Archive for June, 2022


Sanfrecce shooting sharp

It’s been a while since Sanfrecce Hiroshima were at their trophy-winning peak under Hajime Moriyasu, but Michael Skibbe’s reign has started brightly and he has the Purple Archers looking lean and sharp heading into the second half of the 2022 J1 campaign… (日本語版)

Sanfrecce Hiroshima got off to a slow start this season, drawing their first two games with Shinya Sakoi in charge as Michael Skibbe saw his arrival in the country delayed by covid entry complications.

The German then needed a little time to find his feet after successfully clearing immigration, with his first three matches in the dugout producing another draw (1-1 v. Vissel Kobe) and defeats to FC Tokyo (2-1) and Kawasaki Frontale (2-0).

Since then the team has lost just once in the league, however (2-1 at home to fellow surprise packages Kashiwa Reysol), clicking impressively into gear and sitting seven points behind leaders Yokohama F. Marinos with Wednesday’s game against Gamba Osaka in hand.

A key to Sanfrecce’s impressive form has undoubtedly been Skibbe’s selection consistency, with the starting line-up barely altering from game to game as they have gradually refined their style built upon a solid three-man defence and energetic, proactive approach from the front.

The back three of Tsukasa Shiotani, Hayato Araki, and Sho Sasaki is well-drilled, disciplined, and physical, and they more than matched a robust Avispa Fukuoka in that department during the 3-1 win at the weekend, with Sasaki and Shiotani in particular going toe-to-toe with Juanma and not being intimidated by the Spaniard’s gung-ho approach.

Nassim Ben Khalifa and then Douglas Vieira were equally as willing to butt heads at the other end of the pitch, with the former riling the home team’s back three up expertly in the first half before the latter replaced him for the second period and struck twice to become Sanfrecce’s match-winner for the second game in a row after his late strike against Cerezo Osaka in Round 17.

The Brazilian’s decisive goal in this game was put on a plate for him by Gakuto Notsuda, who has quietly re-established himself as a key player for Sanfrecce after a few years during which it looked like he may never quite achieve the potential he showed when emerging as a highly-rated youngster in the middle of the previous decade.

After performing in fits and starts for his hometown club Notsuda was sent for spells on loan at Albirex Niigata (2016), Shimizu S-Pulse (2017), and Vegalta Sendai (2017 and 2018) as he looked to spark fully into life, but with things still not igniting back at Edion Stadium in 2019 and 2020 he was shipped out again to Ventforet Kofu last year.

It looked like that may be it for his chances in purple, but despite only finding the net twice in J2 he missed just one game all season in Yamanashi and returned to Sanfrecce reinvigorated at the start of this campaign, since when he has asserted himself as a key lieutenant for Skibbe.

His controlled performances in the middle of the park have been supplemented with decisive actions in each of the team’s last three games, with goals in the wins over Nagoya Grampus and Cerezo Osaka, and as well as the assist for Douglas Vieira’s first goal against Avispa it was also Notsuda’s dogged pressing that enabled Sanfrecce to open the scoring in the 28th minute at Best Denki Stadium after he won possession from Hiroyuki Mae before Ben Khalifa teed up Makoto Mitsuta to drill home.

The fact a goal was never in doubt once the ball was rolled into Mitsuta’s path says everything about how much of an impact the 22-year-old has made in a sensational debut season, and if he continues to play with such confidence, verve, and ruthlessness in the final third then it surely won’t be long before European clubs come calling. It is still early days, but his impact so far is reminiscent of Yoshinori Muto at FC Tokyo in 2015 and Kaoru Mitoma at Kawasaki Frontale in 2020.

Knowing they have such talent in the final third obviously gives Sanfrecce encouragement to force the issue and look to make things happen in games. They certainly started crisply and on the front foot against Avispa, moving the ball forward slickly and at pace and pressing aggressively from the front to keep Fukuoka on the back foot, and the consistency in Skibbe’s team selection means the players share a clear understanding of each other’s movements and intentions when in possession.

Even after getting caught out for Avispa’s equaliser Hiroshima remained calm and stuck to their task, and it is clear the players have a real unity of purpose and have bought fully into the way Skibbe wants them to play.

“It’s a fantastic achievement and I have given the payers tomorrow off – I think they deserve that after today’s performance,” the manager said of his team’s fourth consecutive league victory.

“Our next opponent Gamba Osaka has a game tomorrow, so we will relax and watch their match in order to make sure we are fully prepared.”

That doesn’t bode well for a Gamba side that hasn’t adjusted quite so well to their first year under new management, and Tomohiro Katanosaka’s men will need to be at their very best if they are to avoid becoming the latest side to be struck down by the Purple Archers.


