Author Archive for Sean Carroll


Falling into place

Hajime Moriyasu has all the pieces he needs for his puzzle, and it increasingly looks like he knows how best to put them together… (日本語版)

For all the talk ahead of the game about the Americans possessing superior physicality and speed, Japan laid down a marker from the first whistle against the U.S. in Düsseldorf on Friday, assuming control of proceedings with an aggressive and energetic pressing game and not taking their foot off the gas until referee Felix Zwayer brought the game to a halt after 90 minutes had elapsed – the German seemingly realising no amount of stoppage time would change the outcome of the match.

Daizen Maeda starting as the lone striker raised a few eyebrows but the Celtic man put in a tireless shift in the front third, chasing down every cause and striking the fear of God into the American defenders, who repeatedly panicked as the 24-year-old’s shaved head tore towards them and duly gifted possession to one of his blue-shirted teammates.

It wasn’t only Maeda buzzing around for the Samurai Blue though, and Hajime Moriyasu had similarly eager lieutenants all over the pitch.

Wataru Endo and Hidemasa Morita must be a horrible duo to come up against in the middle of the park, for instance, with the pair indefatigable as they constantly harried and hustled in the engine room, with one (or both) always on the spot to make an interception, cut off a passing angle, or snatch possession from the toe of an opponent before looking to launch a swift break.

In defence, too, Japan didn’t look remotely troubled physically, and with the exception of Jesús Ferreira heading over a glorious chance after a slack piece of marking in the seventh minute the imposing quartet of Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Takehiro Tomiyasu, and Yuta Nakayama had more than enough for what the Americans threw at them.

It is going to be especially interesting to see just where Takehiro Tomiyasu’s ceiling is, with the 23-year-old having steadily impressed every year since establishing himself in Avispa Fukuoka’s first team at the age of 18 and showing no signs of slowing down in his progress just yet. Equally confident in duels, foot-races, and when in possession of the ball, the Arsenal man is evolving into the total defender and looks set to become Japan’s main man at the back for the next decade.

Yuta Nakayama is also developing impressively, becoming bolder and more resilient as he grows in those unquantifiable areas of the game that can’t be taught, and if he can maintain such unshakability over the next couple of months then you have to feel he may finally have edged Yuto Nagatomo as first choice at left back.

Of course, for all the positives of the performance there was still criticism from some fans about Moriyasu’s selections, with the usual complaints about Player X not starting or Player Y being left on the bench. This is an inevitable part of football discourse these days, but the fact of the matter is that real sport is nothing like a video game. You can’t just throw the players with the best fantasy stats together and expect them to slay all before them, and the coach instead has to meld together human beings – each with their own minor niggles, off-the-field concerns, or intra-personal gripes – to form a coherent whole.

Player Z may have gone viral with a YouTube-friendly trick for his club last week, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is going to slide seamlessly into a different team, alongside different teammates, playing different tactics, under a different manager, against different opposition this week. 

The manager has to pick the team they believe will stand the best chance of winning against that day’s opponent. In the modern game the idea of a ‘Best 11’ is increasingly fading away, with teams now comprised of larger squads of more varied options, each of whom can serve different roles depending on the opponent and in-game situation.

Five substitutes are also now permitted, meaning a coach can literally change half of their outfield players as and when they want or need to. With that in mind, if you have a player who has consistently shown they can make an impact off the bench, then why not keep letting him do that?

Ritsu Doan and Kaoru Mitoma are two fantastic attacking talents, but so too are Takefusa Kubo and Junya Ito. Takumi Minamino and Kyogo Furuhashi can play a bit as well. As can Ao Tanaka and Reo Hatate. And what about Daichi Kamada and Ayase Ueda? Japan is currently blessed with greater depth than it has ever had, and while plenty of observers have vested interests or agendas as to why they think Player A should start ahead of Player B, they aren’t the manager, Hajime Moriyasu is. And, for the most part, he has got things right.

Germany, Costa Rica, and Spain at the World Cup will obviously pose a tougher challenge than a youthful America in a friendly game, but if Moriyasu continues to trust in his players and allows them to play to their strengths then Japan can certainly cause opponents problems in Qatar. The manager has a huge pool of talented players at his disposal, and all the signs are that he knows how to get the best out of them.


