Archive for the 'Football Tribe' Category


Urawa increasingly at home in the ACL

Urawa Reds are 90 minutes away from a first ACL final in 10 years, and they demonstrated in the semi-final first leg against Shanghai SIPG how they are becoming increasingly at home amongst Asia’s best sides…  (日本語版はこちら)

Football Tribe, 18th October 2017

Urawa Reds showed in their 1-1 first leg draw away to Shanghai SIPG three weeks ago how they have grown in Asian competition over the past six months.

Last time Reds were in Shanghai for a 3-2 defeat in the group stage back in March they looked intimidated by Hulk and co., only really clicking into gear once they were 3-0 down and the hosts had switched onto auto-pilot.

This time, however, Takafumi Hori’s side looked up for the challenge from the off, and despite conceding in just the 15th minute to another bolt from the blue from Hulk they didn’t lose heart and stuck doggedly to their task.

They made sure not to give SIPG’s key creative talents any time to settle on the ball, applying pressure straight away and conceding a lot of fouls in and around the middle third of the pitch. Tomoaki Makino alone brought down Hulk four times – in truth the 30-year-old was rather lucky to finish the game without getting booked – while further efforts from range by the former Porto man were blocked before they could trouble Shusaku Nishikawa.

Yes, the Brazilian battering ram did manage to barge his way through on more than one occasion – leaving Makino for dead a couple of times, and Takuya Aoki dazed and confused for the goal – but that is to be expected. The likes of Hulk and Oscar demonstrated once again here that they are at a different level to any other players in Asia. Their strength, awareness, and mastery of the ball are unlike that usually encountered in the J.League or any other division in the continent, and you have to concede that there will be times when they will be close to unplayable.

However, that’s not to say you just give up and succumb to your fate, and Reds picked themselves up each time in order to make sure SIPG didn’t have as easy a ride as last time out.

The mental boost provided by first having beaten Shanghai 1-0 in the return group stage fixture and then the sensational comeback wins against Jeju United and Kawasaki Frontale in the Round of 16 and quarter-finals has undoubtedly played a part in that improvement.

Credit should also be given to Hori for the way he has tweaked the team’s system to make them tougher to break down and less susceptible to quick counters.

Football Tribe, Wednesday 18th October 2017

The switch from 3-4-2-1 to 4-1-4-1 has laid the foundations for that development, but it is not as simple as merely changing the set-up of the team – you need to change the way they approach games too.

The clearest way that was demonstrated in the first leg of the semi-final was the manner in which Reds used the ball when they had it. They made almost exactly the same number of passes in both games (421 in March, 431 at the end of September), but made sure to do so further away from their own goal in the most recent match.

In the group stage game the majority of Reds’ passing combinations were amongst players in their own half, as they looked to dominate the ball without any real penetration. They recorded 65.1% of possession in that match but left themselves vulnerable to quick breaks from SIPG when they lost it, whereas in the semi-final first leg they had just 53.1% of the ball but in far more advanced areas, with the front five players rather than the back five moving the ball amongst themselves.

They didn’t manage to create a terrific number of scoring chances, but what it did mean was that when Reds lost possession SIPG had a lot further to travel before they were able to make attempts at goal.

Indeed, 10 of the home side’s 21 attempts were made from outside the area, and while a few of them caused slight scares – not least Oscar’s 69th-minute free-kick that thudded off the post – you stand far more of a chance when the opponent is shooting from 25 yards rather than five.

What is key now is to maintain that confidence and take it into tonight’s second leg. Shanghai are vulnerable defensively and have kept just one clean sheet away from home in this year’s competition – and that was the 1-0 win over FC Seoul in their first group stage game back in February. In addition to that, Reds have been outstanding at Saitama Stadium this campaign, winning all five of their ACL games in front of their own fans.

The best way to keep that run going and guarantee a spot in the final is by playing without fear again in the second leg.


Same old issues haunt Halil Japan

Coventry City striker Duckens Nazon thinks Japan can do well at next year’s World Cup, but picked up on a couple of weaknesses as his two goals helped Haiti to a 3-3 draw against the Samurai Blue  in their recent friendly in Yokohama… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Tribe, 13th October 2017

After the high of qualifying for Russia 2018 with a game to spare at the end of August Japan have come back to earth with something of a bump after a 1-0 defeat away to Saudi Arabia followed by the recent narrow 2-1 victory over New Zealand and disappointing 3-3 draw with Haiti.

