Archive for the 'フットボール・チャンネル / Football Channel' Category


Eternal challengers

There remains a divide between the challengers and the champions at the World Cup, and for the former to bridge it they have to break down the mental barrier they’re in part responsible for building… (日本語版)

Japan’s defeat to Croatia in the Round of 16 at the World Cup in Qatar was hugely disappointing, but when looked at in the cold light of day it of course can’t be considered a surprise.

Teams like Japan, Senegal, and the USA aren’t supposed to still be around in the latter stages of the competition, and the fact they were all eliminated at the first knockout hurdle – along with fellow upstarts Australia, Poland, Switzerland, and South Korea – was only in keeping with the natural order of things at this level.

At least, that’s how the established nations look at things, and this difference in attitude is perhaps the biggest obstacle countries looking to break into the very top bracket of the world game need to overcome.

Since 1986 only eight non-European or South American teams have progressed to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, with South Korea (when co-hosting in 2002) the only one of them to have gone one step further and reached the semi-finals since 1930 – when USA made the last four of a 13-team tournament.

The European and South American hegemony is itself also a pretty exclusive club, and aside from South Korea only 15 countries from UEFA and CONMEBOL have made it to the semi-finals of the competition since 1986.

Coaching, player ability, and tactical approaches all naturally play a part in this, but at the highest level of the game such differences are incredibly fine and what it ultimately comes down to is attitude. The ‘smaller’ nations all too often don’t approach games considering themselves as equals but instead challengers, instantly handing their opponents the initiative and thus encouraging the cycle to perpetuate.

While teams like Japan become preoccupied with setting new checkpoints to tick off, those at the next level consider anything other than tilt at the title as failure.

“Are we excited about being in a quarter-final? Of course. But when you’ve just been to a final and a semi-final it feels a little bit different to the first quarter-final,” Gareth Southgate’s right-hand man Steve Holland said ahead of England’s quarter-final clash against France, for instance. “I’m not being arrogant. We want more.”

You could see this difference in assuredness as Japan’s Round of 16 tie wore on against Croatia, and especially during the penalty shoot-out. Croatia had been there before, seen that, and done that. For Japan this was their moment, the game in which they would either achieve their oft-cited target of a first ever quarter-final appearance or fall at the same hurdle for the fourth time.

This in turn produced a situation whereby Japan’s players looked utterly wracked with nerves as they stood on the brink, while the Croatians remained serene and looked fully in control – to an almost unnerving degree, as if they already knew the outcome.

And, in a sense, they did. The rarified air of the quarter-finals and beyond at the World Cup belongs to a select band of teams – they are one of them and Japan are not.

Of course, this set of circumstance isn’t only true for the Samurai Blue, and plenty of other countries also find themselves experiencing a mental block once they arrive at a certain fork in the road. Mexico famously exited at the Round of 16 at seven consecutive tournaments before being eliminated in the group stage this year, for example, while Switzerland’s hammering by Portugal in Doha was their fifth exit at the same juncture in six appearances since 1994.

Are these targets helpful, then? Probably not. Maybe instead of building them up in the minds of the players it is instead better to just adhere to the age-old stereotype of taking one game at a time and focusing on how to beat the opponent in front of you irrespective of the stage of the competition you’re at. After all, why does it really matter what your fellow countrymen did 20 years ago when football was a very different game and none of the same players were on the pitch?

Indeed, Morocco made it to the quarter-finals for the first time in their history by backing themselves from the first to the last whistle against Spain and then dispatching their penalties with icy composure – none more so than Achraf Hakimi, whose audacious panenka beyond Unai Simon with the decisive kick will be replayed for decades to come.

That’s how you do it. You need conviction. You have to believe you belong there, that this is your stage as much as it is Spain’s or Belgium’s or Croatia’s.

There’s no easy solution to this conundrum – if there was the situation wouldn’t exist – and it is of course something of a chicken-and-egg situation. Once you’ve overcome a hurdle it loses its aura and becomes easier to clear again. Getting beyond it for the first time is less about formations and pass completion rates and xG and more to do with attitude though – and that is something which is incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible, to teach. It is instead ingrained through experience. Not just in the cliched sense players spout about “learning from this defeat”, but long beforehand.

In order for Japan to move up to the next echelon the focus shouldn’t just be on who coaches the team or who pulls on the blue shirt or what system they play. It needs to go deeper than that. It comes from how players and coaches are raised – in a footballing sense and as people – how they approach challenges, and how they carry themselves every time they step onto the pitch. They need grit and drive and arrogance from the very first time they kick a football.

Until they have that, they will keep being edged out by those that do.