Tempering expectations

The pressures of top-level football mean players and managers are constantly having to either reassure fans or keep their demands in check, but from time to time it would be nice to hear a bit of boasting and bluster… (日本語版)

Professional sport is fundamentally about winning.

Rightly or wrongly results are how players and coaches are ultimately judged, and the financial pressures at the very top mean the margins are becoming increasingly fine.

This consequently leads to managers receiving less time to instil their methods and players being given fewer opportunities to prove themselves, and a handful of games without a win or couple of bad performances can quickly get blown out of proportion. 

At the same time, even victory isn’t always a sure-fire way to keep everybody onside, with teams increasingly expected to win in style and those that don’t coming in for criticism from opponents, the media, and even their own fans.

This set of circumstances is a by-product of both the ongoing evolution of the game – like everything else football now is expected to be better than football before – and the prevalence of social media – whether qualified or not, anyone can send their thoughts directly to any club or player, with the public nature of these statements ensuring they then become part of the ongoing narrative.

Having to be wary of such knee-jerk reactions means that as well as needing to offer reassuring words when teams are going through tough spells, on the flip side players and managers can also on occasion feel inclined to temper the expectations of their supporters when things are going well, and instead of riding the waves of victory or stoking the fires of optimism the key protagonists instead look to downplay situations and prevent people getting carried away.

While making sense against the current backdrop, the fact it is so difficult to just live in the moment and cathartically enjoy positive results means elite level football can sometimes feel like it lacks a little fun.

Take, for example, Erik ten Hag’s comments after Manchester United beat old rivals Arsenal 3-1 on 4 September to record their fourth straight victory in the Premier League.

“I understand fans are dreaming, the standards of Manchester United have to be good. [But] we’re at the start of a process, we’re still far away, we have to get doing things much better than we do,” the Dutchman, who three weeks earlier was thought to be in the middle of a crisis after losing his first two games in charge of the Old Trafford club, was quoted as saying in The Guardian. “That [will happen by] an investment, we have to do this together every day, bring those high standards to Carrington [training base].

“We have to get better if you want to win trophies in the end. We have to win every game, they [supporters] have to see that is the attitude: that we have to [want to] win games. We live those high standards and values and when you show discipline in that you create a winning culture, that is what we have to work for. I’m not thinking we’re there but we’re on our way in a good direction. We have to keep this process going.”

The same weekend similar comments were being made in the J.League, as FC Tokyo and Yokohama F. Marinos played out a fascinating 2-2 draw at Ajinomoto Stadium.

The hosts found themselves 2-0 down at the break but fought back impressively in the second half, and while both teams had chances to win the game a point apiece was probably the fairest outcome.

“Of course, the ideal for us is that we are always in possession of the ball, but the team isn’t at the stage where it can do that yet,” Tokyo boss Albert Puig said after the breathless contest. “We’re still improving. You have to be a realist and see the reality in front of you.

“I’d love to have the likes of Xavi and Iniesta playing in a way where we don’t give the ball away, but I don’t have those players in this squad. We have a lot of the same players as last season. If we are able to recruit well and bring in more effective players for next season I’m confident we will be able to keep the ball for longer and play the way I am aiming for.

“We brought in three very good players this summer, one of whom scored two goals today, and their arrival is helping the team already. If we can bring in more suitable players ahead of next season the team will improve even more.”

His opposite number Kevin Muscat was similarly keen to stress the fact that he and his team are also playing the long game.

“Right now it’s difficult for me to not feel disappointed, but I honestly don’t because I focus and drive myself to analyse performance over results,” the Australian replied when asked for his thoughts on his team surrendering a two-goal lead and how that may impact the title race.

Both managers are overseeing impressive projects at their respective clubs and, assuming they both remain in place, their teams will undoubtedly be worth keeping an eye on in the seasons ahead. While it is understandable they are hesitant to make too many brash claims, however – we certainly don’t need boxing- or UFC-levels of bombast or trash-talking in football – it would be nice to also see coaches and players enjoying the moment from time to time, as well as allowing fans to dream a little.

Pragmatism is all well and good, but a little hype can go a long way.


Main man Moberg

Urawa Reds have been in resurgent form of late after a dismal start to the 2022 season, and David Moberg has been the jewel in the diamonds’ crown as they’ve moved to the brink of another AFC Champions League final… (日本語版)

Whisper it quietly – especially if you’re behind the home goal at Saitama Stadium, we don’t want any more fines for making unapproved noise – but Urawa Reds are quietly slipping into some impressive form as the 2022 season nears its end.

