Archive for the 'Football Tribe' Category


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.

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