Author Archive for Sean Carroll

24
Mar
21

The Future is Now

This week sees the full and Olympic Japan national teams back in action, with the Samurai Blue at risk of being overshadowed by their younger counterparts… (日本語版)

The full national team and its Olympic counterpart (currently re-badged as the U-24s after Tokyo 2020 was delayed by 12 months) are usually considered as two separate entities, but the quirk of the scheduling for both teams’ upcoming matches has seen them sharing the limelight somewhat in recent days.

Indeed, JFA Technical Director Yasuharu Sorimachi was even having to field questions about the U-24 team on the day the full national squad was confirmed, and while he reasoned that the two announcements had been arranged for separate days in order to ensure the Olympic selection didn’t miss out on media coverage, he really needn’t have worried.

If anything, it could be argued that the JFA staggered the squad announcements because they didn’t want the full national team missing out on column inches at the expense of the up-and-comers, with the appetite for news on the younger squad equal to, if not greater than, that for updates on the Samurai Blue at the moment.

While that state of affairs is of course largely down to the fact that Japan are set to participate as hosts of one of the most discussed Olympics of recent times in the summer, there is undoubtedly more to it than that. As well as there being plenty of crossover in the coverage of and conversation about the full and U-24 teams, for example, there is also a lot of convergence when you look at the respective players in each side.

A full 14 players in the original U-24 squad already have experience for the Samurai Blue, for instance, (a lot of which, admittedly, did come at the East Asian Cup or Copa America, when Japan took their Olympic squad), while seven of the players initially called up to take on Argentina in back-to-back contests are already playing overseas. On the other hand, the full national team called up eight debutants for the upcoming friendly against South Korea and World Cup qualifier against Mongolia, meaning in some ways they look the comparatively less experienced group of players.

Add to this the fact that the name on everyone’s lips at the moment, Kaoru Mitoma, was included in the U-24 squad and not given an eagerly-anticipated first call-up to the Samurai Blue, and that Takefusa Kubo and Ritsu Doan likewise found themselves in the younger selection and it is clear to see why there is so much intrigue swirling around the U-24s right now.

And on the whole, that is a hugely positive thing for Japanese football. While the players themselves will all understandably be desperate to make it into the squad for the once in a lifetime experience of playing at a home Olympics, their focus should really be longer term than that, and they should instead be targeting a place in the full national team for the next World Cup and beyond.

A look at the potential starting 11s for each team in this week’s friendlies highlights a few areas where there may be opportunities to challenge on that front, starting, clearly, with the three supporting forward roles.

Ordinarily you’d have to assume that Kubo, Doan (who ultimately had to withdraw from the squad), and, if he maintains his current trajectory, Mitoma, are prime candidates to feature for Hajime Moriyasu as he looks to make sure of a place in Qatar next November, and there wouldn’t be many defences in the world looking forward to having to deal with that trio scheming and creating in the final third.

At the other end of the pitch, too, Keisuke Osako is developing into an authentic option between the posts for his country. The 21-year-old is not only a terrific shot-stopper but he carries real presence and commands his area as well, and most of Japan’s current goalkeepers the wrong side of 30 there is an opportunity for him to get involved with the full set-up sooner rather than later.

Then there are the likes of Yukinari Sugawara, Ko Itakura, and Yuta Nakayama, who are all settled abroad and should be pushing the established players in the first team, as well as youngsters like Ayumu Seko, Reo Hatate, and Ao Tanaka, who are currently excelling in the J.League and looking more than ready to up their game on bigger and better stages.  

“They have great technique and a lot of creative players, but they’re also not afraid to put in the dirty work and battle aggressively to make sure they win the 50/50 battles,” coach Akinobu Yokouchi said of Argentina when announcing his squad. “This game will be a great opportunity to see just how well we can cope when challenging for possession against such an opponent.”

Previous generations of young Japanese players may have been a little unaccustomed to such darker arts of the game, but with so many of this crop already used to competing against and alongside such players every week for their clubs they are made of sterner stuff and such matters shouldn’t be such an issue for them.

The fact that the U-24 squad boasts so much talent and commands such high expectations is a testament to how effectively and prolifically Japan is continuing to produce players capable of playing at the highest level, and if they can continue to develop at the same rate then, Olympics success or not, that bodes incredibly well for the next stage in the evolution of the full national team.

13
Mar
21

Shi-on the edge

Shion Homma is one of J2’s most highly-rated talents, and while his tackling sometimes leaves a bit to be desired he shouldn’t be asked to eliminate the spikiness from his game… (日本語版)

As Takumi Nagura wriggled free in midfield and looked set to spark a dangerous attack, you could just see what Shion Homma was about to do.

Having made up four of the five yards between himself and the V-Varen Nagasaki forward, Homma realised he wasn’t going to close the rest of out in time to get to the ball before Nagura released it and so opted instead to launch unceremoniously into the back of him. It was more cynical than malicious, but after allowing play to continue referee Futoshi Nakamura unsurprisingly called Homma over and issued a yellow card.

