Author Archive for Sean Carroll


Adios Ange

Ange Postecoglou’s drawn out departure from Yokohama F.Marinos to Celtic provided a rare instance of a J.League manager being poached by a bigger club, and the reactions to it from overseas made for interesting viewing… (日本語版)


In football, managers are always changing clubs. A coach is fired or quits somewhere in the world every week, with the J.League’s three divisions already seeing 13 casualties in the 2021 season.

On the whole, these departures are met with one of two responses by supporters: relief, or even happiness, on the part of those who weren’t fans of the outgoing boss; or anger and sadness for those who wanted them to stick around.

Ange Postecoglou’s exit from Yokohama F.Marinos, however, was a little more complex.

Changes in the dugout in Japan are almost always made because results aren’t up to scratch, with clubs wielding the axe or the incumbents falling on their own swords as penance. In the case of Postecoglou and Marinos that wasn’t the issue though, and this was instead one of those few occasions when a manager in the J.League was actively enticed away by an offer from elsewhere, resulting in disappointment and/or resigned acceptance from Marinos supporters.

While reactions on social media are certainly not the best way to gauge the general mood – with debate, if it can even be called that, ultimately dominated by the loudest voices at both extremes, and balanced, nuanced comment nigh-on impossible – responses overseas to the rumours have also been interesting and cast a light on how the J.League is viewed further afield.

On one side of the fence there seem to be a lot of sceptical – to put it politely – Celtic fans unimpressed to have somebody they’ve “never heard of” who “only coaches in Japan” taking charge of their storied club. Writing someone off on these grounds is of course ridiculous – firstly because people you’ve heard of don’t always do well, and secondly because it doesn’t take much effort these days to do a bit of research and see that Postecoglou has been successful at club level in Australia and Japan and also when in charge of the Australian national team – but it does demonstrate the difference in expectation levels and pressure between football in Japan and the UK.

At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, the die-hard fans of ‘Ange-ball’ are delighted to see their man given this chance, and have been hitting back at those belittling him by insisting he is more than a match for one of Europe’s great old clubs. Again, a little more trepidation may be in order here, and while Postecoglou has ultimately picked up silverware everywhere he’s been, it has always come with the caveat of wanting his teams to play in a very particular way, which takes time to implement.

As the reaction of some Celtic fans shows, time is not something he is likely to be given a great deal of in Glasgow,. The club is coming off the back of a miserable season in which their bitter rivals Rangers won the Scottish Premier League at a canter to prevent them making it 10 consecutive titles, and while Postecoglou undoubtedly has the steel and tactical nous to bring the good times back to Celtic Park, if he isn’t given full backing by the club and the players and fans don’t buy into his approach quickly then things could turn sour before any progress is made.

Returning to Japan, meanwhile, the J.League can certainly can be pleased with the fact that its competition is now at the level to serve as a stepping stone for coaches as well as players. If Postecoglou does well at Celtic then the standing of the league will only improve, possibly increasing the chances of more up-and-coming international managers considering the league as a viable option to help build their reputations.

On the flip side, Marinos are of course left facing a dilemma. The club is not only losing a coach that has delivered success and re-established them as one of the J.League’s leading teams, but also one that has re-defined them by installing a distinctive, effective, and entertaining style of play. The involvement of City Football Group, which has an overarching philosophy it wants employed at all its clubs, suggests they will look to bring in a replacement with a similar ethos, but having to do so at short notice in the middle of the season will not be straightforward.

Will they look to swiftly recruit an already-Japan-based proponent of proactive football – Albert Puig of Albirex Niigata, Postecoglou’s former assistant Peter Cklamovski, who recently joined Montedio Yamagata, and ex-Kawasaki Frontale manager Yahiro Kazama being a few names that spring immediately to mind – or instead take their time and look to recruit someone we’ve never heard of from overseas using their vast scouting network?

Whichever it is, the loss of Postecoglou is a big blow to Marinos and the J.League as a whole, and, to borrow a phrase the man himself likes to apply to his work, it will be fascinating to see how he gets on with the next stage of his journey.