Hajime Moriyasu has struggled to win over fans of the Japan national team, but the Samurai Blue manager is deserving of more respect and showed once again in Wednesday’s historic comeback win against Germany that he knows what he’s doing… (日本語版)

The key to achieving success in high pressure situations is having the ability to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs.

And while plenty of fans, media (this correspondent included), and even some of his players were guilty of the latter during Japan’s opening World Cup contest against Germany on Wednesday night, Hajime Moriyasu maintained his composure to mastermind a sensational comeback and claim the unlikeliest of three points for the Samurai Blue.

With his team on the ropes for almost the entirety of the first half Moriyasu shifted from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-2-1 at the break, before further tweaking things just before the hour mark by bringing on Kaoru Mitoma and Takuma Asano and then introducing Ritsu Doan in the 71st and Takumi Minamino in the 75th minutes.

All four of these players made telling contributions to Japan’s historic win, with Doan first slamming home the equaliser after some fine build-up play on the left from Mitoma and Minamino, and then the much-maligned Asano sealing the three points with a sensational winner eight minutes later.

“Three of Japan’s substitutes were involved in that goal. Hats off to Hajime Moriyasu!” Scott Murray wrote in The Guardian’s minute-by-minute coverage of Japan’s equaliser, before heaping more praise on Japan’s manager at full time.

“It’s all down to Hajime Moriyasu’s slew of substitutes, all of whom made an impact. A managerial masterclass … and his players aren’t half bad either!”

Moriyasu came in for his fair share of criticism from Japan fans ahead of the tournament, with grumbles in particular about his player selection – especially the absence of Yuya Osako and Kyogo Furuhashi and inclusion of Asano, who Moriyasu helped develop during his time at Sanfrecce Hiroshima but who had been out injured since September – but he remained unflustered in his preparations and continued to insist that he believed he had put together a squad capable of progressing to the quarter-finals for the first time in the country’s history.

That target is of course still a long way off, and we shouldn’t get too carried away with one win – Moriyasu certainly won’t be – but it is perhaps about time that the man with the notepad is given his dues.

This, after all, isn’t the first time he has engineered a turnaround in his team’s fortunes, and as well as composure in heated situations being a hallmark of successful individuals so too is recognising your mistakes and correcting them.

It hasn’t just been in his personnel selections and substitutions that Moriyasu has shown his talent, but also in his ability to foster a togetherness in the squad and transmit exactly what he wants to his players at crucial junctures.

After two defeats in the first three games of the final round of Asian qualifying it looked like his job was on the line, for instance, and the usually reserved manager had tears in his eyes during the national anthem ahead of the crucial home clash against Australia in October last year.

That emotion clearly transferred to his players who, in a slightly re-jigged 4-3-3 formation, claimed a 2-1 win at Saitama Stadium – Asano again the hero late on – turning things around and kickstarting a run of six straight wins to secure their place in Qatar – capped off as Mitoma, on as a sub, of course, struck twice late on in the return fixture against the Socceroos.

And he achieved the same at Khalifa International Stadium, bringing about a change in attitude and intent in his players to secure the largest scalp the Samurai Blue have ever claimed.

“Hajime Moriyasu’s in-game management was the biggest reason Japan won today,” Zach Lowy of tweeted on Wednesday night. “When Germany took the lead, he didn’t tighten the bolts to prevent them from racking up the goals — he went for broke and took control of the game via attacking subs like Kaoru Mitoma and Takuma Asano.”

Of course, the fact Japan were so outclassed for long spells has still produced criticism of the manager, and the team certainly rode their luck at times and could have done with more composure on the ball in the opening hour.

The argument that he should have started the likes of Mitoma and Doan is slightly disingenuous though, and we have no idea how that game – or any of the infinite other hypothetical games – would have gone. The whole point of having substitutes is in order for them to change the game in your favour, and in the only contest that actually happened against Germany Moriyasu ultimately played his cards perfectly.

That triumph will never be taken away from the manager or his players, and now he will focus on blocking out the noise again in order to claim another victory against Costa Rica on Sunday. Maybe this time we should believe he can do it.


Drawing closer

Kyoto Sanga and Roasso Kumamoto will square off to decide who gets the final place in J1 for the 2023 season on Sunday, and while the hosts start as clear favourites they won’t have things all their own way… (日本語版)

With Hajime Moriyasu having announced his 26-man Japan squad at the start of the month attention is steadily turning towards the World Cup, but the 2022 J1 season still hasn’t quite concluded and this weekend Kyoto Sanga and Roasso Kumamoto will square off to decide who takes the final spot in the Japanese top flight next year.