Ricardo Rodriguez’s side eased their way into the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League with confident wins against Johor Darul Ta’zim (5-0) – who eliminated the highly-fancied Kawasaki Frontale and Ulsan Hyundai in the group stage – and Makoto Teguramori’s BG Pathum United (4-0) this week, setting up a mouthwatering semi-final against fellow two-time continental champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on Thursday.

As well as that the Saitama side have also found their feet in J1 after a frankly appalling start to the campaign, racking up six wins and three draws in their last 10 league games to hoist themselves up to eighth in the table and consequently onto the fringes of the battle for a place in next year’s ACL.

Such a set of circumstances looked a long way off three months ago, when Reds sat just outside the relegation places after picking up only two league wins in their first 15 games – at home to Shonan Bellmare and Jubilo Iwata – a run that also produced a bizarre sequence of seven consecutive draws.

After going down 2-0 away to Cerezo Osaka on 25 May the side’s fortunes have steadily improved, however, and their impressive form since has seen them keep five clean sheets and score 21 goals (a return that was admittedly boosted somewhat by the recent 6-0 drubbing of Jubilo on 13 August) – although it did also include elimination from the Emperor’s Cup at the hands of J2 strugglers Thespakusatu Gunma, managed by former Urawa boss Tsuyoshi Otsuki.

Even that disappointment – which came despite the fact Rodriguez essentially sent a full-strength  11 out at Shoda Shoyu Stadium – didn’t knock the team off course though, and nine of those players started again four days later as they rebounded with a huge three points against fellow slow starters Vissel Kobe.

David Moberg was the hero for Reds that day, arcing home a sublime free-kick in the last minute to snatch the win at Noevir Stadium, and his presence has been a huge factor in the team’s recent strong form both at home and in Asia.

Japan’s entry requirements meant the Swede didn’t appear in any of the club’s first six games of the season, of which they lost four and won just one, before demonstrating his quality immediately upon his debut by stroking home an excellent goal three minutes after coming on as a half-time substitute in the aforementioned victory over Jubilo in March.

He then featured in one way or another in each of Urawa’s’ next seven J1 matches, and although they again only won once in that spell they also didn’t lose – something that wasn’t the case as he missed the following three games, when the defeat to Cerezo was sandwiched between draws against Kashima Antlers and Avispa Fukuoka.

Since then Moberg has played a part in each of the team’s subsequent nine league matches, with the 3-0 loss to Nagoya on 6 August the only time he has tasted defeat in J1.

In the process he has established himself as the key attacking threat in a team full of attacking threats, and as well as keeping opposing defenders constantly on their toes with his direct dribbling and ability to find space where it seemed there was none he has also demonstrated a lethal touch in front of goal, leading Reds’ scoring charts in both the league (eight goals) and ACL (tied with Yusuke Matsuo on five).

Such a clinical edge is exactly what Reds’ will need as the season reaches its climax, and there won’t be many sides relishing having to deal with their right-side combination of Moberg and Hiroki Sakai. 

“We work on it every day,” Moberg said of the way the pair dovetailed against BG Pathum – another game in which he found the net with a trademark vicious strike. “It gets better and better, and hopefully we can do even better in the future.”

Jeonbuk were taken to extra time in both their Round of 16 and quarter-final ties against Daegu and Vissel and certainly won’t be looking forward to trying to contain the in-form and confident Moberg at what is sure to be a heaving Saitama Stadium in the semi-final, and the 28-year-old insisted he and his teammates will be raring to go for the decisive tie in front of home support. 

“Now it’s the last game of the Champions League till next year,” he said, with reference to the fact that the 2022 final actually takes place in February 2023. “We have a lot of energy left and we have to fight.”

After starting the season a little punch drunk Reds have shown plenty of gumption to regain their footing, and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Moberg land another knockout punch or two in the weeks ahead.


Keeping the dressing room

Different managers have different ways of dealing with their squads, and Roasso Kumamoto coach Takeshi Oki and Iwate Grulla Morioka boss Yutaka Akita have taken novel approaches to handling theirs this season… (日本語版)

The J.League has developed something of a reputation over the years for promoted teams adjusting impressively after moving up a division, and 2022 has been no different in that regard.