It should be kept in mind that none of those games carried any meaning for Vahid Halilhodzic’s side and that a lot of fringe players were given chances to show what they could do, but the looseness out on the pitch does raise concerns about a lack of strength in depth ahead of next summer’s finals.

The loss in Jeddah can perhaps be excused as Saudi Arabia needed a win to book their own place at the finals and an almost-full-strength Japan put in a decent showing, but the recent Kirin Cup outings highlighted issues in both defence and attack that will need addressing if the Samurai Blue want to make any kind of mark at their sixth consecutive World Cup.

“Playing games like this you know why teams like [Japan] play in the World Cup,” Haiti striker Duckens Nazon told me after his young side very nearly stunned an experimental Japan XI in Yokohama on 10 October.

“The level is very high. They can move the ball quick – every time they move, they move, they move; they never stop – so I am very proud of the result.

“We have played a lot of big teams before and I think they have really got a chance because they can move the ball. They play a lot of passes; they can move the ball quick and every time they move. This is the most important; it’s really difficult as a team to play against them.”

However, after a slow start from the visitors and some slick, direct, and effective attacking play from Japan had seen them establish a 2-0 lead the flow of the game started to change, with Haiti gaining more of a foothold and beginning to threaten themselves.

“We scored the second goal quite early and so we had an unusual amount of breathing space,” Masaaki Higashiguchi, given a rare start between the posts in place of Eiji Kawashima, said.

“Maybe we lost our level of tension a little, which led to their first goal. Then we weren’t able to get it back and became a little sluggish – I think that was everything.”

Nazon agreed on that front and felt that Kevin Lafrance’s close-range strike – prodded under Higashiguchi after he had managed to evade Yuki Kobayashi and Gen Shoji in the 28th minute – offered the Haitians all the encouragement they needed to complete their second half comeback.

Football Tribe, Friday 13th October, 2017

“I think the thing that saved us was the goal we scored in the first half,” the Coventry City striker said. “I think – I don’t know, because you never know in football – but if we didn’t score this goal it was going to be very difficult in the second half.”

As it was that goal knocked Japan’s confidence and they were pegged back to 2-2 just eight minutes after the break, Nazon converting a Carlens Arcus cross from just inside the area after a quick free-kick out wide had caught the hosts on their heels.

Despite the introduction of Yosuke Ideguchi and Shinji Kagawa before the hour mark Japan struggled to regain control of the game, and the next goal also went the way of Haiti as Nazon sent home a beauty from 25 yards after being allowed to cut inside and set his sights without any defenders making a challenge.

“I tried to do this kind of shot a lot of times in my club as well – you don’t have to think, just [take a] touch and I know where I want the ball to go.”

The lack of any pressure being applied in such a dangerous area is certainly a cause for concern, with the 23-year-old revealing it was an area he had identified as a weakness in Japan’s defence.

“I wasn’t really surprised because in the first half every time I tried to play forwards but I said in my head during half time ‘I’m going to drop in and try a couple of times, maybe I can have this type of shot’, and I succeeded.

“I watched just before and on the pitch is very quick, so when you think something you have to do it quick. You don’t have to think one minute, two minutes – quick. And I did it and it was great.”

That kind of spontaneity is what Nazon feels Japan lacked on the night.

“They try to do the same thing every time, but sometimes you don’t have to think – you just have the ball and make something and that can be good. But it looked like they have a tactic – I don’t know how to say it; they have to do like this, like this, like this – they cannot change, you know? I think they need a guy who is a little bit crazy in the head and can do something, you know? It’s like this. Football is like this.”

Although Japan ultimately had their blushes spared by Shinji Kagawa’s rather fortunate late equaliser, they certainly need to add a little ‘crazy’ in attack – and eliminate it in defence – ahead of the World Cup, and before that in next month’s friendlies against Brazil and Belgium.