While for a spell it looked as though a big-hitter like Vissel Kobe or Gamba Osaka may suffer the indignity of relegation (or at least a relegation/promotion play-off) it was instead Sanga – as high as ninth in the middle of the season – who slid quietly down into 16th place after winning only two of their last 15 games.

A pair of 0-0 draws to close out the regular season pretty much summed up the characteristic solid, hard-running, hard-working approach of their manager Cho Kwi-jae, and while Sanga never lost more than two games in a row all season they also only managed to emerge victorious on eight occasions.

Defensively rigid, Kyoto had the joint-third best defence in J1 (with Avispa Fukuoka) after conceding just 38 times, while Naoto Kamifukumoto can count himself a little unlucky not to have been named in the yearly Best 11 after frequently pulling off some spectacular stops as he kept a respectable eight clean sheets.

At the other end of the pitch the team carried a distinct lack of scoring threat though, and after veteran Peter Utaka struck the eighth of his nine J1 goals on 3 May Sanga only found the net 16 more times all year to finish as joint-second lowest scorers (with Nagoya Grampus) on just 30 goals. Their paucity in this regard is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that their second top scorer after Utaka was Kosuke Taketomi, who put up just three goals.

Indeed, Sanga failed to score on 12 occasions over the past eight-and-a-half months, including their last two games against Cerezo Osaka and Jubilo Iwata, when a solitary goal would almost certainly have ensured their J1 status for another year.

“For me as a coach this will be my first time taking part in the play-offs,” Cho said after the stalemate away to Jubilo on the last day of the season.

“We shouldn’t be timid in the game, and I want us to put in a better performance than we did today – I feel we were a little too stiff. Now what’s important is to make sure the players are ready to move on to the next stage.”

Roasso have also drawn their last two games, although thanks to the J.League’s bizarre play-off format those results were enough to book them a place in Sunday’s decisive contest at the expense of Oita Trinita and Montedio Yamagata, both of whom finished below them in the regular J2 season rankings and so needed to win inside 90 minutes away from home to progress at Roasso’s expense – something Roasso themselves now need to do in Kyoto.

While victories may have been a little hard to come by of late, however – Roasso have won just one of their last six games – they certainly shouldn’t be underestimated ahead of this contest, and Takeshi Oki’s side have been one of the most expansive and enjoyable teams to watch in J2 this year.

“Just do the same as always,” was the manager’s characteristically to-the-point reply when asked how how wanted his team to approach the biggest game in Roasso’s history, and continuity has certainly been a theme for the side this year.

Oki, as ever, has stuck to a core of trusted players as his team took straight to the second tier without missing a beat after returning as 2021 J3 champions, with eight players averaging over 75 minutes a game as Roasso cruised past several more fancied opponents to finish fourth.

That has included standout performers in all areas of the pitch, and if Roasso don’t make it to J1 next year – and even if they do – it will be interesting to see if the likes of Masahiro Sugata, So Kawahara, and Toshiki Takahashi are still pulling on the red shirt in 2023.

Alongside those central figures a host of other players have also made stellar contributions, with Naohiro Sugiyama and Koki Sakamoto constant threats in behind top-scorer Takahashi, mid-season arrival from FC Tokyo Rei Hirakawa slotting effortlessly in to the team’s slick passing style, and Kohei Kuroki and Osamu Henry Iyoha flanking Sugata perfectly in the back three.

“It’s the last game of the year so there are many things to keep in mind, but we just have to do the same as always, to make sure we don’t forget what we’ve been doing from game to game throughout the course of the season,” Iyoha said after his goal helped Roasso past Montedio last weekend.

“The opponent will also place a focus on being strong in the duels, but I think if we play with confidence we can achieve a good result.”

Whether that will be enough to secure a first ever promotion to J1 remains to be seen, but what can be said for certain is that Roasso will push Kyoto all the way for the right to play in the first division next year.


2022 J2 Team of the Year

The regular J2 season came to an end on Sunday with Montedio Yamagata sealing the final spot in the play-offs, where they will join Fagiano Okayama, Roasso Kumamoto, and Oita Trinita.

The second tier served up plenty of terrific football in 2022, with several players as ever standing out from the crowd and looking like they have very bright futures ahead of them.

Here, then, is my J2 Team of the Year. Goalkeeper aside, I wanted to pick players 25 or under who still have the potential to move on to bigger and better things in the coming years – either with their current clubs or by heading to pastures new. (Those from automatically promoted Albirex Niigata and Yokohama FC or on loan from other clubs were not considered for selection.)