The Albirex Niigata number 10 looked a little relieved that was the extent of his punishment, but it would ultimately only prove to be a stay of execution and after failing to heed the warning he was handed his marching orders 12 minutes into the second half after another rash challenge.

This was also one you could see coming before the event, and after enthusiastically bounding back to slide in and stop Seiya Maikuma from breaking down the right flank and then getting his head to Maikuma’s attempted pass down the wing Homma’s exuberance got the better of him as he flew foolishly into Round 3 with Maikuma with a high boot and his studs showing.

Truth be told, this challenge was probably worthy of a straight red card on its own, although Albirex manager Albert Puig, in close attendance on the touchline and no more than 10 yards away from the incident, wasn’t in agreement and gestured furiously at Nakamura after seeing his team reduced to 10 men.

“Football is a spectacle,” Puig said in his press conference after the game. “Supporters pay money to come and get their fill of football, and I think therefore we have to protect technically gifted players like Shion. With that in mind, I think there is certainly room for discussion about his second yellow card today.”

It’s not especially surprising that Puig would publicly leap to the defence of his boy wonder, but privately he will surely have accepted that a sending off was the correct decision. Despite his tender years this is already the second time Homma has been sent off in J2, and he was also forced to take an early bath against Renofa Yamaguchi last season after receiving a second yellow card for a similarly reckless lunge into Hikaru Manabe when he had very little chance of winning the ball.

Bearing that in mind, Puig may even have taken Homma aside and had a quiet word in his ear about looking to curb that side of his game a little – although personally I hope not.

At 164cm and 59 kilograms Homma is far from an imposing specimen, but the fact that the 20 year old doesn’t shy away from the physical side of the game is part of what sets him apart from so many of his peers. What he can do with a ball is of course the main reason he is developing into one of the most sought after players in the J.League, but that extra edge to his play when not in possession is what could see him develop into a truly top class talent.

His Albirex teammates will of course hope his rushes of blood to the head don’t leave them a man short too often, but his red card against Varen may actually be looked back on as a blessing in disguise as the season progresses. A man down against the team that only just missed out on promotion last year Albirex were forced to show real resilience for the final half an hour, and the fact they were able to see out their 1-0 win in those circumstances should only add to the team’s belief as they aim to return to the top flight.

“I just said to the players that the reason they were able to defend even with a player less was because this team is firmly united,” Puig said. “I think if we had continued to play 11 v. 11 in the second half then those watching would have been able to enjoy our play even more. In that sense, the sending off was a real shame.”

Of that there can of course be little argument, and for Albirex fans and neutrals alike games will always be more enjoyable with players of Homma’s quality on the pitch. We shouldn’t forget that possession of a certain edge is often what enables them to perform at such high levels though, and Homma shouldn’t be asked to blunt his if we want him to reach his full potential.

25
Feb
21

Full Frontale

Kawasaki Frontale look like the team to beat again in 2021, but do they like it up ’em? (日本語版)

The Fuji Xerox Super Cup usually serves little more than a symbolic purpose, signifying that the wait is finally over and that the new season has begun.

Things were a little different this year on account of the 2020 season being extended so late – technically not finishing until FC Tokyo lifted the YBC Levain Cup on 4 January – and also because the participants, Kawasaki Frontale and Gamba Osaka, had only squared off six weeks previously in the Emperor’s Cup final. This was more ‘deja vu‘ than ‘we’re back!’.

Further to this, the Super Cup often ends up becoming little more than a glorified training match, with managers holding key players back and approaching the game with less than 100 percent motivation as a result of the game being wedged between the combatants’ opening fixtures in the AFC Champions League.

The ongoing issues surrounding the coronavirus pandemic mean continental competition won’t be starting until April this year, however, and so both Frontale and Gamba were able to throw themselves into the clash at Saitama Stadium with a little more relish than usual, resulting in a thoroughly enjoyable game.

Kawasaki, as was the case in the league and Emperor’s Cup last season, ultimately emerged as 3-2 victors to again leave Gamba as runners-up, and the early signs are that Toru Oniki’s side will once again be the team for anyone with title pretensions to beat this year.

Their unity of purpose is extraordinary, on top of which they continue to be set apart by an abundance of truly top-level players capable of deciding matches in their favour. Kaoru Mitoma unsurprisingly dominated the headlines after his two nonchalant finishes inside three first half minutes set his side on the way to glory, for instance, while the embarrassment of riches they boast in reserve was exemplified by Yu Kobayashi coming on with 18 minutes to play and then scoring the winner with the last kick of the game.

Of course there is a lot more to Kawasaki’s success than the possession of some lethal finishers, and the amount of work they put into winning the ball is incredible. This was perhaps best exemplified by Leandro Damiao celebrating as if he had scored a goal after blocking a clearance in the first minute of the second half, while his compatriot Joao Schmidt showed on his debut that he should be more than capable of stepping into Hidemasa Morita’s boots as the team’s enforcer-in-chief in the middle of the park.