Challenger Shinada follows her own path

An interview with Ayaki Shinada, who, frustrated with certain restrictive aspects of Japanese culture, moved abroad at 18 to further her career and this summer signed for Spanish First Division side RCD Espanyol…


Football Tribe, 30th August 2017

Japanese players usually only earn the chance to play overseas after building a reputation domestically, but every so often one takes the initiative and secures a move of their own accord.

Ayaki Shinada is one such player.

The 24-year-old recently signed for RCD Espanyol in Spain, the latest development in a career that has already taken in stints in the USA, Finland, and Sweden.

As is the norm for female players, Tokyo native Shinada took her first footballing steps by playing alongside the boys before spells at Nippon TV Menina and then Sakuyo High School in Okayama. Finding herself frustrated at the more restrictive aspects of Japanese football – and culture in general – she decided upon graduation that a move overseas was the best option, and after participating in a tour to play against teams in the US in 2011 she caught the eye of a coach at Lindsey Wilson College, Kentucky, who recruited her on a scholarship.

“We all held a much bigger space in the game,” Shinada says of her initial impressions of playing in the States. “In Japan, especially for women’s football, we make it a very narrow space and often make short passes – no one really makes long passes and it’s very different. But in the States we had the space you have to work in.

“Also, when we defend in Japanese football we defend together. That’s how Japanese do it, but (in the US) it was more like one versus one situations; you have to do it, you’re going to have the responsibility to stop the player, or go around the player in front of you. I’d say that was one of the biggest differences.”

Taking the plunge into such a different environment would be a daunting prospect for most people, but Shinada, then just 18, thrived in her new surroundings.

“Actually it was better for me because I like to be clear what’s wrong or what’s correct,” she explains.

“That’s another way I didn’t fit in with Japanese football. Sometimes it was not your fault but the people watching who have more ‘right’ to say decide who was wrong. There were many times I disagreed. Or maybe they explained it to me but I still felt like I saw it a different way. So when I got to the States it was much clearer – what is my job and role and everything, so that was just perfect for me.”

One thing that is slightly more ambiguous is Shinada’s position, and she umms and ahhs when asked where she plays.

“That is kind of a hard question for me, because I play everywhere – but not goalkeeper. Well, once, but not very good! I would say my best position is the anchor; defensive middle, in front of the centre-backs.”

As well as embracing a new style of play and clearer sense of accountability on the pitch in the US, the wider variety and more open culture of discussion and exchange also appealed to Shianda’s inquisitive personality.

Ayaki Shinada, Getty Images

“There are so many people that come from other countries, so sharing information about what’s really happening in the world, talking about more things like what you think is good in your country, and what’s not good – that also made me think what’s good in Japan or not good.”

That desire to keep learning and developing led to a move to Sweden after graduation from Lindsey Wilson, followed the next year by a switch to Finland. Two years in Scandinavia, which Shinada says helped her adapt further to the speed and strength aspects of the game, then saw her agree the move to Espanyol in June this year.

“Technique wise (Spain) is so much better than any other country I’ve seen,” she says of her new home.

“It’s different technique to Japanese. Japanese is more like without movement – simple passes and simple touches are very good – but Spain was more like making something different. You can dribble while juggling the ball, or if you pass it very strong everyone still has a soft touch. It’s more interesting, I would say.

“I really like it. Now in Spain I can get something new. It’s more like, ‘Oh, you’re passing that way? Ok!’ or, ‘You can make that pass or that shot from here or maybe cross like this…’ it’s just I get so many more ideas here.”

Despite having spent her entire professional career outside of Japan Shinada still harbours the hope of being involved with the Nadeshiko, but knows she has to keep improving with her club to achieve that aim.

“That is definitely one of the objectives for everyone, to play for your country. I’ve had it from a very young age, when I started I was thinking that would be amazing. However, I think that playing for the national team is not my main goal – it would be nice to go through on my path, but my objective right now is more to play in the Champions League and play for a good team. Yes, that would be great (to play for Japan), but it is not my current objective – I am more focused on different goals and know I need to keep working hard.”

For the time being the priority for Shinada is to establish herself in Spain and make the most of the stimulating environment she is now playing in.

“For me I kind of get bored doing something similar or just following orders, but in Japanese football you’ve got to do it simple always, or follow what everyone believes. Nobody wants to make any mistakes. You can technically, but not everyone is pleased if you try. But it’s so different in Spain – everyone tries. I don’t know, I feel so comfortable here.