GK: José Aurelio Suárez (Tokushima Vortis, 26)

On just his second appearance for Vortis, Suárez frustrated V-Varen Nagasaki with a series of improbable saves to preserve a 0-0 draw for his side – the second of 13 clean sheets he would keep all season after also shutting Renofa Yamaguchi out on his debut. The Spaniard ultimately established himself as the best shot-stopper in the second tier, and any coach would love to have him as their last line of defence. 

RB: Daiki Fukazawa (Tokyo Verdy, 24)

An all-action full-back, Fukazawa has looked equally at home on the right or left for Verdy this year. As well as not shying away from physical battles on the deck or in the air the Tokyo youth product who signed professional terms after graduating from Chuo University in 2021 is also positive in possession and confident in the final third, notching three goals and two assists in his 32 appearances this year. 

CB: Masahiro Sugata (Roasso Kumamoto, 25)

While his fellow defenders Kohei Kuroki and Osamu Henry Iyoha are given more of a license to roam forwards, Sugata remains the rock at the back for Roasso and played a vital role as Takeshi Oki’s team followed up on their title winning 2021 J3 campaign with a push into the J1 play-offs. Like a proper old-school centre-back he also poses a threat at attacking set-pieces, from which he scored four goals this year.

CB: Seiya Baba (Tokyo Verdy, 20)

Baba featured as a centre back for Japan at the U23 Asian Cup in Uzbekistan in June, but showed over the course of another typically inconsistent season for Verdy that he can also comfortably play in central midfield or at right back. For the purposes of my formation I’ve chosen him as a centre-back for his physicality in the duels and confidence on the ball, but his ability to perform a range of roles would provide a real asset to the team.

LB: Kento Hashimoto (Renofa Yamaguchi, 22)

An exciting talent who has good defensive awareness and is also a threat moving into the final third. Hashimoto made 35 appearances this year as he firmly established himself as first choice irrespective of whether Yoshihiro Natsuka opted for a three- or four-man backline. The Yokohama native also showcased some quality at the business end of the pitch, scoring twice and providing four assists.

DM: So Kawahara (Roasso Kumamoto, 24)

Like Sugata, Kawahara has been an irreplaceable part of Roasso’s starting 11 this year, playing every minute of every game as the central pivot in the team’s unorthodox 3-1-3-2-1 set-up. The former Ozu High School and Fukuoka University player is excellent in and out of possession and provides the perfect bridge between defence and attack, allowing the rest of Takeshi Oki’s attack-minded team to express itself with confidence.

CM: Masaki Yumiba (Oita Trinita, 20)

An energetic presence in the middle of the park, Yumiba is a smooth operator who looks equally comfortable winning back possession, moving the ball on to a teammate, or making decisive contributions in the final third. The Trinita youth product was preferred by Takahiro Shimotaira to veterans Yuki Kobayashi and Eduardo Neto as his first professional season progressed, also finding the net three times and providing a pair of assists.  

CM: Shunto Kodama (Tokushima Vortis, 23)

Another classy presence in the middle of the park, Kodama’s quick feet and equally quick footballing brain made him a firm favourite of Daniel Poyatos this year. While he will want to add more of a clinical touch in front of goal after failing to find the net in the league he is far from ineffective in the final third, contributing an impressive nine assists as Vortis narrowly missed out on the play-offs.

AM: Naohiro Sugiyama (Roasso Kumamoto, 24)

Another key figure for Roasso this year, the left-footed Sugimoto primarily causes problems on the right side of the team’s attack, from where he is always looking to play with intent and cut sharply inside to get quick shots or crosses off. That approach saw him score nine goals and set up a further four for teammates in 2022, and he will undoubtedly be one to keep an eye on in the play-offs and beyond.

AM: Yudai Tanaka (Fagiano Okayama, 22)

At just 162cm Tanaka is short in stature but big in influence, and the tricky playmaker instantly earned Takashi Kiyama’s trust in his first professional season after joining Fagiano from Waseda University. The Kanagawa native scored on his J.League debut, missed just three league games all season, and as well as keeping opposing defenders permanently on their toes also contributed a solid five goals and one assist to Okayama’s promotion push. 

CF: Toshiki Takahashi (Roasso Kumamoto, 24)

A powerful centre-forward who led the line terrifically for Roasso this year and notched 14 goals as his side cruised into the play-offs. As well as remaining cool and calm when the chances come his way, the former Kokushikan University man is also more than capable of playing a role in deeper positions by bringing teammates into the game with an array of classy tricks and flicks.

