Best foot forward

Yokohama F.Marinos have been uncharacteristically solid defensively of late, although, characteristically, that state of affairs is being enabled by an all-action front four… (日本語版)

Yokohama F.Marinos under Ange Postecoglou have always been an attack-minded side, and as the Australian himself often likes to say when they’re good they’re very good but when they’re not, well, they can be pretty bad – especially in defence.

Last week’s 5-0 demolition of Yokohama FC again showcased the best Marinos have to offer going forwards, as they rode out a tricky opening 15 minutes or so before going on to swat aside their local rivals with a dominant display that could ultimately have been won by an even bigger margin.

This game wasn’t only notable for the goals going it at one end of the pitch, however, and it also served to further highlight a newfound stringency Marinos have discovered at the back. In the entirety of the 2020 season Marinos only managed to keep six clean sheets in J1, but the shutout in the derby was their fifth of this year already – all of which have come in the last eight games, a run during which they have conceded just three goals.

“I think one ties into the other,” Postecoglou said when asked about the non-stop running of his forwards and the team’s current solidity in defence. “I think the reason we’ve been better defensively is that our front players work really hard – they’re our first line of defence.

“We work on it all the time, but it’s got to be in the players too. It’s the reason we brought these players in. If you want to play as a striker in our team you’ll get an opportunity to score a lot of goals, but you have to work hard in a defensive sense.

“I think today that was the real key for us, because we knew Yokohama [FC] weren’t going to be too expansive in terms of being too open, so our best moments might come when they lose the ball in [their] half. We wanted to try and win it back and put them under pressure again.”

When you have the likes of Daizen Maeda, Marcos Junior, Elber, and Ado Onaiwu at your disposal you certainly aren’t going to be wanting for willing runners in that sense, and once Yokohama FC’s early enthusiasm had fizzled out that quartet were a constant menace – hounding, harrying, and hassling from the front to ensure the visitors had no time at all to get comfortable in possession.

Maeda epitomised Marinos’ work-rate out of possession, and the speed with which the 23-year-old moves across the turf really is remarkable. Lining up on the left of what was essentially a front four the former Matsumoto Yamaga man was a bundle of pace, aggression, and energy from the very first whistle, and while his finishing let him down on occasion his enthusiasm never waned.

The majority of J.League teams tend to allow the opposition keeper time on the ball when it finds its way back to him, for instance, but Maeda, Onaiwu, and Elber didn’t give Yuji Rokutan a moment to relax in possession, forcing him to play out with urgency and, in turn, more often than not resulting in the ball being turned back over to the hosts.

The attackers weren’t afraid to work backwards either, with Tatsuki Seko and co. not only finding themselves closed down by the Marinos’ midfielders or defenders in front of them but also having to fend off challenges being made by one or more of the host’s returning forwards – or, quite often, both at the same time.

On one such occasion in the 52nd minute Maeda pressed back to dispossess Seko but then over-hit his pass for Elber, but neither that nor another missed opportunity to get on the scoresheet 10 minutes later caused his head to drop, and he was to get his just rewards in the 71st minute.

Despite Jun Amano misplacing his pass infield, Maeda was too flight of foot for the sluggish Maguinho and got his toe to the ball first, and after possession was recycled quickly forwards he was on hand to tuck home Marinos’ fourth from close range after Takahiro Ogihara’s ball across goal a mere 13 seconds later.

Finally finding the net didn’t cause him to let up either, and five minutes later he was tearing in behind again to latch onto a Kota Mizunuma ball over the top, although he couldn’t quite get the ball under control in what turned out to be his final contribution of the afternoon before making way for debutant Leo Ceara – who himself went on to score less than a minute after taking to the field.

“We still have a very heavy programme, so we need those players,” Postecoglou said of the wealth of options he has to choose from in attack.

“Our front players are very important to us as, as has already been mentioned, they have to work very hard, so it’d be very difficult for them to play every game. We’ve got Leo in now, which is great, so we’ve got some more depth in that front third, and hopefully [Teruhito] Nakagawa’s not too far away, a couple more weeks – we’ll need him as well.

“I think it’s not so much that there’s competition [between players], it just means that we’re able to maintain a good level every game. Because that’s what we were missing last year – we were very inconsistent. When we played well we were good, but when we played not so well we were very poor. We’ve tried to adjust that this year, and it’s good that all the strikers are scoring goals. Ado and Daizen were great today and I thought Elber was fantastic. Marcos Junior is getting to full fitness, he’s not quite there, so it’s good for us.”

Good for them it may be, but there can’t be many defences looking forward to coming up against Marinos’ front line right now, whichever players it’s comprised of.

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