Relegation form

He famously guided Japan to victory over Brazil and won everything there was to win with Gamba Osaka, but Akira Nishino’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse of late…

It seems increasingly likely that one way or another Akira Nishino is going to have played a role in the relegation of one of J1’s established teams this year.

Heading into the final two rounds his most recent club, Vissel Kobe, are hovering perilously close to the drop-zone, while his previous employers, Gamba Osaka, are also still right in the heart of the relegation battle.

The 57-year-old can’t really be held responsible for the latter’s perilous position, but his departure from Banpaku will be seen as the point at which the club’s status changed from that of perennial title challengers to relegation scrappers.

The folly of hiring the inexperienced Wagner Lopes in Nishino’s place – under the guidance of the nominal “head coach” Jose Carlos Serrao – was quickly remedied, or so it seemed, with the recruitment of club stalwart Masanobu Matsunami, but he, too, has far from impressed.

The former striker has failed to lift the team any higher than 14th all season, and much like FC Tokyo in 2010 and Urawa Reds last year the Osaka giant – and with eight top three finishes in 10 years that’s exactly what the club is – has constantly had its abysmal form suffixed with plenty of, “but they’ll be alrights”.

Now I think it is safe to say that, relegation or not, ‘alright’ is far from the case in northern Osaka.

Vissel, too, were similarly regarded as safe quite some time ago.

The season had started with high hopes and the acquisition of quality players such as Takuya Nozawa and Masahiko Inoha, but when it seemed like Masahiro Wada was going to fail to deliver the ACL spot that the club’s ambitious yet unfocused owners demanded he was fired.

That was harsh on a young and talented coach who, in my opinion, deserved a little more time, but the recruitment of Nishino appeared on the face of it a clever move that could establish Vissel in the upper echelons of the league.

Things did not work out as planned. With their J1 future hanging in the balance the board once again pulled the trigger, and while Nishino is free from blame for Gamba’s predicament he cannot escape so lightly when it comes to Vissel.

An atrocious run of no wins in nine games which saw them pick up just three points and drop from 11th to 15th was ostensibly what cost the former Japan Olympic coach his job, and form like that is ultimately the responsibility of the man coaching and picking the team.

On closer inspection, however, the board may be the real culprits.

Nishino, for all his success at Gamba, was never an immensely popular figure with his players or supporters, and his single-minded personality had rubbed countless people up the wrong way – including figures at the JFA, which ultimately ruled him out of succeeding Takeshi Okada after the 2010 World Cup.

I interviewed Nishino around that time, when he gave a clear insight into his coaching mentality.

“I know that always thinking, “group, group” is not good, but somehow for me, with my character and style, it is hard to work with players who are too individualistic,” he told me. “I can’t accept their approach.

“Discipline is crucial for my team building. Within the performance I expect that of them and that’s the role the players have to fulfil.”

Bringing him in to take charge of a Vissel side that is hardly short of individualistic characters was perhaps not a wise decision, then.

His admission that he actually took more pride in preparing the team for the 1996 Olympics, rather than their actual achievements while there perhaps offers the clearest hint as to what may have gone wrong at Vissel.

“It was more about the process of building the team for that. Not actually being in Atlanta but the efforts to get there and the team-building process,” he explained.

A host of players entirely convinced of their own ability and intent upon winning things now do not necessarily mix well with a manager focused on slowly building for prolonged success.

Such a philosophy is admirable and Nishino certainly still has plenty to offer, but he needs a club that is prepared for and suited to his approach. Vissel, patently, was not such a club.

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November 2012

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