Reds gain great Dane

It is still early days, but with four goals in his first three J1 games for Urawa Reds Kasper Junker looks like he has everything needed to make a real name for himself in Saitama… (日本語版)

All eyes were on Saitama Stadium on Saturday with Vissel Kobe and, fresh from the announcement of his two-year contract extension, Andres Iniesta in town to face Urawa Reds.

The Spain legend completed 90 minutes in the league for the first time since Vissel’s 2-0 home defeat against Shonan Bellmare last November, and despite showing his age in some respects did offer flashes of his enduring brilliance on the ball as he and his side fell to another, slightly unfortunate, 2-0 loss.

The former Barcelona man may have offered up some sublime touches and passes on his return to Vissel’s starting line-up, but his wasn’t the European name on everyone lips come full time, with Urawa’s new signing Kasper Junker again claiming the spotlight.

The 27-year-old was a menace in the final third of the pitch from the first minute to the 90th – when he was substituted off to rapturous applause from the 4,917 fans in attendance – leading the home side’s charge by harrying from the front, instigating attacks with surging runs, and showcasing his intelligent movement by getting into some very dangerous positions. Oh, and, as we are already becoming accustomed to, by scoring.

His goal here, a controlled effort steered home with his left foot from close range after Daigo Nishi’s hopeful lump into the area somehow found it’s way to him unmarked at the back post, was the Dane’s fourth in his first three league games for Reds, already making him the team’s top scorer.

“He’s scoring goals to help the team and getting into the right positions at the right times,” Urawa manager Ricardo Rodriguez said after the game. “It’s not just that though, and his all round performances have been really good.

“New signings need time to adapt, but especially in the second half today we saw he is also doing what is expected of him in a defensive sense as well. It’s really important that he has been able fit in so well with the team, and I’m sure he will keep improving. His goals really help the team and I’m confident he’ll keep contributing in that way.”

For the best part of a decade Urawa’s scoring burden has rested on the shoulders – or, more precisely, in the boots – of Shinzo Koroki. One of the most natural finishers the J.League has ever seen, Koroki has racked up double figures in each of the last nine seasons (eight with Urawa and one with Kashima Antlers), but in the last three years the only one of his teammates to also get beyond 10 goals was Leonardo last year, when the Brazilian led Reds’ ranking with 11. Their second top scorer in 2019 was Kazuki Nagasawa with just three, while Yuki Muto followed Koroki with seven in 2018.

The early signs are that Junker will be more than capable of sharing the responsibility in front of goal though, as well as fulfilling the high-pressing role Rodriguez demands of his forwards.

“I think my strengths are my speed and my positioning inside the penalty area,” Junker said at his unveiling at the end of April. “My left foot shots also stand out, but I don’t just score goals and I think while finding the net myself I will also be able to provide assists for my teammates in order to contribute to the team.

“I think I am at the ideal age right now. As a striker I feel I’m approaching my peak, but I know I still have plenty of room for improvement and am confident I can keep raising the level of my performance as I take this step up. I want to play here for a long time. Football is life itself for me, and I want to keep going for a long time.”

He certainly demonstrated that enthusiasm against Vissel, eagerly closing down Thomas Vermaelen and Ryuho Kikuchi when the visitors’ centre-backs were in possession, urging his teammates forward in support of attacks, and also looking to create opportunities from deeper-lying positions.

Indeed, the chance from which he got his name on the scoresheet actually came about after one of these plays from midfield, and after receiving the ball 30 yards inside his own half he nutmegged Ayub Masika, opened his legs to eat up the space in front of him, and then chipped in behind for Yoshio Koizumi. This pass was ultimately too far ahead of his teammate, but Kobe made a mess of things once in possession and surrendered a soft corner, and after also failing to clear that properly the ball found itself being cushioned home by Junker’s left boot.

He won’t always be handed goals quite so easily, but the clinical way he dispatched the chance served another warning to the rest of J1 that Reds’ new No.7 is the real deal.


Fans United

The protests that saw Manchester United v. Liverpool postponed showed fans do still have a say in the way their clubs are run, they just might need to shout a little bit louder… (日本語版)

In the end, let’s admit it, there was probably more excitement on the Old Trafford pitch on 2 May than there would have been if the inevitable cagey draw between Manchester United and Liverpool had been played as scheduled.

