Back to basics

Omiya Ardija have improved dramatically over the past year, and they may not be finished just yet…


Omiya Ardija are top of J1.

I know this is not breaking news but just read that sentence again. It doesn’t look right, does it?

Top they are though, and The Squirrels more than merit place at the summit having been the most consistent side all season. Actually, for longer than that, with them spending the last three months of the 2012 season undefeated in the league as well.

Along with the constantly-referred-to record that is now in their possession (for anyone who’s been otherwise engaged for the past month, they broke Kashima Antlers 18-game undefeated streak, and then some) they are now rather like the Lionel Messi of the J.League, with new records seemingly being broken on a weekly basis. Apparently – according to Ben Maxwell of the J-Talk Podcast – their 26 points from the opening 10 games is a single-season best start, for example.

One person who wouldn’t be concerned with that stat, however, is the team’s coach, Zdenko Verdenik.

I interviewed the Slovenian ahead of Ardija’s game against Urawa Reds last month and he insisted that talk of such things didn’t interest him or the players in the slightest, swatting away my suggestion that sealing the record against Urawa would be especially satisfying.

“For us we want to keep going with confidence as we have been, to continue playing our football and to just take things one game at a time. This game, too, we want to keep going and, of course, to win the game.”

The Squirrels are No.1

He did allow a glimmer of satisfaction with the team’s resoluteness to slip through, though, adding, “but, we haven’t lost for 17 games which is evidence that our play is stable.”

That is something of an understatement, and that stability has seen Omiya not only record its sensational run but in doing so beat heavyweights Kashima, Urawa, Kashiwa, and Hiroshima on their way to top-spot.

Verdenik’s back-to-basics approach is what set the process in motion.

“At the start, what I did was work on the model and structure for the type of football, in terms of attacking and defending – what we were trying to aim for,” he explained when I asked him how he’d turned the perennial relegation-battlers into such a solid unit. “Through training we made it clear and learned that quickly. Making sure we were able to play within that model and structure is what I did first.

“After doing this basic thing, we would work hard at more important aspects to improve the level of play. And through training we were able to really see the improvements.”

The success so far has been achieved even though Keigo Higashi – the closest Omiya had to a star player last season – has moved on to FC Tokyo, and while some feel that his departure has freed up Cho Young-cheol to exert more influence on the team Verdenik still wants more from the Korean.

Zdenko Verdenik, 10th April, 2013

“The fact that Higashi left is a shame. Cho Young-Cheol has different qualities to Higashi. Higashi was very good at combining on both sides and creating chances, Young-Cheol is a very impressive player in different ways. He has speed and exceptional ability at breaking through defences.

“Right now what we want from him is to learn and try to take on the qualities that Higashi had. He will become even stronger if he works on his combination play with the players around him.”

Co-operation is key for Verdenik, and he also praised Zlatan Ljubijankic and Milivoje Novakovic for their selflessness, referring to the fact that they think about and provide the team with far more than just goals.

There is still a lot of football to be played, and nobody – least of all Verdenik – is seriously thinking of a title challenge at the moment, but survival will soon be assured and then – assuming, as we surely must considering the way the team has played for the best part of a year, that performances and results don’t drop off – previously unthinkable targets will move within sight.

“The result will come from the quality of play, our good football, and that will determine our position,” Verdenik said. “Of course, if we can continue to perform well and achieve the results then we will be able to finish in a high position.”

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