Archive for November, 2021


Tiki-taka Tokyo

FC Tokyo have been coasting for the past couple of seasons, but with Albert Puig looking likely to be named their new manager in 2022 things could be looking up for the J.League’s capital city club… (日本語版)

FC Tokyo are expected to announce Albert Puig as their new manager any day now, with the Spaniard set to lead the club into the 2022 season after Tokyo and Kenta Hasegawa parted ways following the humiliating 8-0 defeat to Yokohama F.Marinos on 6 November.

The 53-year-old has spent the past two seasons steadily re-shaping Albirex Niigata in J2, and although he was ultimately unable to deliver a return back to the top flight he made a positive impact in Hokuriku, forming a strong bond with Albirex’s fans on account of his open personality and dedication to an attractive style of play.

The manager’s role in Niigata was actually Puig’s first as the main man in charge, although he had amassed a wealth of experience in the preceding 30 years. Beginning his coaching career in his early 20s, Puig spent 11 years as a scout, academy coach, and academy director at Barcelona, before taking on roles as a technical director or advisor in Gabon, USA, Spain, and Angola, as well as serving as assistant coach at New York City FC for the two seasons before arriving in Japan.

Unsurprisingly for someone who played such a key role at La Masia, he defines his play style as “position, possession, passion”, and under his tutelage Albirex stuck to a 4-2-3-1 formation with plenty of the ball and an assertive, attacking stance.

He found it slightly difficult to instil that philosophy and produce results in his first year in Niigata, with the team struggling to dominate enough games and all too often relying upon a piece of individual skill to decide games in their favour. They ultimately finished 11th in 2020 – 27 points off the promotion places – although the impact of Covid-19 and subsequent lack of time between games to work on the training field will hardly have helped the players adapt to his specific instructions.

The team started this season far more emphatically though and took the early initiative in J2, winning their first five games and scoring 17 goals in the process – including an incredible 7-0 hammering of Tokyo Verdy at the end of March. Albirex’s unbeaten run would stretch to 13 games in the end, but they faded as the campaign wore on and key players picked up injuries.

As well as struggling to adapt to the absence of game-changing talents like Shion Homma, opponents also started to play reactively on account of Albirex’s style and were often content to sit back and limit the amount of space they had to work in.

After the battering of Verdy – which followed 4-1 and 3-1 wins over Giravanz Kitakyushu and Thespakusatsu Gunma in the opening handful of games – Albirex have only gone on to score more than two goals in a game three more times this season, for instance, and to-date they have drawn 13 of their 40 matches this year, failing to find the net on nine occasions as they have struggled to break obstinate opponents down.

Puig, however, is a coach very much dedicated to his approach to the game and refuses to adapt that in order to win by any means necessary.

“Keep the ball, love the ball, respect the ball”, was how he explained his message to the Albirex players ahead of the game against Machida Zelvia on 16 May (which would go on to be their first defeat of the season), and even as the team fell away from the promotion race in the latter quarter of the campaign he has stuck doggedly to that approach.

A quick look at Albirex’s five most recent games perhaps offers the clearest insight into what caught FC Tokyo’s eye. The 1-1 draw against Fagiano Okayama on 31 October, for example, saw Albirex register 65 percent of possession and make 714 passes with an 86 percent success rate. In the final third they took 14 shots at goal, five of which were on target. These figures have also been replicated in each of their subsequent four games:

Jubilo Iwata (0-1) – 57 percent possession, 657 passes (90 percent successful), eight shots, five on target; Matsumoto Yamaga (1-1) – 67 percent possession, 627 passes (85 percent successful), 17 shots, five on target; Ehime FC (2-0) – 62 percent possession, 632 passes (82 percent successful), 16 shots, nine on target; Thespakusatsu Gunma (0-0) –  73 percent possession, 721 passes (86 percent successful), 12 shots, nine on target.

Despite a clear profligacy relative to their domination of the ball, Albirex still go into this weekend’s games as fifth top scorers in J2, having found the net 60 times in their 40 matches. At the other end of the pitch, meanwhile, they have also measured up pretty well and are in possession of the fifth best defence having conceded just 37 times.

His countryman Ricardo Rodriguez, now at Urawa Reds, needed four seasons to get Tokushima Vortis promoted, and If Puig had decided to stay with Albirex next season as well they would certainly have been one of the favourites to be challenging for a place in J1. 