In possession, too, the new signing from Nagoya Grampus is efficient and effective – another common theme throughout Kawasaki’s ranks. As with Barcelona during their ‘tiki-taka’ peak, it is almost impossible to get the ball off of Frontale when they are in the mood, and defenders and forwards alike are comfortable on the ball and always happy to play their way out of trouble or into space.

It isn’t all doom and gloom for the rest of J1 though, and as well as Frontale re-confirming their strengths in this game the manner in which Gamba worked their way back into things in the second half served as something of a guide as to how best to keep the reigning champions in check.

The key – and it is admittedly a risky approach, as Gamba learned to their cost in the 96th minute as they pushed for a winner themselves – is to take the game to Frontale. When given time on the ball, they are expert at dominating proceedings and taking the sting out of things or adding a quick injection of pace as they desire. Their success last year was rooted in them bossing possession and being able to push men up in support – especially their attack-minded full-backs.

If you prevent them from doing that and get in amongst them, however, then they are liable to be forced into errors – as was the case after Gamba threw more caution to the wind and came from two goals down to level the score at 2-2 after Frontale failed to clear a cross properly and then gave away a penalty.

If you try and sit tight and wait for a chance to counter you may as well just offer up the three points on a plate. Instead of retreating and ceding the initiative, you stand far more chance of taking something from a game against Frontale by matching their intensity and proactivity and giving them something to think about.

It is no surprise, for instance, that the team’s two defeats towards the end of last season came against a pair of sides renowned for placing a premium on looking after the ball, with Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo and Oita Trinita taking an almost even share of possession (47.2 percent and 50.7 percent, respectively), as well as out-shooting Frontale (12 to 11 and 12 to 10) as they claimed shock wins over the champions-elect in November.

Of course, the argument could be made that they were fatigued by that point and running on fumes at the end of a grueling season (as well as being down to 10 men for 56 minutes against Oita), but such tiredness will surely sneak in this year too as they look to defend their title and do battle in the ACL – all after just a couple of weeks off having played in the Emperor’s Cup final on New Year’s Day. Rumours persist that Mitoma could well be headed to Europe in the summer as well, and while they are far from a one-man team the loss of one of their match-winners could also contribute to a slight tilt of power away from the Kanagawa side.

Taking such a brazen approach would undoubtedly leaves teams vulnerable as well, but if Frontale are pushed week-in week-out then the cracks would surely begin to show. Plenty of teams will still end up on the losing side, but perhaps no more so than if they meekly sat back and hoped for a miracle.

As the cliché goes, the best form of defence is attack, and with Ange Postecoglou’s Yokohama F.Marinos first up on Friday Frontale are sure to receive a stern test in that regard as they get their title defence underway.

13
Feb
21

Here we go again

The disruption caused by the coronavirus shows no signs of abating, but the J.League is proceeding with caution towards a new season. It looks like being another bumpy ride… (日本語版)

The 2020 J.League season was one of the most chaotic ever, with stresses aplenty on and off the pitch, and while the schedule hopefully won’t be as disrupted this year the early signs are that the going in 2021 is going to be just as bumpy for clubs, players, and fans alike.

The ACL clubs still don’t know where they’ll be playing their group stage games, for example, while tickets only went on sale for the Super Cup less than two weeks before the match and there remains a chance that one or both of Kawasaki Frontale and Gamba Osaka may have to be replaced if either has a coronavirus outbreak in the coming days.

Further to these unavoidable logistical issues, we also have the far from ideal fact that many clubs have been made to wait for their foreign players and staff to join up with the pre-season preparations – or, in the case of new acquisitions, are still waiting.

The success rate of overseas players in Japan is of course hit and miss – for every gem like Jesiel, Everaldo, and Mateus there have been twice as many Brazilian flops, for instance, while not all big name signings deliver performances relative to their eye-watering wages – but the initial adaptation process can be key to helping new arrivals find their feet, and having that set back at least two months must be causing plenty of headaches as Round 1 draws closer.

Add in the ongoing uncertainty about whether fans will be able to attend games – and if so how many, and what will they be allowed to do when they’re there? – and the increasing impact this is having on club budgets, and the longer-term ramifications of the pandemic continue to cast a worrying shadow over the operation and future of many, if not all, J.League clubs.

You have to wonder if the financial strain is behind Urawa Reds’ apparent intent to sell Leonardo to Shandong Taishan as well, with the Saitama giant surely one of those feeling a particular pinch on account of the attendance restrictions. Indeed, these concerns are present around the world, and at the start of February Swindon Town chairman Lee Power described the English League One club as being “on the brink” after they were forced to sell star forward Diallang Jaiyesimi to raise funds.

“I’m surprised we’ve got this far if I’m honest, with no supporters and no income since March,” he told BBC Radio Wiltshire. “It’s getting tougher and tougher and that’s where we are.

“It’s week-by-week, month-by-month. We’re on the rock face, hanging over the edge. To be honest, the last thing we want to do is sell our best players. But like I’ve said and stated since March last year, we’re in a national pandemic, we’ve had no supporters in the stadium, it’s been a fight morning, noon, and night to keep this club afloat.”

