Shimizu S-Pulse are aiming for the very top, and their latest signing shows that they are serious about getting there…
The question on everybody’s lips was how? How did Shimizu S-Pulse manage to sign Freddie Ljungberg?
During the J.League’s early years, players in the twilight of their careers often turned up for one last pay-day before retirement, but now the money is in the Middle-East, not Japan.
Ljungberg will almost certainly have been offered better terms by clubs in other parts of the world, then, so why did he choose Shizuoka?
The answer seems to lie with Afshin Ghotbi’s powers of persuasion.
“I have a lot of relationships abroad and I spoke with a lot of different people about him – people that have played alongside him, people that know him – and we spent almost two weeks on the phone every day talking to each other,” S-Pulse’s head coach explained to me.
“I think he likes my regime, I like his mentality. He will be a great addition to our team and hopefully he can get S-Pulse to the championship that we desire so much, sooner rather than later.”
Ghotbi believes that the capture of the former Arsenal man means everything is now in place to achieve this ambitious aim.
“I already have Shinji Ono and [Naohiro] Takahara who are icons of Japanese football and I think Freddie is an icon of international football. So it could maybe complete creating the leaders in the team to bring our younger players faster to the level that they need to come to.”
As well as creating success on the pitch, he also believes it can improve the image of the club and the J.League overseas.
“I’ve no doubt he’s going to be an icon for the league and a great attraction for the J.League on an international scale.”
The early signs on this front are good.
When I arrived at S-Pulse’s Miho training ground the day after the Shizuoka Derby, for instance, Mamiko Fujioka was already there.
Fujioka-san had lived in Sweden for a year, during which time she developed a keen interest in Swedish football – and of course the country’s then-captain, Freddie.
She had travelled from Kyoto for the Jubilo match and arrived over an hour before the public training session began the next day in the hope of meeting her hero.
As the signed Sweden shirt she had on proved, she had succeeded in this aim, and was literally jumping for joy.
Of course, Freddie also has a great deal to offer on the pitch, and he explained at his unveiling just how he could improve the side.
“[The coach] wants me to help move the ball and help us to maybe be a bit more calm and to create chances for my teammates – to use my experience of big games and winning things and get that mentality to the other players.”
Indeed, despite having made his name at Arsenal as an attacking midfielder, he entered the action a little deeper on his debut, a position that Alex Brosque feels he is perfectly suited to.
“That’s mainly to try and get him on the ball as much as we can. If we’re able to do that with him and Shinji on the field I think we can be a bit more dangerous.”
He actually replaced Shinji in that game though, so I asked the S-Pulse captain if he felt there was room for them both in the side.
“Yes, I think so,” he replied, eagerly. “If we want to play football then maybe I need to get the ball further back from closer to the defenders and manage the team from defensive midfield.”
Ljungberg agreed, and insisted that having them work in tandem was eventually the aim.
“Of course we can, otherwise there wouldn’t be any point (in me coming to Shimizu). He’s a good football player so, of course. I’m looking forward to that.
“It depends how we play, whether I play forwards or if we play with two defensive and I’ll play just in front. Sometimes here they play with one in behind and two in front and then we share the responsibility. It’s up to the coach.”
Having such a wealth of options and talented players certainly looks great on paper, and if Ono and Ljungberg can both stay fit then S-Pulse really could have a chance to turn the theory into practice.