Iwaki FC are leading the way in J3 on their maiden J.League campaign, for instance, following on from Tegevajaro Miyazaki, who last season were only denied a place in the top two on the final day of their first year in the third division.

In the end Tegevajaro only finished one point behind eventual champions Roasso Kumamoto and a goal difference of just two separated them from runners-up Iwate Grulla Morioka, and that pair have also enjoyed steady seasons so far in the second tier this year – although they have gone about them in very different ways.

Roasso boast one of the most consistent line-ups in J2, and it’s certainly not possible to accuse Takeshi Oki of Pep Guardiola-esque overthinking when it comes to his selections, with him instead simply trusting in a key core of players and sending them out every weekend.  

Masahiro Sugata and So Kawahara have played every minute of every league game so far – although accumulated yellow cards mean Sugata is suspended for this weekend’s trip to Ventforet Kofu – while between 5 June and 30 July Oki picked almost exactly the same starting 11 for 10 matches in a row as Roasso cemented their place in the race for the play-offs.

That’s not to say the experienced tactician – who also gave Chuo University graduate Kyogo Furuhashi his trust and started him in every game in his first professional season at FC Gifu in 2017 – is lazy or unadventurous when it comes to his team’s approach, however, and when adaptations have been required he has demonstrated a real awareness of where to make them.

Two changes were made for last weekend’s 2-0 win over Tochigi SC, for example, and current squad players like Shun Ito, Yuhi Takemoto, Keisuke Tanabe, and Kaito Abe have all had extended runs in the side when things have needed freshening up a little.

Even so, overall Roasso have only used 25 players in their 30 league games to date, with just 14 of them clocking up more than 500 minutes of action.

Grulla, on the other hand, have done things completely differently, and Yutaka Akita hasn’t named the same XI in back-to-back games once this season, rotating heavily as he has looked to manage the stresses and strains of a heavy schedule and maximise the full extent of his squad.

That has seen 34 players pull on the white shirt so far, 25 of whom have played over 500 minutes – with Masaomi Nakano and Tatsuya Tabira also only eight and 19 minutes short of that landmark, respectively.

A glance at the current table would suggest the approach perhaps hasn’t been working out quite so well as Roasso’s – Grulla sit 19th on 30 points, just three outside the relegation zone, while Roasso are 17 points better off and riding high in sixth – but aside from a few big defeats Grulla haven’t looked especially out of their depth and they have also claimed some impressive scalps on their first year in J2, including beating JEF United, Fagiano Okayama, and Yokohama FC away, Kofu and Tokushima Vortis at home, and securing a double over fellow relegation battlers Omiya Ardija – six points that could prove crucial at the end of the season.

Yutaka Akita is of course at the other end of the experience spectrum to Oki when it comes to coaching, but the pair both look incredibly comfortable in a tracksuit and getting their boots dirty out on the touchline, and the former Kashima Antlers and Japan star certainly looks like he has a bright future ahead of him in the dugout.

Indeed, the manner in which he has used his squad to cope with the various pressures of the pandemic and unrelenting schedule of the 22-team J2 is an excellent approach I’m surprised more teams haven’t opted to experiment with – particularly during the ridiculous 2020 season when a full year of games were packed into just six months.

Aside from a few players who are involved almost every game, Akita has at times essentially divided his squad into two separate teams and sent them out for alternate fixtures as they have navigated their league commitments, the Emperor’s Cup, and rearranged games called off because of Covid. This was especially intelligent when there were consecutive midweek rounds and Grulla were served up a run of 14 games in 54 days between 18 May and 10 July – an average of a match every four days.

Doing so not only enables players to stay fresh, but it also gives young, developing talent more opportunities to play regular, competitive football, which will only benefit them and their club in the coming months and years.

It remains to be seen how both Roasso and Grulla see out the final quarter of the current campaign, but the differing approaches of their managers certainly mean they will both be well worth keeping an eye on as the season approaches its climax.


The numbers add up

There have been less fans in the stands for Japan national team games of late, but the cause seems fairly straightforward and there is no reason to panic about the lack of bums on seats… (日本語版)

There has been quite a bit of discussion of late about low attendances at recent Japan games, and while behind the scenes at the JFA there will of course be some concern about the drop off in numbers at Samurai Blue matches, I can’t help but feel things are being slightly overblown.