Subs: Yuma Obata (Vegalta Sendai, 20), Shunsuke Nishikubo (JEF United, 19), Hiroto Taniguchi (Tokyo Verdy, 23), Yuto Nagamine (Zweigen Kanazawa, 22), Kodai Sano (Fagiano Okayama, 19), Yohei Okuyama (Iwate Grulla Morioka, 22), Ko Miyazaki (Tochigi SC, 23)


One door at a time

Yokohama F. Marinos were dealt a surprise reverse at the weekend, but the way they dominated Gamba Osaka means there’s no need for panic at Nissan Stadium… (日本語版)

That Yokohama F. Marinos were going to take all three points at home to Gamba Osaka on Saturday appeared to be a foregone conclusion.

Marinos had lost just one of their last 16 games and were in with a chance of being crowned champions, while the visitors had tasted victory just twice in 13 matches and remained embroiled in the scrap to avoid relegation. 

Instead of the encounter playing out according to the form book, however, Kevin Muscat’s men were dealt a first home defeat of the season as a dogged Gamba stood firm to win 2-0.

“You could sense that everybody in the stadium today was having the same thoughts about, ‘If we win, if this happens, if that happens’…” Muscat said after seeing his side fall victim to a smash-and-grab on their own turf.

“I think it’s our responsibility to give hope to our supporters, and for our supporters to dream. We should not stop that. But the reality is, for me, I didn’t think once about what could happen ‘if this result and that result…’ – I hadn’t thought of it once. And I won’t be thinking about it on Wednesday either (before the game against Jubilo Iwata).

“You can only open one door at a time. You can’t open the fourth door before walking through the first one.”

Marinos certainly started with real intent against Gamba, tearing out of the traps at great speed as they looked to seize the initiative. More than once in the opening exchanges Kota Mizunuma flew across looking to take a quick corner as the home side sought to take the lead that would allow them to play the game at their pace.

Instead, Gamba opened the scoring in just the eighth minute when Juan Alano headed home from close range after Dawhan had nodded a corner back into the danger zone.

That produced a situation whereby the visitors were able to pack their defensive ranks and then look to counter at pace, while Marinos bossed possession but just couldn’t find a way through the resolute massed white ranks and a defiant Masaaki Higashiguchi in the Gamba goal.

“The biggest thing today was the first goal,” Muscat said. “If we take the first goal – we had one or two good opportunities to score the first goal – it’s a completely different game. They scored the first goal off a corner, and that gave them more encouragement – they had something to hold, so they dropped deeper.”

Gamba certainly clung resolutely to their advantage, pressing eagerly in numbers to close down the space for Marinos in key areas. Dawhan was especially enthusiastic in this regard, snapping into tackles in the middle of the park and picking up a booking after 30 minutes. The Brazilian could have had another not long afterwards as he arrived late on Marcos Junior, but referee Ryo Tanimoto chose to be lenient and instead let him off with a warning.

According to the DAZN half-time stats, Marinos racked up 67 percent of possession in the opening 45 minutes, with 88 percent of the play taking place in midfield or Gamba’s defensive third of the pitch. On top of that, the hosts mustered 13 shots – nine of which were on target – and had 10 corners in the first period. Gamba, on the other hand, had two shots (one, Juan Alano’s goal, on target) and a solitary corner.

Despite dominating the ball Marinos had a little difficulty carving out clear-cut opportunities as the game progressed though, with Muscat feeling his players struggled to choose the right option for the right situation at times.

“In moments I thought today maybe we crossed the ball too early, maybe we should take more passes,” he said. “On other occasions, maybe the earlier ball could have been played. So decision making is key.

“I want to take risks,” he added when asked if he regretted replacing defensive midfielder Kota Watanabe with Leo Ceara with 14 minutes to play and Marinos 1-0 down. “That’s the way we play, that’s the way I play.

“I thought this afternoon, if I’m honest, we weren’t aggressive enough in our desperation to get behind them. We were a little bit passive. That creates a little bit of doubt in the ball-carrier, the passer of the ball. If we’re really aggressive it makes the mind up of the ball-carrier.”

Despite being disappointed with the result, the Australian insisted he saw no reason to panic ahead of the clash against another relegation-threatened opponent in midweek, instead emphasising the importance of drawing first blood – and listening to his players’ opinions about what held them back.

“Also, from their perspective, find out how they were feeling out there, because it’s important,” he observed. “I’m sitting on the sidelines, it looks easy. But they’re the guys out there, so we’ll take some feedback from them.

“We were in control from minute one, let’s be clear, it was obvious. The first goal does make a huge difference. We created some openings, we created some chances before we conceded. So firstly, be ruthless in taking those opportunities, under stress, under pressure.”

They were dealt a blow at the weekend, but the title is still very much Marinos’ to lose. If they can dominate Jubilo the same way they did Gamba, then it is hugely unlikely lighting will strike twice in a week.


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.


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

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June 2023