Putting long-term issues aside for now and focusing more closely on the football side of things for the upcoming season though, it looks as though continuity could be more important than ever – something that doesn’t bode particularly well for either of J1’s promoted sides.

Last year’s J2 champions Tokushima Vortis have not only had to deal with the departure of manager Ricardo Rodriguez to Urawa, but his replacement Daniel Poyatos remains unable to enter Japan and it currently doesn’t look as though he will be able to work directly with his new players until as late as the end of March – by which point they will have played around half a dozen games.

While there hasn’t been a change in the dugout at Best Denki Stadium things look equally unsettled for Avispa Fukuoka, with Shigetoshi Hasebe having lost several of his key players from last season. Takumi Kamijima, Asahi Masuyama, and Daiya Tono have all returned to their parent clubs after playing vital roles in securing Avispa’s fourth promotion to the top flight, and while replacements Tatsuki Nara, Taro Sugimoto, and Bruno Mendes are all solid additions they will need to time to adapt to Hasebe’s particular and ordered play style.

When bearing in mind the fact that four teams will be automatically relegated from the first division this season that is time they may not be afforded, with the fixture list serving up an incredibly tough-looking first six games for Avispa: home ties against Nagoya Grampus, Yokohama F.Marinos and Kashima Antlers and visits to three teams expected to be battling for survival with them in Shimizu S-Pulse, Tokushima, and neighbours Sagan Tosu.

At the other end of the continuity spectrum things look fairly positive for last year’s top three, with Kawasaki, Gamba, and Nagoya all keeping their best players and adding impressive depth to help them manage their domestic and continental campaigns. Joao Schmidt provides an excellent option for Toru Oniki in midfield, Leandro Perreira and Kazunari Ichimi undoubtedly add firepower up front for the 2020 league and Emperor’s Cup runners-up, and Massimo Ficcadenti looks as though he’s keen to add more attacking threat to last year’s best defence after bringing in Yoichiro Kakitani and Manabu Saito.

As with everything these days it is difficult to look too far ahead with any clarity though, and plenty of flexibility is again going to be needed over the coming weeks and months.

30
Jan
21

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.

13
Jan
21

In the moment

While it is undoubtedly positive that fans in Japan have been able to keep attending games, the restrictions in place mean the matchday experience is still lacking a certain je ne sais quoi… (日本語版)

I was very much looking forward to the Levain Cup final on 4 January, as it had been a long time since I’d seen a game live.

In fact, the last time I had been at the stadium for a match had been the Super Cup at the start of February last year, meaning I managed to bookend my 2020 campaign by watching the curtain raiser and season finale without witnessing any of the action in-between.

While it was good to catch up with some familiar faces and get a first look at the new National Stadium, however, I have to admit that there was a feeling of anticlimax at being back on the ground.

Over the previous 11 months I’d had to adjust to covering the J.League from afar, replacing regular trips to stadiums and training grounds with watching matches on DAZN and joining press conferences or carrying out interviews online or over the phone. In some ways this enabled me to gain a wider perspective on the football being played each matchday, with the comfort and ease of streaming meaning I could watch several games per day rather than being restricted to the one taking place at whichever stadium I had chosen to be at.

On the other hand though, this remote approach eliminated much of what makes live sport so enjoyable – that feeling of having been ‘at’ the game, of having seen events unfold before your own eyes in real time and, most importantly of all, having done so with others.

Shared experiences of all kinds have become limited (or, in many cases, made impossible) by the coronavirus outbreak, and there are concerns worldwide about the impact the lack of social interaction is having on mental health. Spending free time with friends and acquanitances is a vital way to relieve stress and escape the pressures and/or tedium of everyday life, and although the J.League should be commended for having worked so hard to ensure fans have been able to return to stadiums, the number restrictions and lengthy lists of dos and don’ts mean the situation is still a long way from normal.

While I often find myself becoming bored with the repetitive drone of the same old songs being sung by fans irrespective of what is happening on the pitch, for example, the sound of 25,000 FC Tokyo and Kashiwa Reysol fans clapping in time made for a slightly eerie and underwhelming atmosphere. This was further highlighted by the spontaneous eruptions each time a goal was scored, with the spontaneous roars of the fans providing reminders of what watching football used to be like – before everyone remembered the situation and rules and returned to their COVID-19-safe style of muted applause.

Football is often lauded for its ability to provide a feeling of togetherness and offer opportunities to exist in the moment, with the sport providing an outlet when everything else seems too much. I won’t ever forget the extraordinary emotion in the stadium when Vegalta Sendai returned to action against Kawasaki Frontale after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, for instance, and while I’m sure many fans are still deriving pleasure from attending games even in this alternate reality, the constraints in place mean it is undeniably a watered down version of the real thing.

Indeed, the ongoing situation must be incredibly trying for supporters, with J.League clubs usually so effective at ensuring connections to the players via various forms of ‘fan service’ – all of which are now impossible. Coming from a country where players are kept way out of reach (I once contacted a Premier League club asking for a signed picture of a player as a birthday present for my girlfriend, only to receive a pre-printed team photo instead because the player was “too busy”) these efforts were one of the first things that truly impressed me about football in Japan, and the inability to maintain those strong bonds – in a physical, face-to-face sense, rather than an ambiguous marketing one – provides another challenge to clubs who are already feeling the financial strain of the pandemic.