In some ways, the scenes around and inside one of the most famous football venues on earth were also a better advert for the passion of domestic football in England than another tiresome stalemate between these old rivals – seven of whom’s last 11 meetings have ended all square.

Of course violent clashes between protestors and the police aren’t something we’re supposed to condone, but they only accounted for a tiny proportion of the activity in Manchester, and at a time of steady disenfranchisement when we are increasingly viewed less as individuals and more as customers this was a refreshing reminder of the culture and enthusiasm that helped English football to develop into the most popular in the world.

The protests by United fans were ostensibly in reaction to the club’s announcement at the end of April that it was one of the 12 members of the (quickly-folded) European Super League, although as one of the participants in the protests explained in The Guardian the seeds had been sown long before that when the most successful side in the Premier League era fell into the hands of its current owners (one of whom, United co-chairman Joel Glazer, was named as a vice-chairman of the Super League).

“This is all to do with the Glazers,” Jamie of the United We Stand fanzine wrote with regards to the leveraged buyout through which the American family acquired control of the club 16 years ago. “It has been a long time in the making, because we protested in 2005 [when they bought the club], and again in 2010. I can understand people saying: “It’s just because you’re not winning things any more.” But that’s not the point – this is about a football club and a community that surrounds it.

“Will there be more protests? Yes. Maybe not on that scale again because this was United-Liverpool, a worldwide audience, on a bank holiday Sunday, but there will be more.”

And the world really was watching, with the actions of the protestors as they caused the first match postponement on account of fan behaviour in the Premier League era being beamed around the globe. “We decide when you can play” was one of the chants favoured by the supporters as they gathered outside Old Trafford and the Lowry Hotel at which the United players were staying in advance of the game, hinting at another long-running gripe the Super League fiasco had brought to a head.

Match-going fans, whose fervour and cash had initially enabled the English game to elevate itself, have found themselves gradually sidelined as the Premier League behemoth has grown into a global business endeavor, with kick-off times increasingly arranged to suit broadcast partners rather than those attending in person.

The coronavirus has added insult to injury in this sense, with the empty rhetoric of the ‘Football is Nothing Without Fans’ tarpaulins draped over deserted terraces being proven glaringly untrue as the Premier League beast has rolled relentlessly on without them for over a year now.

It is likely that the timing of the Super League announcement was not coincidental either, with those involved perhaps hoping they could force it through without fans being at grounds to voice their opposition. It is fair to say they grossly underestimated the depth of feeling and sense of attachment supporters have with their clubs.

Owners, managers, and players come and go, but fans are the one constant. Those connections are passed on from generation to generation, and the protests that prevented United-Liverpool being played were a defiant roar against the ongoing commodification and sterilisation seeking to take top level football further away from its origins – of which the Super League would have been the latest escalation, featuring the same uber-rich teams playing each other repeatedly in games contested for huge profit but with no risk.

“Of course we’d love to have watched a Manchester United-Liverpool game but ultimately this is much bigger than that,” Jamie added of the protest. “If we get a points deduction we would not care.

“I do get that some people say a line was crossed because it was illegal [entering Old Trafford] but there’s only so much passive resistance can do. You can tweet “#Glazersout” but what good does it do?”

The Old Trafford protests served as a timely reminder that supporters aren’t just consumers who should just blindly cheerlead, but are instead one of the foundations upon which clubs are built.

Fans have voices and shouldn’t be afraid to use them. When they shout loud enough, they are heard.


Best foot forward

Yokohama F.Marinos have been uncharacteristically solid defensively of late, although, characteristically, that state of affairs is being enabled by an all-action front four… (日本語版)

Yokohama F.Marinos under Ange Postecoglou have always been an attack-minded side, and as the Australian himself often likes to say when they’re good they’re very good but when they’re not, well, they can be pretty bad – especially in defence.

Last week’s 5-0 demolition of Yokohama FC again showcased the best Marinos have to offer going forwards, as they rode out a tricky opening 15 minutes or so before going on to swat aside their local rivals with a dominant display that could ultimately have been won by an even bigger margin.

This game wasn’t only notable for the goals going it at one end of the pitch, however, and it also served to further highlight a newfound stringency Marinos have discovered at the back. In the entirety of the 2020 season Marinos only managed to keep six clean sheets in J1, but the shutout in the derby was their fifth of this year already – all of which have come in the last eight games, a run during which they have conceded just three goals.

