Archive for February, 2012


Zaccheroni’s building project ready for next battle

Japan play their final match of the 3rd Round of Asian Qualifying for the 2014 World Cup against Uzbekistan tonight.

Both teams are already through so all eyes are on Alberto Zaccheroni’s team selection, and in particular Ryo Miyaichi.


Move on up

There’s been a bit of grumbling about the form of the Japan Olympic team of late. It’s important to remember that results now are not necessarily the most important thing for players in the Under-23 age-bracket though…

Winning should, of course, always be the target in any match, but when it comes to competition in the lower age ranges the performance and development of the players is the main thing – not necessarily the result.

That had been something of a problem for Takashi Sekizuka’s U23 side of late, and they hadn’t particularly impressed in their Olympic qualifiers despite grinding out enough results to put them in a great position to qualify for London.

After a couple of unspectacular 2-0 victories over Bahrain and Malaysia they struggled to an unconvincing victory over Syria at Kokuritsu back in November.

They probably didn’t deserve to win that game but were then maybe a little hard done by to lose the away tie and, as a fellow journalist astutely pointed out over a beer last week, one win and one loss is always better than two draws.

The defeat in Syria highlighted perhaps the U23’s biggest weakness – something that is a common theme in the Japanese game; a lack of flexibility and spontaneity.

It is certainly good to build your own style from as young an age as possible to make sure that all players in the system know their role – a la Barcelona – but something out of the blue is also required at the highest level.

Sekizuka’s side are fairly easy to prepare to play against, and if you get enough men behind the ball who know exactly who they are marking then you can be fairly confident that the Japanese players will not be trying anything off-the-cuff.

Too many times, even in the 4-0 rout against Malaysia, one (or two or three) passes too many were attempted when a strike at goal would have been the best option. Likewise crosses were aimlessly dinked into the box by wide players when the chance was maybe there to drive in at goal themselves.

At the other end of the pitch opponents know they can benefit from a more direct approach, and uncompromising attacking was the cause of both of Syria’s goals in Jordan, with Shuichi Gonda seemingly not expecting either attempt to be coming his way.

With Genki Haraguchi and the impressive Manabu Saito brought in against Malaysia the side did have a bit more spark about them though, and the deadlock was broken thanks to Haraguchi taking a chance and causing enough confusion to lay the opening goal on a plate for Hiroki Sakai.

The Reysol full-back is surely the most impressive member of this team at the moment, and his ability to get up and down the flank is incredible, while his crossing is absolutely superb – as we saw yet again when he returned the favour and set up Haraguchi for the third goal.

The fourth goal, too, came about from a fairly untypical piece of play, with Takahiro Ogihara lashing a strike from range and the keeper spilling for Saito to pounce. Perhaps a sign that the players had learned from the Syria defeat? Take a chance and you don’t know what may happen.

Sekizuka, in fairness, has made it consistently clear that he is working towards the Olympics, and beyond that to the ultimate target, to prepare players for the full national team and, hopefully, the Brazil 2014 World Cup.

Alberto Zaccheroni is keeping a close eye on the progression of the players with this in mind – he was pitchside when the team won gold at the Asian Games in Guangzhou back in 2010 – and the gradual crossover of the likes of Haraguchi, Sakai and Hiroshi Kiyotake between the U23s and top team demonstrates that things are going reasonably well.

Half of the squad who went to the Beijing Olympics as J.League players are now playing their football in Europe (Honda and Morimoto were already there at the time), and the same number are established as regulars under Zac.

The experience of international competition formed an integral part of the education for that group of players and it should not be forgotten that the kids out there now are still learning the game.

Winning certainly helps in that education, but it is not the be-all and end-all. The 2008 alumni failed to gain a single point in China but they haven’t done too badly for themselves.


The Italians’ Jobs

Fabio Capello didn’t enjoy much succes with England and recently called an end to his spell in charge. Alberto Zacchroni’s time in Japan has gone a lot more smoothly…

The only thing that the Japanese and English national teams had in common of late was the fact that the head coach of both sides was Italian.

While the Samurai Blue have gone from strength to strength under Alberto Zaccheroni and firmly established themselves as Asia’s top side, England have trudged from mediocre display to scandal and back again on Fabio Capello’s watch.

At the start of the month the former AC Milan and Real Madrid coach finally decided that enough was enough and handed in his resignation.

