Schoolboy stuff

Vahid Halilhodzic started 2016 by criticising the lack of variety in Japanese football, and the High School championships are unlikely to have cheered him up on that front… (Also available in English here / 日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Wednesday 13th January, 2016

Vahid Halilhodzic has been in charge of Japan for almost a year now, and at the start of 2016 he made some characteristically frank comments about the current state of the Japanese game.

The Bosnian has certainly not been afraid to speak his mind since taking over from Javier Aguirre last March, and whether it be publicly highlighting the body fat ratios of his players, pleading with them to take more shots at goal, or asking for J.League referees to improve upon their communication skills, he can hardly be accused of taking things easy as he familiarizes himself with football in Japan.

While the Samurai Blue are sitting pretty at the top of their second round World Cup qualifying group, the 63-year-old suggested he is far from content with what he has seen from his players so far, with one comment in particular standing out.

“There aren’t any players to replace [Keisuke] Honda or [Shinji] Kagawa and the future is uncertain,” he was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. “The style of football in the J. League and Europe is completely different, especially when it comes to the competitiveness.

“Japanese society is wonderfully organized but there are few opportunities for individuals to take the initiative, which leads to a lack of creativity. And that shows in matches.”

This problem is far from exclusive to the J.League or national team, and a rigidity and conservativeness is often also found at the lower levels of the Japanese game – which is worrying and ties in with Halilhodzic’s concerns regarding the next generation of Japanese players.

Youngsters in Japan are consistently being produced with outstanding technical ability, leading to more and more players being given opportunities to fill the assist-making positions in Europe. That is all well and good, but far from ideal when it comes to the national team as you can’t build a formidable side with 11 full-backs and No.10s.

It often seems that too much importance is placed on ability with the ball at the feet, even for centre-backs and strikers who don’t necessarily need to be overly gifted in these areas. This results in a shortage of players in the key central positions, with those lacking a velvet touch being deemed surplus to requirements at youth level.

This was highlighted at the recent high school football tournament, with the most successful teams all extremely competent in possession and boasting several tricky wingers and fleet-footed playmakers. Where are the rough-and-ready defenders and line-leading strikers though?

Higashi Fukuoka v. Kokugakuin Kugayama, Monday 11th January. 2016

Despite emerging as 2-1 victors from their semi-final against Aomori Yamada, Kokugakuin Kugayama’s defence was sent into complete disarray each time Kairi Harayama sent a long throw careening into its box, for example, while 2015 champions Seiryo took until the 54th minute of their 2-0 semi-final defeat to Higashi Fukuoka to record their first shot on target.

While Fukuoka ultimately went on to emphatically win the final 5-0, before their second goal forced Kugayama to take more risks large spells of the game were played out in the middle third of the pitch, with the play often as predictable and repetitive as the regimented chants raining down from the stands.

Taken on its own that could be seen as typical of a match of such magnitude (or a recent Manchester United game), but such encounters are a common sight in Japan, with teams invariably cancelling each other out and merely persevering with the same attacks until an opponent makes a mistake. That approach may pay off domestically but it is far less likely to be effective at the highest levels of the game.

This lack of variety is likely what led Halilhodzic to question the wisdom of those assuming Japan are a shoo-in for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. “A lot of people think Japan are at an advantage but if you compare player for player there are better teams than Japan,” he said. “The finals are still way off in the distance.

“In attack, goals have been harder to come by than I imagined. We need a proper goal scorer. The stronger our opponents are, the fewer chances we are going to get. That is when you need goals. Why are there no Japanese players leading the scoring charts in the world’s top leagues?”

If players are not given the opportunity to develop in those arts as they take their first steps in the game, though, it is difficult to expect them to cultivate a ruthlessness in front of goal once they progress through the ranks.

“You have to think of ways to improve the J. League,” Halilhodzic concluded. “Japan has to find its own identity and not just copy Brazil or Germany. In my mind, I have a way of building a unique team that draws on the strengths of each and every player.”

Here’s hoping that is some master plan, because it doesn’t look like he’ll be benefiting from a wider array of players anytime soon – nor, perhaps, will his successors.

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