Archive for January, 2021


Rica Reds

Ricardo Rodriguez is taking on a huge new challenge at Urawa Reds, but if he can replicate what he achieved over the past four years at Tokushima Vortis then the Saitama giant could be set for a blockbuster return to glory (日本語版)

The 2020 J.League season may feel like it only finished yesterday, but preparations for the new campaign are already in full swing – or as full as they can be when taking into account the ongoing pandemic and associated complications.

One of these is the difficulty of actually getting new signings into Japan, and as well as several players still being unsure as to when they’ll be able to join up with their new clubs Tokushima Vortis are also having to wait on manager Daniel Poyatos, who is stuck in Spain and unable to enter the country until 7 February at the earliest, after which he’ll be required to undergo two weeks of self-isolation.

That is far from an ideal way for the 42-year-old to make a start on succeeding Ricardo Rodriguez and preparing Vortis for a first top flight campaign since 2014, but the transition to a new boss should be smoother for three other teams, with Vegalta Sendai and Cerezo Osaka opting to bring back Makoto Teguramoi and Levir Culpi (again), respectively, and Shimizu S-Pulse hiring Miguel Angel Lotina, whose ordered style of play will have become familiar to J1 fans over the past two years at Cerezo.

That leaves Rodriguez as the only truly fresh face to be out on a first division training pitch this January, with the Spaniard having been handed the reins at Urawa Reds after steering Vortis to the J2 title last season. That triumph came a year after the Shikoku side only missed out on promotion after drawing with Shonan Bellmare in the 2019 play-off final, and marked a fitting end to Rodriguez’s four years in charge, during which he installed an attractive and effective style of play as well as endearing himself to the club’s fans. The task at Urawa will be on a whole different scale, but the 46-year-old is embracing a challenge he first contemplated several years ago.

“I am very excited,” he told Stuart Smith on the J-Talk Podcast at the end of December. “It’s a big club, it’s a club that has ambition, the same as me as a coach. The first image I have from Urawa is when I was watching the [J.League Championship] final in 2016 with a full stadium, with a good way of football – more or less the same style that I like – and I said to myself, ‘Ok, one day to be the coach of this team, I would like’. I was thinking four years ago, and now the opportunity is coming.”

The intervening period saw Rodriguez deliver results and entertainment to the fans at Pocari Sweat Stadium, with a style of football centred upon proactive play when in possession of the ball and high pressing when not.

“The goalkeeper is important, but in my opinion what is more important is the profile of the striker,” he explained to Smith. “The first line is very important for defending well, and all the team has to do it. Obviously the goalkeeper has to stay up – Kami (Naoto Kamifukumoto) has this capacity to defend far from his goal – and at the end of the day all the team has to defend, all the team has to attack. Not only 10 players, 11 players – because in modern football the goalkeeper, in my opinion, is a key player.”

In Shusaku Nishikawa Rodriguez will have another keeper keen to get involved in the build-up and play out from the back, and it will be interesting to see what combination he goes for in attack and how well the likes of Shinzo Koroki and Leonardo can function as the first line of defence as well as the last line of attack.

“I think there was a very high influence from (Pep) Guardiola, (Jorge) Sampaoli, (Marcelo) Bielsa as well,” Rodriguez continued of his footballing philosophy. “[These are] the three coaches that I like to watch when I have free time to watch football.

“I am [highly convinced] that my way of football is this, I want to do this kind of football. I want to improve this way of football, and I am all the time thinking or looking for the way to improve the team with this idea. At the end of the day I think that the work of coaching is to improve the players, improve the teams, and the most important, show a spectacle to the supporters, no? I want that people who go to the stadium enjoy football, enjoy watching the team. And what is the way of enjoying? Attacking. Watching the team attacking, watching the team creating chances.”

The statistics from his time in Tokushima bear this out, with the team finishing in the top three scorers in three of his four seasons in charge, while last year they recorded the best passing accuracy (84.7 percent), made the most dribbles (13.6 per game), and were the most clinical with their opportunities, scoring with 15.9 percent of them.

