Blame game

The president of Cerezo Osaka recently announced he will resign after their disastrous season, but does that make everything ok? No, of course it doesn’t… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/11/27/post58024/ )

Football Channel,  November 27th, 2014

Cerezo Osaka are hanging onto their J1 place by their fingernails, but as the team scraps away at the bottom of the table their president Masao Okano has declared he’ll be resigning at the end of the season.

If I work in a café and drop a full tray of glasses on the floor am I going to shrug my shoulders, take off my apron, and make for the exit? No, I’m going to get down on my hands and knees and start cleaning up the mess I’ve made. Why, then, does the same not apply to those at the top of the company?

‘Taking responsibility’ is usually how acts of sacrifice such as Okano’s are explained, but to me it appears the opposite. A colleague suggested the day after Cerezo announced that Okano would be throwing in the towel that it is in fact not taking ‘responsibility’ but taking the ‘blame’. A modern-day seppuku, publically atoning for your errors.

Why not learn from the mistakes made and try to put them right, though? Whether Okano is the right man to be making the decisions at Cerezo is certainly up for debate, but can their possible relegation be laid solely at his door? Of course not. Stepping down appears a way of saying it is though, thus exonerating everyone else of all responsibility for a catastrophic season.

And, let’s be honest, there are plenty of people who need to be taking responsibility – and blame – for 2014’s debacle, principal among them the coaches and players.

Ranko Popovic opted to bring Ariajasuru Hasegawa with him from FC Tokyo, breaking up the tried-and-trusted central midfield pairing of Hotaru Yamaguchi and Takahiro Ogihara. From the outside that looked an odd decision, and as Popovic tried to get his ideas across to his new team thrown off by the loss of their heartbeat they picked up just 16 points from his first 13 league games.

They would, in fact, prove to be his only 13 league games and he was fired over the World Cup break and replaced by Marco Pezzaiuoli – a coach unknown in Japan but who was apparently a specialist at developing young players.

Popovic’s record would soon look positively glowing (his average points per game of 1.23 would have actually seen Cerezo safe after 34 games on around 41-42 points) as Pezzaiuoli failed to register a single league win in his nine games at the helm. In the German’s disastrous two month reign Cerezo claimed just 4 points (0.44pg) which would, theoretically, have seen them finish on around 15-16 points if he had he been in charge all season.

I was at both Popovic and Pezzaiuoli’s last games, and in both the team lacked cohesion, quality, and belief. In fact, I have seen Cerezo seven times this year and they won just once – and even that was the ultimately futile victory in the second leg of their Nabisco Cup quarter-final against Kawasaki Frontale (maybe I should take some blame too?).

The players looked almost afraid on the pitch in all of those games, perhaps having gotten caught up in all the hype and unsure of how to marry their new ‘idol’ status and hairstyles with the more rugged pursuit of winning football matches.

That was a concern Popovic had in fact hinted at ahead of the season.

“We have to be concentrating on the game, not around, the stadium and so on,” he told me at the Kick Off Conference. At the time I assumed he was just trying to keep expectations in check ahead of a title push, but in hindsight I wonder if he already had concerns about the mental strength of the squad he had inherited.

“The first thing we have to do is to fight with this pressure because the team is young,” he continued. “The team is young and in Cerezo’s history they’ve never had two seasons the same level – one season good another so-so. We have to be more constant and I hope that this season we can go up and wait for our chance.”

Cerezo's players acknowledge their fans ahead of the 0-0 with Yokohama F.Marinos in October

He’d clearly done his homework and a cursory glance over Cerezo’s J1 history shows that the club often struggles to maintain performance: In 2000 they finished 5th and were relegated the next year; in 2005 they finished 5th – although they were top until Yasuyuki Konno’s famous equaliser for FC Tokyo in the 89th minute on the last day – and dropped down to J2 in 2006; after coming 3rd in 2010 they slumped to 12th the following year; last year they finished 4th and the best they can hope for in 2014 is 14th.

Even that is looking like a tall ask though, and while Yuji Okuma started his spell in charge of the top team with a win over Kashiwa Reysol the expectation that the former youth coach would put everything right hasn’t come to fruition and he’s gathered just 11 points in his 10 games in the hot-seat so far (1.1ppg, a full season projection of 37-38 points).

There is, of course, an elephant in the room here, and we can’t have this discussion without using the ‘F’ word.

Forlan was the great hope for Cerezo 2014, and Diego’s arrival created a flurry of excitement around the club which saw them installed as nailed-on favourites for the title. Again Popovic showed some good foresight in that respect.

“What I don’t like is because Diego came to us everybody says, ‘Cerezo is the champion, other teams have to play for 2nd place’,” he said way back in February. “This is not so. We have to demonstrate it. This is what we have to do first. To relieve this pressure and concentrate on our game.

“If we’re waiting for everything from Diego it’s wrong because we have other players. Football is a team sport and we have to work like a team. When we work together like a team and everybody puts his personal quality inside that team we can expect some good results.”

Things haven’t transpired like that and it is hard to pick out a single Cerezo player – including Forlan – who has shown any real quality this season.

The Uruguayan is still the club’s top scorer in the league with seven goals, though, and if he’s not injured – as he doesn’t appear to be – then why is he not being played?

That is a question only Okuma can answer – although Forlan’s name, hollered from the rooftops back in March, is now only uttered in hushed tones – and for which he must take responsibility.

Of course, Okano was the man who employed Okuma – and Popovic, and Pezzaiuoli – and so he must absolutely take his portion of the blame for this mess of a season – perhaps more so for his firings than the hirings.

Take a look at the J.League champions since the league adapted a one-stage format: Gamba Osaka (2005), Urawa Reds (2006), Kashima Antlers (2007-09), Nagoya Grampus (2010), Kashiwa Reysol (2011), Sanfrecce Hiroshima (2012-13). Each club gave one coach time to build a team (Hajime Moriyasu is the exception at Sanfrecce, although he had worked under his predecessor Mihailo Petrovic) and ultimately earned their just rewards. Cerezo panicked, thought they’d picked the wrong man, replaced him, panicked again, then ran out of money and put the youth coach in charge. They’ve had the same number of coaches this season as they had in the previous six.

This was the first time in a decade that the club had been expected to challenge for honours, though, and so errors were always likely. The sale of Yoichiro Kakitani and injury to Hotaru Yamaguchi – the club’s only two really high quality players – were also factors, but instead of bringing in a new president who may also falter would it not make more sense for Okano – and the club as a whole – to learn from these lessons and make sure that the same mistakes aren’t repeated in the future?

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