The opening game at the EAFF E-1 Championship brought things to a head somewhat with just 4,980 hardy souls in attendance for the national team’s match against Hong Kong at Kashima Stadium, but I’m not really sure what people expected.

The venues for the EAFF E-1 games aren’t exactly blessed with easy access, and you’d need to be a really dedicated supporter to take the afternoon off work after a three-day weekend to make the trek out to Kashima in the rain on a Tuesday night for a match against a side ranked 145th in the world.

It is also worth remembering that, with the greatest respect to the players involved, this is essentially a C-Team of fringe players or prospects for the future, with overseas-based players not available and Hajime Moriyasu also leaving out a handful of experienced domestic options – as well as opting not to call up any players from the club based in the host city.

There aren’t any comparable previous editions to gauge this year’s numbers against either, as the two previous times Japan hosted the competition (2010 and 2017) games were played in Tokyo, and at the first of those Takeshi Okada named a full-strength squad as he used the tournament as part of his preparation for the World Cup in South Africa.

Zooming out slightly from the current competition, there have also been grumbles about the lack of enthusiasm for the national team’s recent domestic friendly games. The increasingly limited options when it comes to opposition means the teams invited tend not to set pulses racing, however, and the likes of Paraguay and Ghana aren’t currently blessed with the kind of stars that will draw fans out to the stadium in their droves.

Brazil obviously did deliver on that front and Kokuritsu was packed to the rafters to see Neymar and co. up close, leading to the opposite complaint that people were there to watch the Seleção and not to support their own country. As a riposte to the claim, it should also be noted that there were 44,600 in Saitama for the final World Cup qualifier against Vietnam – a dead rubber on account of Japan having secured progression the previous week – demonstrating that interest in the Samurai Blue is still there.

There has been the suggestion in some quarters that the team’s relatively restrained style of play has been turning supporters away from games too, but I’m not sure that fully stands up to scrutiny. Neither Alberto Zaccheroni nor Vahid Halilhodzic can be said to have had their teams play with the handbrake off but national team games were still enthusiastically attended during their reigns, and it is a little unfair to suggest that Moriyasu’s reluctance to throw half a dozen attacking midfielders on in every game is the cause of the low attendances.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to the fact that there are essentially two types of people who attend matches: football fans and spectacle fans.

The football fans are there irrespective of recent results, opponent, or location, and their focus is predominantly what happens on the pitch and watching and supporting their team.

The spectacle fans, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily avid football supporters, may not even follow a J.League team, and go to games because it’s an event to partake in and share photos and videos of with their friends and followers on social media. Rather than necessarily being invested in the specifics of the matches, their motivation is instead centred more around enjoying the atmosphere and having a good time – rather like a trip to Disneyland or a live music gig.

It is here that we need to address the ongoing impact of Covid-19 and its associated restrictions, which it seems are being slightly underestimated in this discussion.

While hardcore football fans will still head to the stadium no matter what rules are in place, it is fair to assume that many more casual followers of the game would be hesitant to make their way to packed stadiums while the number of cases in Japan continues to rise – or equally may not be economically placed to do so, with many still recovering from, or still enduring, financial hardships on account of the pandemic – and while they are forbidden from singing and chanting. 

It is unsurprising, then, that those usually in the stands for the frills that accompany games aren’t especially inclined to venture out when they have to sit quietly and socially distanced from their friends, and it is likely that the absence of this strata of fan is the principle factor behind the recent low attendances. As soon as normality is restored to the matchday experience, it’s safe to assume that numbers will steadily make their way back up to pre-pandemic levels and this will all turn out to have been a storm in a teacup.


2022 EAFF Selection

The EAFF E-1 Football Championship kicks off in Japan next week, and ahead of Hajime Moriyasu’s squad announcement here are the 23 names I’d call up if I was in charge of the Samurai Blue… (日本語版)

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the EAFF E-1 Football Championship on account of it being the first tournament I got to cover Japan in back in 2010 (when it was called the East Asian Football Championship).

The fact the competition falls outside of the FIFA international window adds an extra layer of intrigue to proceedings, and while Nadeshiko Japan usually go with a full-strength side the men’s squad is commonly made up of less familiar names from the J.League rather than the usual national team faces.

Of course, after being given chances in EAFF games plenty of those players do then go on to establish themselves for the Samurai Blue and/or at overseas clubs, and six of those who started Japan’s last game at the tournament in 2019 are now playing abroad (with a seventh, Musashi Suzuki, having only just returned home after a couple of years in Belgium).