The reason he gave for his departure was the FA’s decision to strip John Terry of the captaincy because of his upcoming trial for allegedly racially abusing Anton Ferdinand – younger brother of Terry’s long-time central-defensive partner for England, Rio.

Capello claimed to be angry that the resolution was made without his approval and quit on principle. At the time of writing that means the Three Lions have neither a manager or a captain, with the European Championships just four months away – although Spurs boss Harry Redknapp is clear favourite to take over in the role that Sir Alex Ferguson has described as a ‘poisoned chalice’.

There have been suggestions that Capello merely used the latest furore concerning the Chelsea defender as an excuse to escape, with players, fans and the media never taking to his dictatorial approach and frequently bemoaning his basic grasp of English.

I for one wouldn’t particularly blame him if that was the case, and think that this last complaint in particular  nicely sums up the malaise surrounding English football.

As much talk as there is about the game developing and opening up to different ways of thinking it is still a very rigid institution which, when combined with the huge egos of many of the members of the national team and the bitter rivalries that exist between the teammates’ clubs, shows very little sign of improving anytime soon.

Last time I checked, Alberto Zaccheroni doesn’t speak Japanese, but a very different culture here means that has never become an issue – nor should it.

At the end of last year I was interviewed by the TV show ‘Foot!’, and was asked what my thoughts were concerning the future of the Japanese national team.

I answered then, and stand by the claim, that I can see the side going on to become better than my nation in the next three or four World Cups.

The reasons for this are threefold: Firstly, the professional game here has the huge benefit of still being incredibly young. In the early stages of development improvement can be made on a steeper incline than a country which has a long history – as former Shimizu S-Pulse and Kashiwa Reysol coach Steve Perryman once explained to me.

“If you’re managing the Brazil national team, to improve them 1% is very difficult,” he said.

“Because of where Japan have come from they can improve 7, 8%, or 10%. There’s an improvement gap to go into and they are the best people to find it. And the other people aren’t getting away from them, they’re coming closer all the time.”

Secondly, the structure of youth development here is fantastic and the organisation and facilities for aspiring players are superb.

Finally – and most importantly – Japanese culture encourages the desire to learn, and players here are ready, willing and able to pick up ideas from coaches and teammates from all over the world.

English football, on the other hand, has a long and distinguished history which certainly brings added pressure – and, according to Perryman’s theory, less room for improvement.

Add to this a fairly basic and inflexible approach to the youth game, and a generation of players whose main principles are centred around “getting stuck in” and the lack of progression doesn’t look so surprising.

With that in mind, perhaps a more ‘old-school’ style coach like Redknapp is better suited to the position, and may earn respect more readily from the players.

Quite whether such an attitude is for the best in the long run is certainly up for debate though.

Temporary improvement may take place, but until longer-term changes are made Japan will keep edging closer and closer – and may soon overtake.


Express Yourself

Last week I provided an editorial on Japanese fan culture for Japan. That’s here, while the English version is below.

What it means to be a fan differs from country to country and person to person.

To some the title must be earned through years of dedication to the cause, travelling far and wide to cheer their team on through thick and thin.

Others, meanwhile, treat it more as a commodity; they buy their ticket, replica kit or scarf and instantly earn the right to share in the glories or boo through the bad times as they see fit.

Essentially though, fans are free to support their team however they choose.

Japanese supporters are often cited as being among the best in the world, providing a colourful, vibrant and vocal background to matches involving domestic sides and the national team.

As well as turning out in well-organised numbers – the J.League records impressively large crowds, with J1 averaging over 15,000 in the 2011 season – the nation’s supporters are also frequently held up as an example to the more aggressive fans elsewhere in the world. Unsavoury incidents are kept to a, fairly tame, minimum.

This is all well and good. Sometimes, though, a bit of an edge can really add to the atmosphere.

Nobody wants to see violence in the stands, of course, and it is crucial that stadiums are family-friendly – especially in countries like Japan where the creation of new supporters is vital to the continued development of the game.

However, friction, antagonism and humour are a staple of all the biggest football rivalries – think Liverpool and Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Often the atmosphere in the stadium and repartee between those sets of opposing fans is as highly-anticipated as the clash out on the pitch.

An engagement with on-field events enables the behaviour of those fans to ebb-and-flow with the game, and in turn the activity in the stands can affect the players (positively or negatively).

However, this requires spontaneity; something that is all-too-often lacking in Japanese stadia.