The situation of course can’t be helped, and until vaccinations are widely available and it is absolutely safe to return to normality then measures will need to remain in place. Here’s hoping that 2021 develops into a more positive year than its predecessor though, and that we are all able to return to personal, authentic, lived experiences at stadiums around Japan – and across the globe – as soon as possible.

26
Dec
20

My 2020 J2 Best 11

While few complaints could be made about Kawasaki Frontale dominating the official J1 Best 11 for 2020, the fan selections announced for J2 and J3 didn’t paint an especially clear picture of the best those leagues have to offer. Here, then, are the players I think are deserving of attention from the 2020 J2 season… (日本語版)

The J.League Awards took place on 22 December, at which the standout individuals from the 2020 season were honoured for their achievements in what has been an incredibly trying year.

Michael Olunga was the big winner and rightly recognised as Player of the Year after another phenomenal campaign for Kashiwa Reysol, while the bulk of runaway champions Kawasaki Frontale’s first team made up over 80 percent of the Best 11.

The following day teams of the year voted for by fans were also announced for J1, J2 and J3, although these unsurprisingly veered more towards big names at the expense of players with smaller profiles who had shone in 2020. As much as I love Yasuhito Endo, for instance, he had no business being in the second tier team of the year, while the J3 selection comprising of eight Gamba Osaka U-23 players was hardly a fair reflection of the season – they finished 14th in the 18 team division.

With this in mind I thought I’d put together an 11 of my own, with the aim of drawing attention towards some names who may have flown under the radar slightly but who nevertheless put in stellar performances for their respective clubs over the past six months or so.

My team is comprised of up-and-coming talent in J2, and is intended to shine a light on those who have the potential to go on and make an impact in J1 or even further afield in the coming years. In keeping with this theme, I decided not to include any players from either Tokushima Vortis or Avispa Fukuoka as they will already be in the top flight next year, and those on loan from J1 clubs were also exempt from selection.

Without any further ado then, here is my selection.

Goalkeeper – Ryosuke Kojima (Albirex Niigata, 23 years old)

Kojima spent a large part of this season out injured, but while his stand-in Kazuki Fujita – himself just 19 – also did very well, Kojima’s importance to the side was made clear by his absence. He kept seven clean sheets in his 22 appearances, with Albirex claiming nine of their 14 wins while he was between the posts.

Centre back – Yasutaka Yanagi (Tochigi SC, 26)

The oldest player in this team, but one who had a breakout J.League season after barely featuring for parent club Albirex Niigata in 2018 or 2019. Solid defensively and also a serious threat in the opponent’s penalty area, Yanagi notched six goals including four winners – three of which came deep into stoppage time.

Centre back – Nduka Boniface (Mito Hollyhock, 24)

Racked up the most minutes for Mito this year as he took over from veteran Junya Hosokawa as the defensive leader for Tadahiro Akiba’s side. There were a few mistakes on the way and Hollyhock were far from solid at the back, but Boniface’s committed and all-energy approach to defending (and attacking) definitely mark him out as one to keep an eye on.

Centre back – Daihachi Okamura (Thespakusatsu Gunma, 23)

The only outfield player in J2 to play every single minute of the 2020 season, Okamura is a composed and confident performer both in and out of possession. It’s little wonder that he has already been snapped up by Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, and it will be interesting to see how he gets on testing himself against higher quality opposition in 2021.

Right wing-back – SeiyaMaikuma (V-Varen Nagasaki, 23)

An attacking player by trade, Maikuma was a surprise selection on the right side of Varen’s defence but repaid Makoto Teguramori’s trust and made the position his own. Unsurprisingly comfortable moving forward with the ball at his feet, the youngster also showed good positional awareness going in the other direction as Varen narrowly missed out on promotion.

Left wing-back – ShionHomma (Albirex Niigata, 20)

Already attracting attention from a host of clubs in the first division and the only player I’ve chosen who was also included in the fan selection, Homma is one of the hottest prospects in J2 right now. Always willing to take on his man and possessing a terrific shot from range, the Niigata native is always capable of making something happen from nothing and isn’t afraid to also put in a shift defensively.

Central Midfield – Joel Chima Fujita (Tokyo Verdy, 18)

The epitome of a modern central midfielder, Fujita established himself as undroppable for Hideki Nagai’s side this year. The teenager reads the game superbly and is adept at breaking down opposition attacks, while he also has the ability to stride forward and make things happen in the other direction as well. Could develop into a superb player.

Central Midfield – Kaishu Sano (Machida Zelvia, 20)

After mostly being used as a full back by Naoki Soma in 2019, Ranko Popovic made Sano a first choice in the centre of the park after returning to Machida this year and the youngster flourished alongside Gamba Osaka loanee Leo Takae. His positional sense makes him incredibly adept at winning back possession, and he is efficient and effective in possession as well. 

