to play the 16th-placed team in J1 in a promotion/relegation decider to prove they have what it takes to compete in the top flight.

The far from welcome addition to the calendar means a team could finish as third best over 42 J2 games, defeat two of its closest challengers in play-off matches, but then be forced to stay in the second tier if it fails to beat a side which was the third worst in its division over the preceding nine months.

Whether that is fair or not is a debate for another day, but the change does appear to have prompted several of this season’s promotion-hunting sides to boost their chances of being involved in the final regular play-offs – or, of course, going straight up to J1 in one of the two automatic spots – by making mid-season re-enforcements.

Six of the top nine teams have added foreign forwards since the transfer window re-opened, with current leaders Shonan Bellmare recruiting Dragan Mrdja from Omiya Ardija, Yokohama FC bringing Leandro Domingues back to Japan, fellow Brazilian Gabriel Xavier pitching up at Nagoya Grampus, Fagiano Okayama signing Kim Jong-min and Nicolas Orsini, Matsumoto Yamaga turning to the experienced Davi, and Carlos Martinez joining his fellow Spaniard Miguel Angel Lotina at Tokyo Verdy.

The most intriguing of these is Leandro Domingues’ arrival at Mitsuzawa, where Yokohama FC have been quietly building a solid-looking side over the past 18 months, spearheaded by the unstoppable Ibba Laajab.

The Norwegian has scored 16 of his team’s 33 goals so far in J2 in 2017 – adding to the 18 he managed in his debut season last year – and is far and away the most feared striker in the second division. Despite such impressive returns, however, there have been times when the 32-year-old has looked a little isolated in the final third, with opponents often doubling – sometimes even tripling – up on him and teammates occasionally seeming to rely on him to decide games on his own.

The capture of Leandro Domingues, then – a former J1 Player of the Year and winner of every domestic trophy in Japan – is an impressive piece of business and instantly paid dividends in his debut against V-Varen Nagasaki last weekend, with Varen coach Takuya Takagi referencing the “really big presence” the 33-year-old had on the pitch.

Indeed, it only took him six minutes to make an impact, sending a crisp ball forward to Ibba, who in turn laid it straight off for Naoki Nomura to play in Jeong Chung-geun for the opener.

“Before I received the ball I knew Ibba was in front of me and as soon as I got it I was looking to move possession on,” the former Kashiwa Reysol and Nagoya Grampus man said after the 2-1 win that moved Yokohama up to fifth in the table. “I hope we can continue to combine in that way in the upcoming games too to get more and more goals.”

Football Channel_getty_29th July 2017

Ibba warmly welcomed the addition of such a talented and attack-minded player to share the decisive workload.

“Before he came in the other team was always on me – I had two or three players – but now it’s one against one I can start to take down the ball and play a little bit because they are scared of him now too, so it makes my job more easy,” he said.

“You can see already today that him, Kensuke (Sato), Zato (Takahiro Nakazato), and Nomu (Nomura) have a good relationship and that makes a lot of space for me. I haven’t trained a lot with him – I only trained two weeks with him so we don’t know each other that well yet – but I think as long as we keep training with each other we’re just going to get better and better every day and he’s going to help us a lot, for sure.”

While acknowledging that Leandro Domingues appears to adhere to the quality-not-quantity approach often preferred by Brazilian players when it comes to training, Kazuyoshi Miura is also impressed by his new teammate.

“We had a training game recently in which he made three or four scoring opportunities, and today too he also made chances, especially in the first half; I think that’s the kind of player he is, and he certainly worked harder at defending in the game than he does in training, which was a relief for me!” the 50-year-old, who made the latest extension to his oldest-J.League-appearance record as a second half substitute against Nagasaki, joked after the game.

“He’s Brazilian, so I know his style of play and the fact that when it comes to real games he is able to move up a gear or two or three, and he did that today, I think.”

Ibba is hoping that things continue in such a positive vein, and if they do he sees no reason why Yokohama can’t make a concerted push for a long-awaited return to the first division.

“In J2 you never know – that’s the fun of J2, if we keep fighting like we did today we can take first or maybe second, because they are losing too,” he said on a weekend when all of the top three and four of the top five lost.

End of season runs have led to promotion for sides in each of the last two years, with Shimizu S-Pulse winning 15 of their last 18 games last season – losing just twice in that time and winning all of their last nine games – while in 2015 Avispa Fukuoka won 14 of their last 18, losing just once and winning each of their last eight.

Yokohama themselves recently had a poor run of form with just one win in eight games and four consecutive defeats, but the victory over Nagasaki was their second in a row and Ibba is hoping they can mount a similarly strong finish with 18 games to play.

“That’s how we think – that we are done with the bad time now and that we can just attack the last 15 games or so,” he said. “But you never know in J2, it’s fighting football and you never know what happens so we just have to keep fighting and we will see after the season.”

Leandro Domingues certainly adds to their arsenal, and having him in their corner undoubtedly increases Yokohama’s chances of still being involved when the last punches are being thrown.


J-League 2017: Cerezo Osaka Lead The Pack

We’re just over halfway through the 2017 J1 season, and newly-promoted Cerezo Osaka are the surprise pacesetters after 18 rounds of games.