Instead of giving in to their emotions and allowing themselves to get caught up in the game many Japanese fans prefer a far more stable, almost robotic, style.

Whether their team is 3-0 ahead or 3-0 behind the same tried-and-tested chants and choreographed routines are churned out, with any passion being kept firmly in time with the fan leader’s instructions.

The order and hierarchy that typify Japanese society should be left at the turnstile though.

Fans should not be required to comply with sets of rules concerning how to support and when to sing which song. They should be allowed to throw themselves into the game and let themselves be carried along – or not, sometimes silence can be just as, if not more, powerful than chanting – by the game.

If your team is not playing well and you fancy a sit down and a bit of a whinge, then go ahead.

Further to this, a little bit of baiting of the opposition wouldn’t go amiss.

Japanese fans are so focused on sticking to the performance and cheering on their own team that they seemingly forget there is an opponent there to be beaten.

Supporting your players can certainly help in that aim, but why not create an intimidating arena for the opposition?

There are often half-hearted boos as the opposing team line-up is read out, but once the game has kicked off any goading of rival players appears to be strictly off limits.

Kashiwa Reysol offer one exception, with their fans utilising their close proximity to the pitch to great effect whenever an opponent strays too close – but they are almost unique in that respect.

Urawa Reds traditionally has a similar reputation, but their plummet down the table seems to have left their fans with more important things on their mind of late.

The authorities have certainly not helped in this respect, with sporadic instances of rival-baiting being heavily clamped down on – Urawa and Gamba Osaka have both been punished for ‘inappropriate’ banners in recent seasons.

Quite why they have felt the need to do this is something of a mystery to me, and allowing for a slightly more heated atmosphere in the stadiums could give the J.League – which is improving every year – yet another boost.


Scout doubts

J.League clubs are allowed four foreign players on their books – three from anywhere around the globe, plus one from an AFC-affiliated country.  Sadly, existing relationships result in these berths being filled very unimaginatively…  

It is always interesting to look at the new squads as they take shape ahead of the season kick-off, and this year is no exception.

Some clubs have recruited very well, and Vissel Kobe signing Takuya Nozawa, Hideo Hashimoto, Yuzo Tashiro and Masahiko Inoha looks like particularly good business.

Some individual transfers stand out too. Shoki Hirai’s loan move to Albirex Niigata could well reignite a promising career that has stalled of late, and the returns of Tomoaki Makino and Yuki Abe to Japan with Urawa Reds also whet the appetite.

One thing which I am less than thrilled about, though, is the depressingly formulaic way in which the majority of clubs have gone about filling their four available foreigner slots.

As per-usual the bulk of these places are taken up by Brazilians or Koreans – plus a handful of Australians – with existing relationships and a lack of imagination preventing anything more adventurous taking place.

Freddie Ljungberg, Mihael Mikic, Calvin Jong-a-pin, Danilson and Ranko Despotovic are the only foreign players not to come from the usual places, and at a time when more and more Japanese players are heading off to Europe I struggle to understand why traffic isn’t coming the other way.

 I frequently ask officials at J.League clubs why efforts aren’t made to bring in English, Spanish, Italian, German or French players – either youngsters looking to develop or veterans to pass on some experience – and am repeatedly told that money is the issue.

Sorry, but I’m not buying that (no pun intended).

Sure, top Premier League or La Liga players (or even crap ones) are never going to be viable options, but picking up a decent centre back from Serie B or a seasoned striker from Ligue 1 is surely not beyond the realms of possibility?

Don’t get me wrong, there have been – and still are, Leandro Domingues and Jorge Wagner were sensational for champions Reysol last year – some excellent Brazilian players in the J.League, while there is also an impressive list of Koreans who have enjoyed great success here.

However, remember Carlao? Or Max? How about Tartar? Anderson? Rogerinho? Hugo? Roger?

All of them were on the books at J1 clubs last season. All of them achieved as much as I did on a J.League pitch last season (some of them managing as many minutes out there as I did).

Are you seriously telling me that a player from the Championship in England or the Dutch Eredivisie would constitute more of a gamble? Of course they wouldn’t. The problem they do have, though, is that they are not represented by the agents who appear to have a fairly cosy monopoly over transfers into the J.League.

Last year I watched one match and genuinely laughed out loud at the appearance of one Brazilian on the pitch. I honestly doubted whether he was a footballer, and couldn’t believe he was in possession of a pair of boots, let alone a professional contract.