Forward – Takahiro Akimoto (Tochigi SC, 22)

Fans love it when a local lad makes an impact in the first team, and Akimoto certainly did that for Tochigi this year. Technically gifted and always proactive, the Utsunomiya native grew into the No.9 role as the season progressed, and as well as finding the net seven times he also regularly brought his teammates into attacks and provided eight assists.

Forward – Mutsuki Kato (Zweigen Kanazawa, 23)

A proper centre forward, Kato was a revelation this year. Always looking to get in behind, he not only has the pace to get away from defenders but also the technical ability and composure needed to make his chances count once he’s done so. There were misses too, but like all good strikers he doesn’t dwell on them and instead focuses on getting in a position to try again.

Forward – Akira Silvano Disaro’ (Giravanz Kitakyushu, 24)

Disaro’ is one of those players it’s just fun to watch. Seems to genuinely enjoy every moment out on the pitch and puts in an incredible shift hassling and harrying from the front. More than that though, he is capable of scoring a range of goals and is the kind of striker most teams would love to have leading the line.

Subs: Kengo Nagai (Giravanz Kitakyushu, 26); Hayato Kurosaki (Tochigi SC, 24), Yuta Kumamoto (Montedio Yamagata, 25); Ryotaro Nakamura (Ventforet Kofu, 23); Kensei Ukita (Renofa Yamaguchi, 23), Kanji Okunuki (Omiya Ardija, 21), Ryoma Kida (V-Varen Nagasaki, 23)

12
Dec
20

Thinking outside the box

A trip to Europe as a youngster opened Yuta Nomura’s eyes to the possibilities football could open up for him, and earlier this year the latest twist in the 28-year-old’s career saw him hired as a coach in the MLS… (日本語版)

This year shone a light on the growing presence of Japanese players abroad, with the coronavirus pandemic meaning the only national team games played were contested by squads of those based overseas.

Not so long ago it wouldn’t have been possible for a Japan coach to select such a group, but it isn’t only the star names from the Samurai Blue carving out careers for themselves beyond these shores and a whole range of Japanese players are testing themselves at various levels all around the globe. Some, like Yuta Nomura, are also beginning to earn reputations as coaches.

Nomura grew up in Tokyo and played in goal for Mitsubishi Yowa until he graduated high school, at which point he decided he wanted to leave Japan to pursue a playing career.

“While I was at Mitsubishi Yowa we were fortunate to go to Germany to play in an international tournament, and that kind of opened my eyes and I wanted to play overseas,” he explained. “We were the only team that couldn’t speak English and I was so annoyed by that and felt I wanted to speak English and also that I wanted to play abroad.”

He was soon to get his wish, and after taking part in a showcase in the USA he was offered a place at Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky. Things went well for him there and he immediately established himself as first choice goalkeeper as the college won its ninth NAIA National Championship.

“How I play was definitely eye opening for American soccer,” Nomura says of his technical style. “Japanese goalkeepers are very comfortable with their feet, and that’s something that goalkeepers in America weren’t very good at. A lot of teams and coaches were impressed with how I played.”

The limit on foreign players on MLS rosters made it difficult for Nomura to earn a contract in the US upon graduation, however, so he decided instead to head to Sweden. After two and half years playing in the lower leagues on modest contracts he started to wonder if he may need to try something else when, at the age of just 26, he was sounded out about the possibility of returning to the States as a coach.

“They wanted a goalkeeper coach to teach their goalkeepers to play out from the back,” he said of the unexpected offer. “I wouldn’t say Americans don’t, but Japanese players in general have strong fundamentals – they can play, they can pass, they can catch – so those were the things that kind of stood out and that was the reason they wanted to have me.”

While it meant making the difficult decision to hang up his playing gloves, Nomura was resolved to grasp the opportunity of making an early start on a coaching career with both hands, and was soon back in the US and passing on his knowledge to the young hopefuls at the University of Central Arkansas while studying for a Masters degree in College Student Personnel Administration (CSPA).

“That helped me a lot – how you talk to students, how you talk to players,” he said of his studies. “It gives a different perspective on the sympathy to show to players.”

That approach enabled Nomura to build upon his reputation with Arkansas, and led to him taking up his first role as a professional coach with the reserve team of MLS outfit New England Revolution earlier this year.

“Every time when I’m at the office I feel like it’s still a dream,” he says of working alongside the first team goalkeeper coach Kevin Hitchcock, who played for Chelsea and coached at the likes of Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City, and West Ham United, and ex-US national team manager Bruce Arena. “I’m aware that I’m not an experienced guy or wasn’t a top goalkeeper, but I have something that other goalkeeper coaches don’t have, and I try not to take anything for granted. I’m open-minded and I try to learn from everyone – I think that’s my strength.”

One area he pushed himself in in particular was with regards to learning English, something he believes is crucial for any Japanese player wanting to achieve success abroad.

“I studied a lot when I was back home, but obviously speaking and studying are two totally different things and I struggled a lot. The good thing is I was in Kentucky – there’s not a lot of Japanese people around and I was determined to focus on English. I think that helped me a lot.