“I realised when the team is running [a lot], when the team is doing high pressing, the supporters appreciate this kind of effort,” he said. “I understand my job like a film director or theatre director, and I want to make people enjoy my [work].”

Saitama Stadium won’t be as full as it was for the game against Kashima Antlers that first introduced Rodriguez to his new club for some time yet, but if he can achieve the same results on the pitch in Urawa as he did in Tokushima then he’ll certainly have Reds’ fans on the edge of their seats and glued to their screens.


In the moment

While it is undoubtedly positive that fans in Japan have been able to keep attending games, the restrictions in place mean the matchday experience is still lacking a certain je ne sais quoi… (日本語版)

I was very much looking forward to the Levain Cup final on 4 January, as it had been a long time since I’d seen a game live.

In fact, the last time I had been at the stadium for a match had been the Super Cup at the start of February last year, meaning I managed to bookend my 2020 campaign by watching the curtain raiser and season finale without witnessing any of the action in-between.

While it was good to catch up with some familiar faces and get a first look at the new National Stadium, however, I have to admit that there was a feeling of anticlimax at being back on the ground.

Over the previous 11 months I’d had to adjust to covering the J.League from afar, replacing regular trips to stadiums and training grounds with watching matches on DAZN and joining press conferences or carrying out interviews online or over the phone. In some ways this enabled me to gain a wider perspective on the football being played each matchday, with the comfort and ease of streaming meaning I could watch several games per day rather than being restricted to the one taking place at whichever stadium I had chosen to be at.

On the other hand though, this remote approach eliminated much of what makes live sport so enjoyable – that feeling of having been ‘at’ the game, of having seen events unfold before your own eyes in real time and, most importantly of all, having done so with others.

Shared experiences of all kinds have become limited (or, in many cases, made impossible) by the coronavirus outbreak, and there are concerns worldwide about the impact the lack of social interaction is having on mental health. Spending free time with friends and acquanitances is a vital way to relieve stress and escape the pressures and/or tedium of everyday life, and although the J.League should be commended for having worked so hard to ensure fans have been able to return to stadiums, the number restrictions and lengthy lists of dos and don’ts mean the situation is still a long way from normal.

While I often find myself becoming bored with the repetitive drone of the same old songs being sung by fans irrespective of what is happening on the pitch, for example, the sound of 25,000 FC Tokyo and Kashiwa Reysol fans clapping in time made for a slightly eerie and underwhelming atmosphere. This was further highlighted by the spontaneous eruptions each time a goal was scored, with the spontaneous roars of the fans providing reminders of what watching football used to be like – before everyone remembered the situation and rules and returned to their COVID-19-safe style of muted applause.

Football is often lauded for its ability to provide a feeling of togetherness and offer opportunities to exist in the moment, with the sport providing an outlet when everything else seems too much. I won’t ever forget the extraordinary emotion in the stadium when Vegalta Sendai returned to action against Kawasaki Frontale after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, for instance, and while I’m sure many fans are still deriving pleasure from attending games even in this alternate reality, the constraints in place mean it is undeniably a watered down version of the real thing.

Indeed, the ongoing situation must be incredibly trying for supporters, with J.League clubs usually so effective at ensuring connections to the players via various forms of ‘fan service’ – all of which are now impossible. Coming from a country where players are kept way out of reach (I once contacted a Premier League club asking for a signed picture of a player as a birthday present for my girlfriend, only to receive a pre-printed team photo instead because the player was “too busy”) these efforts were one of the first things that truly impressed me about football in Japan, and the inability to maintain those strong bonds – in a physical, face-to-face sense, rather than an ambiguous marketing one – provides another challenge to clubs who are already feeling the financial strain of the pandemic.

The situation of course can’t be helped, and until vaccinations are widely available and it is absolutely safe to return to normality then measures will need to remain in place. Here’s hoping that 2021 develops into a more positive year than its predecessor though, and that we are all able to return to personal, authentic, lived experiences at stadiums around Japan – and across the globe – as soon as possible.

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January 2021