“I’m just a challenger. I might make it and I might not make it, but I don’t really care. If I make it I feel lucky.”

That outlook has proved more than effective for Shinada so far, and such a positive approach will surely see her keep going from strength to strength over the coming years.


Resurgent Reysol in the race

Kashiwa Reysol have been very impressive in the first half of the 2017 J1 season, and this year’s vintage share several similarities with the great Sun Kings side that swept all before them at the start of the decade…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Tribe, 8th July 2017

After four defeats in their first six J1 games it looked like 2017 was going to be a long season for Kashiwa Reysol, but a 2-1 win away to Vissel Kobe on 16 April sparked an eight-game winning streak and 10-game unbeaten run that was only halted last weekend when Kashima Antlers won a tub-thumping encounter 3-2 at Hitachi Dai.

Takahiro Shimotaira’s side gave as good as they got in that game, and had it not been for a couple of rare Kosuke Nakamura howlers it could easily have been them celebrating another three points and sitting pretty at the top of the table at the season’s mid-point. Instead, Cerezo initially leapfrogged them and then Antlers went top themselves following a 1-0 win over Gamba on Wednesday, leaving Reysol third.

Of course, whereas the two-stage system meant there was a benefit to being first after 17 games in the past two seasons the return to a regular format this year means it is irrelevant – all that matters is having the most points five months from now.

”Last year they were champions so we were the challengers here, but we can’t just be content with having put in a good performance,” right back Ryuta Koike said after the defeat to Kashima.

“In the end we lost the game and that is tied up with the difference in quality between the teams. After we equalised it was them who went on to get the winner. We had chances but couldn’t make them count and if we can’t improve our ability to decide and protect games – players at the front and the back – then I think the title looks quite a long way off.”

Koike knows what it takes to achieve success, having played in progressively higher divisions in each of his seasons as a professional since making his debut as for Renofa Yamaguchi in the Japan Football League (JFL) in 2014. Back-to-back promotions with Renofa were followed by a transfer to Reysol ahead of this season, and the 22-year-old is willing to take things one step at a time towards the next aim of becoming a J1 champion.

“We came into these two games against Kashima and Cerezo (this coming Saturday) with an awareness of how important they were, and as players we’d set the target of getting 70 points this season. This defeat is painful, but we are halfway through the season and still have the title within our sight. The next result will also have an effect on how things pan out for us and if we can still see a way of making it to our goal one way or another.”

Football Tribe, Friday 7th July, 2017

The side currently have 34 points – two adrift of Antlers and just one behind Cerezo – and there is certainly plenty to be positive about with this year’s vintage having more than a few echoes of the Nelsinho-led side that won every domestic trophy between 2010-13.

Nakamura was at fault for Antlers’ first two goals last weekend but has otherwise been a solid presence between the posts and a more than adequate replacement for the departed Takenori Sugeno, while Koike and Junya Ito’s combinations out wide have often been reminiscent of the surges forward made by Hiroki Sakai down the right flank six years ago.

While their styles are very different Cristiano offers the current side’s answer to Leandro Domingues, with both Brazilians top-grade forwards capable of deciding games on their own with a moment of individual skill.

Meanwhile, there remains a home-grown spine to the team with 32-year-old captain Hidekazu Otani still marshalling the midfield and partnered by another youth team product, Kohei Tezuka, who is 11 years Otani’s junior. There are a couple more Reysol-reared youngsters behind them, too, with Shinnosuke Nakatani (21) and Yuta Nakayama (20) occupying the two centre-back slots to good effect.

All of this has combined to produce a fantastic atmosphere at Hitachi Dai, and there are few better places to watch football than Reysol’s rickety old ground when it is full to the rafters and rocking to the local’s unique brand of support – as was the case for the win over Urawa Reds on 4 June and even the recent loss to Antlers.

“I didn’t really feel a big difference in quality, perhaps just with the final ball Kashima were a little better than us,” Ito said after that game. “Next we’ve got Cerezo and making sure we don’t lose two in a row is very important.”

Cristiano agreed on that front and likewise wasn’t overly concerned by Reysol’s first defeat in 11 games.