“I think lots of the goalkeepers in Japan can play abroad for sure. Technically they are outstanding, but I think things like the language are very key. If you don’t understand the language, if you don’t understand what the coach demands, you aren’t going to be able to play. And that’s something Japan needs to step up, don’t just focus on football itself but I think they need to focus more on outside of soccer.

“Because I’m a coach now I can see that coaches in Japan need to go abroad more. I know the JFA is working with Frans Hoek, who is a Dutch legend, and while I think it’s important to have Frans in we also need to go out and touch what kind of football they’re playing [in the world], what kind of methodology they’re using and bring it back. That’s how I see it.”

It is perhaps with this in mind that Nomura picks a name from left field when asked who he sees as Japan’s next number one.

“Not for now, but I like Leo Kokubu at Benfica. I’ve seen his videos, and he can be the next number one goalkeeper for the national team because of his size, his athleticism. He’s number one for the [Benfica] B-Team, and I believe he’s training with the first team. I’ve seen him training and in games, and he’s a next level goalkeeper. He’s very athletic, very tall, comfortable playing out from the back with his right or left foot, and he’s good in the air.”

At just 19 Kokubo still has a lot to learn, but with these key playing ingredients in place Nomura thinks the most important aspect for him and all goalkeepers to focus on is with regards to the psychological side of the game.

“I believe 80 percent of goalkeeping is mental, 10 percent is technical, and another five or 10 percent is understanding of the game,” he explains.

“That’s something that I talk to my goalkeepers about back in New England – you’ve got to put yourself in an uncomfortable zone, that’s the only way you can learn and you can improve.”

Having thrown himself in at the deep end on more than one occasion Nomura certainly proves that point, and, much like Kokubu, his career trajectory will certainly be worth keeping an eye on.

28
Nov
20

Way out in Front

Kawasaki Frontale won J1 with four games to spare this season, setting a new points record and becoming the fastest champions in the process. They have been almost unplayable all year, and the motivation for their triumph may well have come with a defeat at the end of the 2019 campaign… (日本語版)

I’ve been meaning to write about Kawasaki Frontale for a while, but kept delaying because I wasn’t really sure what I could add to the conversation about the newly-crowned champions.

Toru Oniki’s side have been absolutely extraordinary since the first division got back underway at the start of July, losing just three times and racking up a goal difference of 54 to absolutely dominate a league usually characterised by its close-run title races.

Frontale’s achievement would be sensational enough in a normal season, but to have been so emphatically consistent in a year when the schedule has been so brutal is nothing short of astonishing, and as other teams have struggled to manage the workload the Todoroki side has cruised through almost without issue.

Things stalled a little as they approached the finish line – perhaps because their exertions were finally catching up with the players, who, it seems, may only be human after all – and their coronation could have been sealed even earlier were it not for the recent defeats to Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo and Oita Trinita. Even so, these setbacks shouldn’t detract from what has been one of the most phenomenal seasons in J.League history, and Frontale wrapped things up in typically swashbuckling style on Wednesday night when they hammered their closest challengers Gamba Osaka 5-0.

There are more than enough games to look back on as highlights from this year – Frontale have scored four or more goals seven times (so far), and completed doubles over many of their closest challengers – but it is actually one from the end of the previous season I keep thinking back to as having been key.

It was the penultimate weekend of the campaign and fourth-placed Kawasaki were seven points adrift of champions-elect Yokohama F.Marinos when the two met on a crisp November afternoon at a sold-out Todoroki Stadium. Frontale had lost any mathematical chance of winning a third consecutive title the previous weekend when Marinos edged past Matsumoto Yamaga with a narrow 1-0 victory, and there was a feeling at the time of a baton being passed as Ange Postecoglou’s high-pressing, risk-taking, all-energy side swept to a comprehensive 4-1 win.

Instead of marking the end of an era, however, that humbling seems to have served as motivation for Kawasaki to come back even stronger this year, inspiring them to take the first flight by storm in a way that has rarely, if ever, been seen in the J.League.

On 18 November they had the chance to fully exorcise those demons when they again welcomed Marinos to their patch, and although it took a couple of very late goals they managed to do just that, with a 3-1 win leaving them 17 points clear at the summit and with one-and-a-half hands on the trophy.

The difference-maker in that game, as has been the case so often this year, was Kaoru Mitoma, who was close to unplayable after his introduction at the start of the second half and scored one, set up another, and also won the penalty missed by Yu Kobayashi. The 23-year-old has taken to the J.League stage without a hint of nerves, marking his first year as a professional with 12 goals and eight assists (again, so far), as well as leaving a whole host of opposition defenders with red faces and twisted blood as a result of his mazy, powerful, and controlled dribbling.

Mitoma’s confidence and effectiveness is reminiscent of that of Yoshinori Muto in his breakout season at FC Tokyo, and while different types of players – Mitoma is more about intricate touches and subtle strokes of the ball, while Muto was an irrepressible bundle of power and aggression – it is just as thrilling seeing the Kawasaki No. 18 in full flight as it was to experience the raw and unfiltered Muto back in 2014.