Soccerphile, 18th July, 2017

There have been plenty of other talking points over the first four months in the top flight too, and I provided a brief recap of them for Soccerphile.


Sanfrecce start again

Hajime Moriyasu standing down marks the end of an era for Sanfrecce Hiroshima, but perhaps the timing was right for a change in the Big Arch dugout… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 12th July, 2017

They say a change is as good as a rest, and as J1 heads into a three-week break Sanfrecce Hiroshima will be doing both as they look to right their course in what has been a torrid season so far.

The Purple Archers – champions as recently as 2015, when they stormed to their third title in four years – have been in woeful form in the first half of the 2017 campaign, and ahead of the mid-season interval head coach Hajime Moriyasu decided enough was enough and fell on his own sword after the 4-3 defeat away to Urawa Reds on 1 July.

Having taken the decision to step down Moriyasu insisted the buck stopped with him for the run of results that has left Sanfrecce mired in the relegation zone, while the players in turn claimed the bulk of responsibility as theirs. Striker Anderson Lopes, for instance, said after the first game of the post-Moriyasu era away to Yokohama F.Marinos on 8 July that 90% of the culpability rested with those out on the pitch.

In actuality, the proportioning of blame is probably not necessary in this case, with it fairer to say that things between Moriyasu and Sanfrecce had instead just naturally run their course.

The 48-year-old had worked wonders in his five-and-a-half years at the helm since replacing Mihailo Petrovic, but with key players leaving every season and the spine of the team that did remain getting older each year the club seemed to be stuck in something of a repetitive cycle that neither coach nor players were able to snap.

In such cases, while perhaps not an easy decision, a change at the top is probably for the best. A fresh face in the dugout, new ideas, new training methods, chances for fringe players to stake a claim, and pressure on regulars to convince the new man in charge they deserve to keep their places in the side could all serve to reinvigorate the team once the league resumes at the end of the month.

Indeed, Sanfrecce’s next seven fixtures don’t look especially taxing on paper, with five teams in the bottom half of the table – Sagan Tosu, Vegalta Sendai, Ventforet Kofu, Omiya Ardija, and Albirex Niigata – plus Gamba Osaka, who Sanfrecce beat 1-0 in Suita on 7 April, and Jubilo Iwata, who they drew 0-0 with on 27 May.

If new coach Jan Jonsson can lift the team’s spirits and pick up a first home win of the season against Tosu on 30 July then they could well go on to build considerably on their current haul of just 11 points in the following half-a-dozen games.

Performances haven’t actually been as bad as results suggest, with the side still causing opponents plenty of problems going forwards, as Zlatan Ljubijankic noted after his Urawa Reds side battled back from 3-2 down to win 4-3 at Saitama Stadium in what proved to be Moriyasu’s final game.

“I don’t understand how Hiroshima is in this kind of situation because they are still a good team, they showed that today,” the 33-year-old, who made it 3-3 with his first touch after coming on as a 84th minute substitute, said.

Football Channel, Wednesday 12th July 2017

“It is difficult to play against them. But this comes; you don’t know the reason. If you knew it then you’d change and everything would be easier.”

In the end Moriyasu decided his departure could be that magic fix, but as Ljubijankic forecasted it didn’t bring about an immediate upturn in fortunes with Sanfrecce only able to draw their next match against Marinos under interim boss Akinobu Yokouchi.

“A game is 90 minutes plus injury time,” Kazu Morisaki said after the last-gasp defeat away to Urawa, in which Sanfrecce conceded twice just before half time before coming back to take the lead themselves with 18 minutes to go.

“Getting the first goal is vital, I think from now on we have to be looking to score first. We’ve always been conceding the first goal and having to battle back and that is tiring both mentally and physically.”

It was the same story against Marinos last weekend, with Sanfrecce unable to take their chances and then conceding themselves with just nine minutes to play. They battled back well though, and Hiroki Mizumoto feels the fact they were able to snatch a draw courtesy of Anderson Lopes’ 90th-minute equaliser provides a decent first step on the road to recovery.

“When you think about how things have gone so far this season getting a point at 1-0 down looked difficult but not one of us threw in the towel,” he said after that game at Nissan Stadium.

“We were able to come back and went and tried to get a second goal even though we were away. But when you look at the overall performance it is disappointing that we didn’t get all three points.

“The second half of the season is going to be a really tough battle. We had quite a lot of shots today but we need to make sure we are getting them on target and tighten up at the back.”

Scoring goals has certainly been something of an issue this season, in particular, as Morisaki pointed out, drawing first blood. Sanfrecce have only managed to get on the score-sheet first in four league games, with the win over Gamba the only one they have gone on to take maximum points from.

Even so, the 1-1 draw with Marinos ended their losing streak at four matches and offered a bit of respite heading into the break, with the further boost of new signings Daiki Niwa and Patric also likely to add some extra character to the side.

If Jonsson can come in and instil a bit of belief in his charges right from the off then all is certainly not lost for Sanfrecce, but confidence is dangerously low at the moment and needs to be retrieved as soon as possible.

If Sakka Nihon isn’t enough then you can follow my every move (sort of) here.

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