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.

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