Of course, as good as Mitoma is he hasn’t won the title on his own, and Kawasaki’s success owes much to their strength in depth and the work of Toru Oniki, who has sculpted and coached his squad to something very close to perfection.

Whoever makes their way onto the pitch in the blue and black is capable of achieving results because they know exactly what is expected of them, and such clarity of purpose means the players seem to truly enjoy playing together – which, in turn, makes them such a joy to watch.

And then, of course, there is Kengo Nakamura.

An undisputed all-time great of the J.League, the one-club man made his way back to fitness after a horrific ACL injury at the end of the 2019 campaign, and after a fairytale winner against cross-river rivals FC Tokyo on his 40th birthday announced he would be calling it a day at the end of the current campaign.

There isn’t anybody in the Japanese game who will begrudge Nakamura another league winner’s medal to bow out on – and things could end even more perfectly if Frontale go all the way in the Emperor’s Cup and enable him to complete his collection of domestic titles.

While 2020 marks the end of the line for Nakamura though, on this season’s showing Kawasaki’s golden age looks set to continue for a few more years yet.

13
Nov
20

The magic number?

Japan have often struggled to break down stubborn opposition, and the upcoming friendlies against Panama and Mexico could provide manager Hajime Moriyasu with a chance to tweak his formation in order to add some extra threat to his side… (日本語版)

Aside from a couple of changes, the Japan squad for the upcoming friendlies against Panama and Mexico is the same as that which participated in the rusty contests with Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire in October, with J.League players still not an option on account of the various coronavirus-induced travel complications.

Yuto Nagatomo has returned to the fold after injury, meaning there is no place for Koki Anzai, while Kento Hashimoto and Takuma Asano will also be joining up after visa issues ruled them out last month.

With Werder Bremen seemingly not keen to release Yuya Osako, Asano’s only competition for a place up front comes from Musashi Suzuki, who looks to be high in confidence and has been amongst the goals for Beerschot since October’s games in Utrecht. It is the situation at the other end of the pitch, however, that looks most intriguing heading into these games.

Eiji Kawashima is still involved, but a decade on from establishing himself as No.1 for his country the 37-year-old is surely now included more for his presence in the squad and on the training pitch than as a realistic option between the posts heading into the next World Cup.

Shuichi Gonda was first choice as the team progressed to the final of the Asian Cup last year and looks favourite to remain as Moriyasu’s preference for the time being, but the 31-year-old is yet to feature for Portimonense this season and will surely see his place come under threat if that situation doesn’t improve soon.

Daniel Schmidt, meanwhile, has only managed one competitive appearance for Japan – and that was the dead rubber final group match against Uzbekistan at the Asian Cup, when both teams had already qualified for the next round – and has similarly struggled for regular opportunities at Sint Truidense this season. Despite being a relative newcomer to the international fold he too is already 28, and if he isn’t able to make a realistic challenge for a starting place soon then it looks like he never will.

As well as the situation in goal remaining up for debate, the same could also be said for who will line up in front of the No.1 – or, more precisely, in what formation they should set up.

Against Cameroon Moriyasu shifted to three at the back in the second half, and while it was a rather lopsided version with Hiroki Sakai wedged in as one of the centre-backs, it offered a glimpse at how Japan could be lining up as and when competitive fixtures get back underway.

Maya Yoshida and Takehiro Tomiyasu are nailed on as first choice centre-backs, and Sakai and Nagatomo (fitness permitting) remain the frontrunners out wide. This latter pair often provide so much of Japan’s attacking threat in tight games, and when used correctly full-/wing-backs can play an increasingly key role when it comes to unlocking stubborn opposition In the modern game – an area Japan have of course traditionally struggled in.

Further utilising a pair of attack-minded wing-backs with good engines on them would add an extra dimension to the team’s attacks, providing the ball players in the middle of the park with more options from which to create and enabling them to stretch opponents more often by offering the likes of Sakai and Nagatomo space to bomb into from deep starting positions. In Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson Liverpool have recently shown that throwing caution to the wind from this area of the pitch can reap huge rewards, and with the likes of Genki Haraguchi and Junya Ito also willing runners Moriyasu does have options to choose from.

Of course, offering more license to roam out wide would mean extra cover is needed at centre back – a state of affairs that could provide Naomichi Ueda with a chance to stake a proper claim for a place in the first team. The Cercle Brugge man has been in and around the Samurai Blue squad since the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia, although he didn’t make his debut until the East Asian Cup at the end of 2017. Since then he has only managed 12 appearances, but his physicality and aerial strength could neatly supplement the more technical play of Yoshida and Tomiyasu at the back – especially against a couple of solid outfits like Panama and Mexico.

Moriyasu of course achieved much success employing three centre-backs at Sanfreccce Hiroshima, and it is a little surprising that he hasn’t looked to implement it so far as his formation of choice for the national team. This pair of friendlies could be the perfect opportunity for the former Purple Archers boss to test it out and see if the players are capable of adding an extra string to their bow.




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