“I think one ties into the other,” Postecoglou said when asked about the non-stop running of his forwards and the team’s current solidity in defence. “I think the reason we’ve been better defensively is that our front players work really hard – they’re our first line of defence.

“We work on it all the time, but it’s got to be in the players too. It’s the reason we brought these players in. If you want to play as a striker in our team you’ll get an opportunity to score a lot of goals, but you have to work hard in a defensive sense.

“I think today that was the real key for us, because we knew Yokohama [FC] weren’t going to be too expansive in terms of being too open, so our best moments might come when they lose the ball in [their] half. We wanted to try and win it back and put them under pressure again.”

When you have the likes of Daizen Maeda, Marcos Junior, Elber, and Ado Onaiwu at your disposal you certainly aren’t going to be wanting for willing runners in that sense, and once Yokohama FC’s early enthusiasm had fizzled out that quartet were a constant menace – hounding, harrying, and hassling from the front to ensure the visitors had no time at all to get comfortable in possession.

Maeda epitomised Marinos’ work-rate out of possession, and the speed with which the 23-year-old moves across the turf really is remarkable. Lining up on the left of what was essentially a front four the former Matsumoto Yamaga man was a bundle of pace, aggression, and energy from the very first whistle, and while his finishing let him down on occasion his enthusiasm never waned.

The majority of J.League teams tend to allow the opposition keeper time on the ball when it finds its way back to him, for instance, but Maeda, Onaiwu, and Elber didn’t give Yuji Rokutan a moment to relax in possession, forcing him to play out with urgency and, in turn, more often than not resulting in the ball being turned back over to the hosts.

The attackers weren’t afraid to work backwards either, with Tatsuki Seko and co. not only finding themselves closed down by the Marinos’ midfielders or defenders in front of them but also having to fend off challenges being made by one or more of the host’s returning forwards – or, quite often, both at the same time.

On one such occasion in the 52nd minute Maeda pressed back to dispossess Seko but then over-hit his pass for Elber, but neither that nor another missed opportunity to get on the scoresheet 10 minutes later caused his head to drop, and he was to get his just rewards in the 71st minute.

Despite Jun Amano misplacing his pass infield, Maeda was too flight of foot for the sluggish Maguinho and got his toe to the ball first, and after possession was recycled quickly forwards he was on hand to tuck home Marinos’ fourth from close range after Takahiro Ogihara’s ball across goal a mere 13 seconds later.

Finally finding the net didn’t cause him to let up either, and five minutes later he was tearing in behind again to latch onto a Kota Mizunuma ball over the top, although he couldn’t quite get the ball under control in what turned out to be his final contribution of the afternoon before making way for debutant Leo Ceara – who himself went on to score less than a minute after taking to the field.

“We still have a very heavy programme, so we need those players,” Postecoglou said of the wealth of options he has to choose from in attack.

“Our front players are very important to us as, as has already been mentioned, they have to work very hard, so it’d be very difficult for them to play every game. We’ve got Leo in now, which is great, so we’ve got some more depth in that front third, and hopefully [Teruhito] Nakagawa’s not too far away, a couple more weeks – we’ll need him as well.

“I think it’s not so much that there’s competition [between players], it just means that we’re able to maintain a good level every game. Because that’s what we were missing last year – we were very inconsistent. When we played well we were good, but when we played not so well we were very poor. We’ve tried to adjust that this year, and it’s good that all the strikers are scoring goals. Ado and Daizen were great today and I thought Elber was fantastic. Marcos Junior is getting to full fitness, he’s not quite there, so it’s good for us.”

Good for them it may be, but there can’t be many defences looking forward to coming up against Marinos’ front line right now, whichever players it’s comprised of.


Tosu turning it on

For several years Sagan Tosu have been seen as J1’s ‘safety first’ team, but things are changing down in Kyushu and Kim Myung-hwi’s side are currently one of the most entertaining to watch in the first division… (日本語版)

A couple of weeks ago Sagan Tosu were receiving plenty of attention for their sensational defensive form, which had seen them avoid conceding in any of their first six league games.