Looking ahead to this month’s edition then, I thought I’d select a squad of 23 that I would send out for Japan. Ordinarily I would be inclined to only include up-and-coming young talent with an eye on the future, but seeing as the World Cup is fast approaching and Hajime Moriyasu doesn’t have many opportunities to play friendlies ahead of the finals in Qatar I also opted for a few national team regulars and a couple of more experienced options at left-back, who may be able to make last ditch bids to fill a position which currently looks something of a problem area. 

While I was also tempted to include players from J2, I ultimately decided not to as the league isn’t taking a break for the EAFF competition and several of the standouts in the second tier already missed a handful of games on account of the U23 Asian Cup last month.

That’s my rationale explained, so let’s get on to the announcement!

Goalkeepers: Shuichi Gonda (Shimizu S-Pulse), Kosei Tani (Shonan Bellmare), Zion Suzuki (Urawa Reds)

Gonda is one of the players I considered leaving out as he already has plenty of experience, but seeing as he is clearly established as No.1 it can only be a benefit to have him working in the national team set up as much as possible before the Germany game on 23 November. Tani and Suzuki would be more than capable deputies, and have both impressed recently in J1 and at the U23 Asian Cup, respectively.

Defenders: Miki Yamane (Kawasaki Frontale), Tomoya Fujii (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Shogo Taniguchi (Kawasaki Frontale), Ryotaro Tsunoda (Yokohama F. Marinos), Ryuho Kikuchi (Vissel Kobe), Daiki Sugioka (Shonan Bellmare), Ryosuke Yamanaka (Cerezo Osaka), Katsuya Nagato (Yokohama F. Marinos)

With Moriyasu announcing that Hiroki Sakai will be left out along with Yuto Nagatomo and Yuya Osako this is a great opportunity to give Yamane more chances to settle for Japan, while his Kawasaki Frontale team-mate and fellow Qatar hopeful Taniguchi would also benefit from 10 more days working with the national team. Sugioka looks to be getting back to his best form after a difficult couple of years and would slot in well as the second centre back, while Nagata and Yamanaka are two of the J.League’s standout left-backs right now and would both offer solidity at the back and attacking threat going forwards. With Fujii’s pace, Kikuchi’s aggression, and Tsunoda’s composure in reserve I think the squad would be well balanced in defence.

Midfielders: Joel Chima Fujita (Yokohama F. Marinos), Kuryu Matsuki (FC Tokyo), Yuta Higuchi (Kashima Antlers), Satoshi Tanaka (Shonan Bellmare), Seiya Maikuma (Cerezo Osaka), Fuchi Honda (Sagan Tosu), Makoto Mitsuta (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Yusuke Matsuo (Urawa Reds)

I’d be inclined to set my team up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, although 4-3-3 would also be an option. Fujita is getting better and better all the time and really impressing in a box-to-box role for Yokohama F. Marinos, while Matsuki and Higuchi offer technically gifted and physically active options to slot in centrally as well. Tanaka has also stood out as Shonan Bellmare have slipped quietly into a run of good form of late, is incredibly comfortable on the ball, and looks like he’ll develop into an excellent player in the coming years. In the more advanced/wider roles Mitsuta absolutely has to be included, while Maikuma has also adapted very quickly on hi first season in J1 and certainly deserves a call-up. Honda and Matsuo have had stop-start campaigns for various reasons, but you can’t question the raw ability of either and I’d love to see what they could do on the international stage. 

Forwards: Yuma Suzuki (Kashima Antlers), Mao Hosoya (Kashiwa Reysol), Shuto Machino (Shonan Bellmare), Takuma Nishimura (Yokohama F. Marinos)

Japan teams since time immemorial have lacked lethal finishers, but this quartet are all in fine form and would bring a range of abilities to the final third of the pitch. Suzuki’s qualities are widely known, and his energy, movement, and eye for goal would give the team an exceptional focal point, while Nishimura could occupy a slightly deeper-lying role to keep the opponent’s defensive midfielders and centre-backs in a constant state of anxiety. Hosoya and Machino have also shown flashes of their potential this season, with energetic and intelligent approaches and, most importantly, a knack for putting the ball in the back of the net.