”I think it was a good game and what decided it was Kashima’s ability to finish their chances,” the 30-year-old said. “Kashima are a great team and now we just have to look ahead to the next match.

“The interesting thing about football is that games play out like that. Sometimes games you think you should have won you don’t, and other times games you don’t think you should have won you do. What is important now is just looking forward.”

A victory on Saturday over Cerezo would certainly serve as a welcome boost ahead of J1’s brief break, and if Reysol can pick up a head of steam again then there is no reason why they shouldn’t remain in the chasing back as the season picks up pace.


Honda central to Japan’s World Cup chances

Keisuke Honda was again used out wide in Japan’s recent World Cup qualifier against Iraq, but he needs to be moved to a more central role if the team is to get the best of him… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Tribe, 17th May 2017

If Japan want to qualify for the World Cup in Russia next year then Vahid Halilhodzic needs to make Keisuke Honda his main man in the centre of the park – either at No.10 or as one of the deeper lying midfielders.

The 31-year-old became something of a forgotten man during his wasted last season with Milan, but as he demonstrated with an excellent free kick in his farewell game at San Siro he is still more than capable of making important contributions at the business end of the pitch.

And against Australia at the end of August Japan will be in desperate need of someone to spark the team into life in the final third, needing all three points to book their ticket to Russia after a sluggish 1-1 draw away to Iraq.

The heat on Tuesday undoubtedly had an impact on the Samurai Blue – most of whom have just finished long seasons in Europe, where temperatures are nowhere near the 37 degrees in Tehran – but after 90 minutes mostly devoid of ideas it is vital that the team bounces back and comes out positively against the Socceroos in two months’ time.

Japan are already guaranteed of at least a place in the play-off and could still secure one of the automatic spots even if they draw or lose to Australia, but that would almost certainly require them to win their final Group B game away to Saudi Arabia, who, as per Dave Phillips (@lovefutebol) on Twitter, have suffered defeat at home in World Cup qualifiers just twice in the past 32 years.

The best way to ensure smooth passage to a sixth consecutive World Cup, then, is by harnessing what is sure to be an electric atmosphere in Saitama and taking the game to Australia, and there is no-one better equipped to drive this Japan team forward than Honda.

It would appear that his teammates know that too, and even though he was again stationed wide on the right against Iraq the majority of Japan’s attacks were built through him down that flank, further highlighting the strangeness of Halilhodzic’s refusal to arrange his three support strikers in their best positions.

Getty / Football Tribe

Yuya Kubo, for instance, demonstrated in the last pair of qualifiers against UAE and Thailand what a threat he can be driving inside from the right flank or running onto balls nudged in behind the defence, but he looked less comfortable trying to do the same on the opposite side, where surely Genki Haraguchi – who himself produced some excellent results from the left wing in last year’s qualifiers, scoring in four in a row – would have been more effective.

The Hertha Berlin forward was instead selected in an unfamiliar No.10 role against Iraq though, and he struggled to adapt to his more claustrophobic surroundings and was replaced with 20 minutes to go.

Surely, with Shinji Kagawa injured and Hiroshi Kiyotake left out of the squad Honda was the ideal candidate to play in behind Yuya Osako and try and pick holes in the Iraqi backline for others to capitalise on.

The stats bear that out too, with Honda making more passes (51) than Kubo (19) and Haraguchi (30) combined, and also receiving possession from a teammate more than any of Japan’s other attackers.

With Ange Postecoglou having introduced a new 3-2-4-1 formation Australia are looking decidedly unsteady at the back right now – only just squeezing past Saudi Arabia 3-2 in their last qualifier before being torn apart in a 4-0 friendly defeat to Brazil in their final game ahead of the Confederations Cup – and direct, powerful, and positive attacks right at the heart of that nervous back line could be the key to success against the reigning Asian champions.

Honda struck the decisive blow to send Japan to the last World Cup with a penalty in the 1-1 against Australia at Saitama in 2013, and Japan’s No.4 should be given the opportunity to dictate the game from a more central position against the same opponent in almost identical circumstances this year too.

History rarely repeats itself in football, and new heroes often appear from unlikely places – just ask Tadanari Lee, who slammed home the winner in the 2011 Asian Cup final (Australia the victim again) having only previously played a little over an hour’s football at the competition – but Honda has been Japan’s man for the big occasion for almost a decade now, and he still presents the best option to get the job done.