While they were unable to make the record they share with the 1996 vintage of Yokohama Flugels their own after a 1-0 loss to Cerezo Osaka on 2 April however, sight shouldn’t be lost of the incredibly good job Kim Myung-hwi is doing down in Kyushu.

Tosu’s solidity at the back has of course been impressive, but the manner in which they are approaching games has also been just as worthy of note, with the team eschewing it’s traditional safety-first approach and playing far more proactively – bossing possession irrespective of the opponent.

Let us take the defeat against Cerezo, for instance. Despite being away from home, according to the Football LAB website Tosu had 58 percent of the ball – including an astonishing 61 percent in the final 15 minutes despite being a man down after Hwang Seok-ho’s 77th-minute sending off – made 566 passes to Cerezo’s 373, and entered Cerezo’s penalty area 15 times (Cerezo made it into Tosu’s just four).

The players weren’t satisfied with having put up such an impressive showing though, insisting that they should have taken more from the game.

“It’s not the case that you will win games just by having the ball, you have to score goals,” Daichi Hayashi said. “Today we had more of the ball but if we had one player capable of making the most of a chance like Cerezo took theirs then we would have won the game.”

Breakout star Shinya Nakano was similarly disappointed with the final score, which followed a 0-0 in their previous league game at home to Avispa Fukuoka.

“Today the opponent dropped back and we just moved the ball around at the back,” the 17-year-old said. “We have to aim forward more, put in more crosses, take more shots. If we don’t increase the frequency of those things then we won’t score goals.”

Such comments could of course be construed as mere platitudes – almost every team in the world insists they are trying to win every game, even when the evidence clearly suggests otherwise – but Tosu’s commitment to their new positive approach was firmly driven home in their next game away to all-conquering Kawasaki Frontale.

Of late, when you play Frontale you know you are going to spend the bulk of the game on the back foot, forced to cede possession and hope you’ll get the chance to capitalise upon an error or break quickly at some point. Tosu, however, refused to follow that script.

The Football LAB stats for the first half had Tosu with more of the ball (52.3 percent), while the DAZN figures for the live broadcast showed that the visitors took six shots to Kawasaki’s five (three on target versus two), as well as making marginally more passes than Frontale (291 to 284) in the first 45 minutes.

Indeed, the individual player breakdown illustrated just how intent Tosu had been to take the game to the reigning champions and runaway league leaders, with central midfielders Daiki Matsuoka (31 passes) and Toshio Shimokawa (26) making more passes than their opposite numbers Yasuto Wakizaka (25) and Ao Tanaka (21).

There can’t be many teams who have left Frontale in the shade in that manner in recent years, and it was a theme Tosu built upon emphatically at the start of the second period when they racked up an incredible 62.7 percent of possession in the first 15 minutes of play.

Unfortunately for them they had a centre-back sent off for the second game in a row at the end of this fruitful spell, and after Masaya Tashiro was given his marching orders in the 57th minute Kawasaki were able to wrest control of proceedings from Tosu’s grasp, and got the only goal of the game through substitute Daiya Tono eight minutes later.

Tosu were the only team to avoid defeat in the league by Kawasaki last season – taking a point from both games – although the corresponding fixture on the opening day of the 2020 campaign saw them rack up just 41 percent of possession while being out-shot 24 to five and out-passed 658 to 314 on the way to a fortuitous 0-0 draw.

There were certainly signs of a shift to a slightly more adventurous style in the 1-1 towards the end of last year’s long and draining campaign, but few expected at that point that Tosu would continue to pursue such a cavalier approach. Matsuoka’s comments after the recent loss to Frontale suggests it is a process they won’t be ditching any time soon though.

“In training the coaching staff and players have all been paying real attention to and vocalising the need to be looking forward proactively (on the pitch),” he said of his team’s enterprising display at Todoroki. “For me personally, I feel that if I’m not able to make those kinds of passes then I can’t become a central midfielder that opponents fear.”

Yokohama FC certainly didn’t enjoy their afternoon against Matsuoka and co. in Tosu’s next game – with the 19-year-old amongst the assists as they found their scoring boots again in a 3-0 cruise on 11 April – and if they keep up this level of performance then Tosu will undoubtedly be one of the teams to watch as the season progresses.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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June 2021