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.

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November 2021

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