Having asked around a little I discovered his arrival in Japan had been facilitated as part of a deal involving another of his countrymen: a buy-one-get-one-free (or one-and-a-half-free, he was a big lad), if you like. Such a set-up between clubs and agents is only healthy for one party, and that is certainly not the club.

A prime example comes with the rapid return of Juninho to the J.League, a matter of weeks after it looked like he had bade farewell.

The 34-year-old enjoyed a fantastic nine years with Kawasaki Frontale and seems to genuinely have an affinity with Japan (although I did feel he should have stuck around for the Emperor’s Cup before he left).

Last season he was a shadow of his former self though, with injuries and age taking their unfortunate toll on his game. It looked like his time was up.

Then, all of a sudden, he was back. And with one of the biggest clubs, too. The re-arrival of Marquinhos is similarly surprising.

Are clubs’ scouting networks really so poor that they can’t find anybody better than a couple of journeyman?

Sadly, perhaps yes, they are. Or perhaps club officials are just not strong enough to say no to those who are offering the players.


Honda stalls

Another transfer window has come and gone with Keisuke Honda failing to find a way out of Moscow. Things may not be all doom and gloom though, and his perfect move may still be on the cards…

Keisuke Honda has become something of a forgotten man of late.

Injury, the increasing amount of success being enjoyed by his compatriots in Europe, and the large contract he is stuck on at CSKA Moscow have all combined to shift the player – who after his move to and success at VVV Venlo was seen as something of a trailblazer for Japanese football, and just 18 months ago was undoubtedly the hottest Japanese property going – to the margins somewhat.

Every transfer window rumours circulate linking him to some of the biggest clubs in Europe, yet nothing ever materialises.

Whether many of these stories have cropped up as a result of genuine interest from the sides involved or because of clever manoeuvring on the part of Honda and his representatives is certainly open to debate, although the most recent fiasco involving Lazio did look to be a done deal.

In the end the two clubs could not agree on a fee though – he is only halfway through a four year contract so CSKA have no pressing need to sell – and, as he himself predicted, the move fell through right at the death.

“In modern football, anything can happen at the last moment,” Russian news network RT reported Honda as having told Sports Nippon a couple of days ahead of the deadline. “But my desire is clear – I want to play in the Italian championship.”

He won’t be getting to do that any time soon, and although a huge clash against Real Madrid this month will soften the blow a little, he must privately be seething to still be snowed in in Russia.

While the initial feelings will be of regret, this latest failure to change clubs may not be the end of the world though, and it still leaves the door open for him to join Liverpool – a club at which I believe he could become a big success.

It had long been assumed that Honda’s next progression would be to Merseyside, and it is a transfer that would make a lot of sense.

He has made under 50 appearances in his two years with CSKA and needs to be playing regularly and at a higher level if he wants to reach his full potential.

Liverpool, like Lazio, are a big club who would constitute a step up, without being at the very top level where competition for places is too fierce.

At the very best clubs he would in no way be guaranteed minutes, or even a place on an expensively-assembled bench. Too much time on the sidelines at this stage of his career would be a poor move to make. Especially as more and more of his Japanese teammates continue to move up through the gears.

He thrives as the main man in the team, and needs the play to be built up around him if his teammates are to fully benefit from his abilities.

His presence and strength at holding the ball up, as well as his fantastic awareness and ability to pick out a pass would be a welcome addition to Kenny Dalglish’s side, who need a focal point with £35 million man Andy Carroll misfiring after his big money move this time last year.

Honda rarely, if ever, shows any nerves out on the pitch, and would be unlikely to experience any such stage-fright at Anfield. He is supremely confident in his own ability – almost to the point of arrogance – and would thrive on the pressure of playing in front of the Kop.

He also speaks excellent English – perhaps even better than the Geordie Carroll – which would help him to quickly settle.

The 25-year-old has the potential to link up superbly with Steven Gerrard, while his measured and studious approach would be perfectly complemented by the more lively styles of the likes of Luis Suarez and Craig Bellamy.

Of course, whether Dalglish would be willing to admit defeat with regards to Carroll and be able to convince his bosses that Honda is worth another substantial outlay in the summer is unknown.

If he could then this latest hiccup may well prove to be a blessing in disguise for Honda though, and he may not have to wait too much longer to be back in the limelight.

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February 2012