Pressure points

Japan just about made it through to the last 16 at the U20 World Cup, but Atsushi Uchiyama’s players could learn a thing or two from their English counterparts when it comes to dealing with pressure… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Tribe, 29th May 2017

Dealing with, overcoming, and working out how to actually benefit from pressure should be the key lessons the Japan players are trying to learn from their exploits at the Under 20 World Cup, currently underway in South Korea.

Atsushi Uchiyama’s side started each of their three group games slowly, conceding first against South Africa, Uruguay, and Italy, before going on to have the better of things as each game wore on, ultimately claiming four points to set up a Round of 16 clash against Venezuela in Daejeon on Tuesday.

The players have so far struggled to find a rhythm when things are finely poised in the opening exchanges of games and any error could prove costly, before settling into their groove once behind and safe in the knowledge they have nothing to lose.

“Once we were 2-0 down we had no option but to go for it,” Takehiro Tomiyasu said after the side’s 2-2 draw with Italy in Cheonan on Saturday night.

“I think we would be able to do even better if we could play with the mentality to challenge from the very start at 0-0, before we have fallen into the situation of being 2-0 behind and so having nothing to lose.”

The only way to acclimatise yourself to pressure in order to be able to do that against the best players in the world is by subjecting yourself to it as often as possible, and too many of the Japan players find themselves in situations that are far too comfortable.

Compare the 21 players representing Japan at this year’s competition to their counterparts from England, for instance.

While the majority of the Japan side are settled in their roles in the orderly hierarchies of their J.League clubs – either as starters or back-ups – the English players are scrapping every day, whether that be by trying to get past a world class player in a Premier League first team or being sent out on loan to a lower league club to try and prove their worth.

That daily grind serves to produce tougher, more resolute personalities, and after the Three Lions guaranteed progression as Group A winners after beating hosts South Korea 1-0 last Friday the Chelsea centre-back Fikayo Tomori offered an insight into the psychology of the team.

South Korea v. England, Suwon, 26th May 2017

“Some of us have played in stadiums with 20,000 or 30,000 people but today was 35,000 or 40,000 or something like that and being against the home nation it was a different sort of experience for us,” the 19-year-old, who made his Chelsea debut on the last day of the 2015-16 Premier League season and then spent the second half of last season on loan at Championship side Brighton and Hove Albion, said. “Obviously no-one (in the stadium) really wanted us to win and I think we dealt with it well.”

The relish with which the England players embraced the challenge set before them by the 35,279 Red Devils fans in Suwon contrasted against Japan’s tentative approach in their games, and Tomori’s Chelsea teammate Dominic Solanke added some further insight into the determination bred by developing in such a high-pressure environment.

“A lot of other teams (at the U20 World Cup) will have confidence as well (as a result of) playing in their home countries, and some of the (national) teams train together quite a lot more than we do, but it definitely helps us getting that experience with the men back in England.”

‘The men’ was a revealing choice of words. The players currently competing in South Korea are still ‘boys’, and the challenge for all of them is to develop into men as quickly as possible in order to be able to shoulder the expectations of their nations’ fans over the coming years.

These are the players Japan will be competing against at Asian Cups and World Cups for the next decade or so, and in order to go toe-to-toe with them it is vital that more Japanese players further their development in the same environments as their rivals – and that means looking to move overseas as early as possible.

“We can’t gain anything from going into games against any sides thinking we will lose, and if you have that mentality then you won’t win games,” Tomiyasu, currently a regular under former Japan captain Masami Ihara at J2’s Avispa Fukuoka, said. “I want for us and for Japanese football to always be challenging to win.”

That mentality has to be backed up with action. Japan showed they have at least as much, if not more, natural ability than their Italian opponents at the weekend, and the country’s next generation of players now need to take themselves out of their comfort zone if they are to keep pace with, and then outdo, their counterparts around the world over the coming years.

If Sakka Nihon isn’t enough then you can follow my every move (sort of) here.

Receive an email each time I post something new and/or interesting by...

Join 35 other followers

Back Catalogue

what day is it?

July 2018
« Jun