Starting 11 (4-2-3-1)

Gonda; Yamane, Taniguchi, Sugioka, Nagato; Fujita, Higuchi; Mitsuta, Nishimura, Matsuo; Suzuki


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.


Blood and thunder

The J.League puts in a lot of effort behind the scenes to build hype around ‘derbies’, but as with most things the end product is always more authentic when it occurs naturally… (日本語版)

The marketing departments of the J.League and its clubs are always working hard to try and promote the various ‘derbies’ that take place across its three divisions but, truth be told, the majority of these are merely games contested by teams that happen to be located near each other, and they can’t really be classified as derbies in the truest sense.

For a rivalry to be considered a derby there has to be authentic animosity between the participants, and the bad blood has to have been curdling for years. It can’t just be manufactured in a meeting room and whipped up with some posters and hashtags.

Urawa Reds versus Kashima Antlers is a derby.

The teams aren’t neighbours and there’s no preordained reason why the two should dislike each other, but over the past 30 years the pair have rubbed each other up the wrong way enough times that games between them naturally come with an edge.

Last Saturday’s encounter at Saitama Stadium provided the latest instalment in the series, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

Kashima came into the game targeting three more points as they aimed to keep up the pressure on narrow league leaders Kawasaki Frontale, while Urawa were hoping to build upon their sensational comeback from three goals down against Yokohama F. Marinos on the same pitch three days earlier as they looked to climb away from the bottom third of the table and end their run of six straight draws in J1.

All of this took a backseat once the whistle blew though, with both teams throwing themselves into the clash with the kind of gusto not often seen in a division more commonly home to games boasting periods of passive possession play and chess-like tactical brinkmanship.

Despite the blood-and-thunder nature of proceedings the visitors were incredibly well-oiled in the first half and always looked in control after taking an early lead through Arthur Kaike, seemingly driven on by the dominant drumbeat emanating from their fans in the southeast corner of the ground and asserting their supremacy in both directions. 

They didn’t give Reds a moment to settle on the ball – Yuma Suzuki even standing menacingly on the edge of the penalty area for Shusaku Nishikawa’s goal kicks – pressing in packs and snapping into tackles to ensure every time the hosts had possession they were forced to surrender it almost immediately. When attacking themselves, Antlers always looked composed and dangerous.

They were able to do this in large part because of their solid spine: Kento Misao, increasingly comfortable at centre-back, and who looks like he is very much enjoying the rough and tumble battles against opposing strikers; Diego Pituca, another who doesn’t shy away from physical contact and who seems to grow stronger with each successive duel; and the aforementioned Suzuki, a bundle of energy that every team would love to have leading their line.

Everything appeared to be going swimmingly for Antlers as half-time approached, but then a minute before the break Reds were awarded a penalty when Takahiro Akimoto’s cross struck Ikuma Sekigawa’s trailing arm. While it was a slightly harsh call and required a VAR review, Yuichi Nishimura brought play back and pointed at the spot.

There, Suzuki and Arthur Kaike did their best to distract Alexander Scholz, but just as Suzuki had shrugged off similar gamesmanship from Tomoaki Makino six years previously to dispatch a penalty into the same goal, the Dane wasn’t to be perturbed and drilled clinically home.

Reds had been handed a lifeline and were invigorated by getting on the scoresheet, and Ricardo Rodriguez’s side were able to assert themselves far more in an even and thoroughly entertaining second half.

Both managers spent the majority of the game watching and conducting proceedings from the limits of their technical areas – Rodriguez bouncing up and down and shuffling from one side to the other as he pointed, gestured, and cajoled constantly, while René Weiler cut a more studious presence, standing arms crossed and barely shifting more than two or three paces from the left-hand corner of his allotted rectangle as he surveyed the scene before him.

Antlers could have retaken the lead in the 61st minute after Suzuki robbed Akimoto in the left back position and burst into the area, but he couldn’t quite get the ball to Ayase Ueda and just as quickly as the chance had arrived it was gone.

After that Reds gradually worked their way into the ascendancy and were keeping and moving the ball much better, looking to stretch the visitors and preventing a tiring Antlers from pressing in numbers with such ease.

Yusuke Matsuo was introduced in the 82nd minute and instantly starting causing Kashima problems with his snaking runs and direct dribbling, but he passed up a golden opportunity to secure the three points 10 minutes later when he shot at Kwoun Sun-tae instead of cutting back for Kasper Junker.