Instead he looks set to be making the step up on his own, and it will be fascinating to see how he adapts to the top tier and how much closer he can get to success with a deeper squad and ostensibly better players at Tokyo.

Results won’t come immediately and he will need at least a season or two to re-shape the team in his image, but if the board and fans buy in and he gets the time and players he needs then Puig could prove to be a very shrewd appointment indeed.


Samurai Blue in need of cutting edge

A slow start to the final round of World Cup qualifiers leaves Japan with a lot of ground to make up, and Hajime Moriyasu needs to make proactive changes to reignite his team… (日本語版)

As we approach the midway point in the third round of qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup finals things are far from straightforward for Hajime Moriyasu.

The 2-1 win over Australia at Saitama Stadium in October was ultimately secured at the death by a slightly fortuitous own goal, but on the balance of play Japan were well worth the three points and it has to be hoped that victory provides a much-needed boost to morale ahead of two more must-win contests against Vietnam and Oman this month.

Even so, the Samurai Blue are still languishing in fourth place in Group B after already losing to Oman and Saudi Arabia, and the starting 11 looks far from settled with big decisions needing to be made in key positions all over the pitch.

The fact that Eiji Kawashima remains in the squad despite not having featured at all for Strasbourg this season hints at an ongoing stagnation in goal, for instance, and while Shuichi Gonda remains a dependable enough first choice for the next couple of years, at 32 it would be nice to see him given more of a challenge for the No.1 jersey. Kosei Tani is of course a promising prospect, but the fact that Keisuke Osako, Yuya Oki, and Kosuke Nakamura’s progress has stalled enough to prevent them being included is something of a concern.

The end of the line also looks as though it is finally approaching for Yuto Nagatomo, and the lack of a clear successor at left back is an issue Moriyasu will have to contend with sooner rather than later. Yuta Nakayama and Reo Hatate are his two understudies in the current squad, and while the former impressed in patches at the Olympics he doesn’t yet have the same quality in attack as Nagatomo at his peak. Hatate more than matches up in that regard, but as an attacking midfielder by trade he still has a lot of work to do defensively if he is to make the full time conversion to full-back.

In the middle of the park, meanwhile, there is the question of who starts alongside Wataru Endo. The VfB Stuttgart man is now nailed on as one of the first names on the team-sheet for his country, and the combination of him, Ao Tanaka, and Hidemasa Morita was pivotal to ensuring control of proceedings against the Socceroos last month. Of course, persevering with that trio in a 4-3-3 as opposed to the long-preferred 4-2-3-1 would mean again leaving Gaku Shibasaki out in the cold, and despite his costly error against Saudi Arabia the Leganes man remains more than capable of making a difference at this level.

Perhaps the biggest questions linger over Moriyasu’s choices in the final third of the pitch for these two games though, with Japan in desperate need of some cutting edge in front of goal if they are to reignite their hopes of automatic qualification for Qatar.

Kaoru Mitoma, along with his former Kawasaki Frontale teammate Hatate, has finally been given his first call-up to the full national team, and the Brighton and Hove Albion man, currently on loan at Belgian Pro League high flyers Royale Union Saint-Gilloise, should be thrown straight into the starting line-up against Vietnam on Thursday.

The 24-year-old is exactly the kind of player Japan need to add some urgency, unpredictability, and, most importantly, goals to their play, and with Takefusa Kubo again missing on account of injury the team is crying out for Mitoma’s craft at the business end of the pitch.

The same can be said of Kyogo Furuhashi, who is showing no signs of slowing down for Celtic in either the Scottish League or European competition and has found the net 13 times already this season (plus the 15 he notched for Vissel Kobe before leaving in the summer).

Although I remain in the minority in that I prefer him starting out wide in a position from which he can play with the game in front of him, the former Kobe and FC Gifu man has been in scintillating form as the central striker for Ange Postecoglou’s side, and while Yuya Osako has long been established as first choice for the Samurai Blue he only has one goal in his last four games for Japan as well as just two in his eight appearances since joining Vissel as a replacement for Furuhashi at the end of August.

Those figures and their undoubted impact on each player’s confidence means it should be a straightforward choice for Moriyasu as to which one takes to the field at My Dinh National Stadium, but regardless of whether he sticks or twists what everyone can agree on is that six points from six are a must – by any means necessary.

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November 2021