Japan-ic stations

The general consensus is that Japan’s group at the upcoming World Cup is beyond them. The Samurai Blue have plenty in their locker though, and what’s important now is making sure they use it properly… (日本語版)

In a World Cup year friendly matches always attract greater scrutiny, with observers keener than ever to draw conclusions, identify areas in need of improvement, and suggest alternatives to what the manager and players are currently doing.

Japan’s recent games against Paraguay, Brazil, Ghana, and Tunisia were no different in that regard, with the shadows of Germany and Spain looming large over proceedings and all four contests offering fans, media, and of course Hajime Moriyasu himself plenty of food for thought.

Each of Japan’s six appearances at World Cup finals so far have assumed distinctive flavours, with excitement and expectation levels very much dependent upon the set of circumstances heading into each competition.

In 1998 the nation was just happy to finally be taking part in the showpiece event in France, 2002 offered the once in a lifetime opportunity to compete as hosts, and Germany was perhaps the first time fans experienced the deflation of underachievement, as a comparatively star-studded squad exited meekly at the group stage.

South Africa in 2010 saw the Samurai Blue do far better than any had imagined heading into the tournament, 2014 went the other way as a squad of players at the peak of their powers froze in the spotlight and tearfully left Brazil with just a single point, while 2018 promised to be a disaster after a managerial change on the eve of the kick-off only for Akira Nishino and his men to upset the odds once again and make it to the cusp of the quarter-finals.

Before the draw was made for Qatar there was cautious optimism about the team’s chances this time around – and then the balls were plucked from their bowls and the clouds drew in. Germany and Spain.

Germany and Spain. Germany and Spain. Two of the last three champions. Undisputed heavyweights of the game, and a pair of sides who will as ever head into the finals among the favourites to be crowned world champions. That, many assumed, was that for Japan.

Of course, things don’t always go as expected out on the pitch, and while this is clearly the toughest group Japan have been dealt to date – including, let’s not forget, Costa Rica, who won’t be pushovers either – it would be foolish to assume the tournament is over before Moriyasu and his squad even board the plane for Doha.

Germany and Spain both registered maximum points in the group stage at the 2006 World Cup but have endured difficulties at each of the last three editions – Germany losing to Serbia in 2010, drawing with Ghana in 2014, and coming bottom of their group after defeats to Mexico and South Korea in Russia; Spain going down to Switzerland in South Africa, exiting at the group stage in Brazil after losses to the Netherlands and Chile, and drawing with Portugal and Morocco last time out –  and there’s no reason why Japan can’t add to those woes this winter.

Against Paraguay and Ghana we saw that Moriyasu has a wealth of options to choose from in attack, with all of Ritsu Doan, Daichi Kamada, and Kaoru Mitoma demonstrating their undoubted quality in the final third, while Wataru Endo yet again dominated in midfield and underlined just how vital he has become to the team.

The VfB Stuttgart man put in another dogged showing against Brazil in-between those games, a contest in which Japan as a whole really impressed with their willingness to engage physically with Neymar and co.. Such grit is absolutely integral if Japan are to trouble opposition at the highest level, something Endo reiterated post match.

“I think the Japan national team is able to compete in those one-on-one battles against the strongest teams, and today the opponent really seemed to dislike it,” he said. “That kind of tenacity is typical of Japanese players and something I’m personally always focused on in one-on-ones in the Bundesliga. I feel like that strength is coming out more and more, and it will undoubtedly be a vital aspect at the World Cup.”

That intensity was on display again in Kobe against Ghana, and as the challenges flew in in an uncharacteristically rough-and-ready friendly Takumi Minamino was pleasingly among those not shying away from confrontation. Meanwhile, Takefusa Kubo finally scored his first goal for the full national team and Junya Ito and Daizen Maeda both contributed from the bench to remind Moriyasu they are still in the mix as well.

The goals gifted to Paraguay and Ghana were concerning, however, and Maya Yoshida’s nightmare second half against Tunisia served up some more worrying scenes in defence. Such unforced errors can’t be permitted once the finals roll around, and even the slightest slip up over the 270 minutes in Group E could spell disaster.

Going forwards, meanwhile, these friendlies demonstrated that Japan have to focus on playing to their attacking strengths – which, for this correspondent’s money means going with creative ball-players like Mitoma, Kubo, and Doan instead of Moriyasu safe picks like Minamino, Asano, and Ito (who I prefer as an impact sub).

The June fixtures ended on a bum note with the loss to Tunisia in the Osaka rain, but there’s no need to overreact to a bad day at the office. If Japan adopts a proactive stance in possession and takes the game to their opponents, can avoid costly mistakes in defence, and continues to go toe-to-toe in the duels – and, of course, gets that little bit of luck that all teams need – then they’ll be in with a fighting chance in November.

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June 2022