The Dane couldn’t believe the chance had gotten away from them – and Matsuo’s reaction suggested he knew full well what he should have done too – but Ken Iwao almost made up for it with an imperious drive from the edge of the area three minutes later that thundered off the bar and then Junker had another half-sight of goal but saw his effort blocked by Koki Anzai.

Nobody wanted the final whistle as the two teams continued to duke not out in search of a winner, but seconds later Nishimura brought proceedings to an end and that was to be that.

Now that was a derby.


Leading from the front

Kawasaki Frontale flattered to deceive once again in Asian competition this year, but their upcoming schedule leaves them well placed to make a real push for a third consecutive J1 title… (日本語版)

It feels as though Kawasaki Frontale have been sat permanently astride the J1 rankings since Covid-19 started to wreak havoc around the world, and for the past two-and-a-bit years Toru Oniki’s men have been a class apart in the J.League.

They may have sealed their maiden title in 2017 by only going top for the first time at the end of the final round of games, and 2019 did see them slip momentarily back into the pack to finish 10 points behind eventual champions Yokohama F.Marinos, but since the fourth round of the 2020 season Frontale have been almost permanently in possession of first place as they have established themselves as the dominant power in Japanese football

Kawasaki have of course had to fend off the occasional challenger during that spell, but even as key players have departed for pastures new in Europe they have managed to keep playing assertively from a position of power, coping admirably with the pressure of being the hunted and ultimately protecting their leads with relative ease to celebrate back-to-back championships twice in half a decade.

Last week they returned from their AFC Champions League duties in Malaysia in an unfamiliar position, however, sitting in second place and five points adrift of a resurgent Kashima Antlers.

Not only that, but Frontale were smarting from another chastening experience in continental competition, struggling yet again to transfer their J.League swagger to Asia and failing to make it out of Group I after winning just three of their six matches – the only one of this year’s J.League representatives not to progress to August’s Round of 16.

This latest collapse in the ACL will certainly have smarted, and everyone at the club will know that for all their domestic dominance glory further afield is needed to truly cap this generation’s dynasty and move the side from Todoroki up into the next bracket as a giant of the Asian game.

Set against that backdrop then, Saturday’s game away to Shimizu S-Pulse looked like a potential banana skin, with Kawasaki needing to shake of their disappointment and reacclimatise and Hiroaki Hiraoka’s men unbeaten in five games and full of confidence after an impressive 4-1 win away to Shonan Bellmare in their previous match.

Well, on paper at least. In reality, Kawasaki slipped straight back into their effortless J.League groove and moved ahead inside the first quarter of an hour after some characteristically intricate build-up play between Yasuto Wakizaka and Akihiro Ienaga ended with the former rifling home at Shuichi Gonda’s near post.

Wakizaka then turned provider just past the half hour mark as he floated a delicious ball to the back post for Marcinho to head home, and with an hour left to play the visitors already had the luxury of being able to take the sting out of the game and preserve some energy and three more precious points – racking up 69 percent of possession in the first half and making almost twice as many passes as the hosts (378 to 194) with 89 percent accuracy.

That completion rate was maintained over the 90 minutes as a whole, and although Shimizu had a few potshots at goal Frontale’s victory never looked like it was in any serious danger. At the same time, Kashima were falling to a surprise 3-0 defeat away to Sanfrecce Hiroshima to see their lead at the summit reduced instantly to just two points, with Frontale also having a game in hand.

With only a third of the season played it would of course be foolish to start speculating with any real conviction about favourites for the title, but a quick glance at the upcoming fixtures suggests Kawasaki have a real opportunity to seize the initiative and once again situate themselves as the leaders of the pack.

Their next seven league games starting with this weekend’s clash at home to Avispa Fukuoka and ending with the visit of Jubilo Iwata at the end of June all look eminently winnable, with neither of those opponents or any of the handful in-between (Vissel Kobe, Sagan Tosu, Shonan Bellmare, Kyoto Sanga, and Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo) any higher than mid-table and all needing to be at their very best to stand a chance of upsetting the two-time defending champions.

Frontale’s early exit from the ACL is an undoubted disappointment, but the fact the club now has no further continental commitments this year could serve as a blessing as the season picks up pace and the pressure starts to build. Kawasaki have shown time and again that they have terrific staying power at the top, and as spring moves into summer the question could be whether anyone else is similarly able to handle the heat.

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October 2022