Archive for the 'Weekly Soccer Magazine / 週刊サッカーマガジン' Category


Raising the stakes

There was a time when every player had their price, but not any more. That’s what they’d like us to believe, anyway…


“Player X is not for sale at any price,” is what football managers have said since the dawn of time. Of late the meaning behind such dismissals seems to have changed, however, and instead of just expressing a club’s desire to keep hold of their best players it is now increasingly a strategy to get as much money as possible for a prized asset.

When I got back to England for my summer holiday three of the Premier League’s best players were embroiled in will-they-won’t-they transfer sagas which all followed this basic principle.

Wayne Rooney was assumed to have been on the way out of Manchester United at the end of last season when he fell out with Sir Alex Ferguson (again) and missed the Scot’s last two games as manager. Even so, and despite making it clear that he wants away, at the time of writing he is still at the club and new boss David Moyes insists that will remain the case.

“Wayne Rooney is not for sale. He’s a Manchester United player and will remain a Manchester United player. Wayne won’t be sold by Manchester United,” the BBC reported him as saying.

The same scenario has been rumbling along just down the M62, with everyone’s favourite non-controversial striker Luis Suarez accusing his club of going back on a promise to let him leave if they didn’t qualify for the Champions League.

Even if a player isn't sold, the relationship with fans can often sour

Those claims were disputed by Liverpool and owner John W. Henry claimed the player would be going nowhere.

“He won’t be sold even if a foreign club comes in because we do not have time to sign a suitable replacement,” he was quoted as saying in The Guardian. “It’s a football reason. It’s not about finances.”

That reasoning seems fairly sound, but seeing as Henry was speaking around a month before the transfer window closed it is debatable. Four weeks is plenty of time to make a signing, especially if you have £40 million to do so.

This is where Tottenham Hotspur, or more specifically Daniel Levy, come in.

The Spurs chairman is renowned for his obsession with squeezing every last penny from his club’s sales, which usually means deals aren’t concluded until the last moments of the transfer window. The rebuttal of Real Madrid’s world record £86 million bid for Gareth Bale is the latest, and most extreme, example which looks like following that pattern.

Such a policy can work in terms of garnering the highest fee possible, but, as Henry alluded to, it doesn’t give the manager any time to sign a replacement.

Of course, another thing to consider is that transfer deals are now followed in far closer detail, with journalists and newspapers constantly in need of new information at an almost hourly rate to satiate the desire of fans to get the absolute latest.

Assorted headlines during the English transfer window

For Jonathan Wilson this, too, has impacted on the final stages of the transfer window as buying clubs feel the pressure to appease fans who are more readily and angrily bemoaning a lack of satisfactory activity.

“You see it on deadline day each window, people taking to Twitter and comments sections to berate their club for not being involved – when of course the truth is that, in the vast majority of cases, deals done on deadline day are hurried and not necessarily well-conceived,” he wrote in The Guardian.

“It’s basically a game of poker. You’re waiting for someone to panic and put in an extra £10 million,” was how former Manchester United defender Gary Neville put it on Monday Night Football.

The Fernando Torres-Andy Carroll disaster of 2011 was the ultimate example of that, with £85 million or so changing hands on deadline day for two strikers whose moves didn’t exactly work out.

Last-minute deals bring with them plenty of complications, then, and if the wantaway player isn’t sold that can also have repercussions on the non-selling team. Apologies are uttered, teammates’ and fans’ forgiveness is begged for, and then the problems invariably pop up again during the next window.

Bearing that in mind, would it not serve everybody better if the brinksmanship was left out of it and clubs just wrapped up their business earlier?


Getting Red-dy

Manchester United’s friendly games in Japan gave an  insight into the club as it enters a new era…


I’m a Manchester United fan but since I moved to Japan I’ve found myself paying less and less attention to their progress – at least until the final stages of the season when matches start to take on more significance and staying awake until or getting up at 4am is a little less difficult.

Last month, however, I was able to see them closer than ever before as they visited Yokohama and Osaka for a couple of games on their “tour” (Premier League teams no longer play friendly matches but instead opt for the Bon Jovi approach to pre-season games by putting on arena shows for the masses) and it was an interesting experience.

First of all it meant I was able to get up-close access during a momentous stage in the club’s history, as David Moyes began the unenviable task of following Sir Alex Ferguson as manager. The former Everton boss had only been in the role a matter of days when he arrived in Japan but seemed to be coping well, and if he matches his predecessor and lasts 27 years in the job I’ll always be able to say that I was there at his first game against another club (his first two matches were against “All Star” teams from Thailand and Australia).

Nissan Stadium, July 23rd, 2013

I also witnessed in its all-consuming entirety the PR machine that has engulfed what was once a football club: Official paint partner? Check. Official Diesel Engine partner? Check. Vile-looking tomato drink partner, complete with cringe-inducing advert? Check. Considering the amount of effort that had gone into juicing every last yen out of the thousands who queued around Nagai Aid Stadium to buy all manner of official tat it was even more disappointing that the likes of Chris Smalling, Patrice Evra, and Robin van Persie couldn’t spare a few minutes after the games to actually speak about football.

Not all of the players were too busy though, and despite the fact that they say you should never meet your heroes one of the most obliging was Ryan Giggs. The left-winger-turned-midfielder-turned-player-coach spoke at length after the 3-2 defeat to Yokohama F.Marinos and was keen to stress the benefit of playing capable opposition ahead of the real season.

“They’re a good team,” he said of Yasuhiro Higuchi’s side. “I think every time we come to Japan – of course they’re in the middle of their season – it’s a test. And it’s a good test for us. Because you don’t want to go through pre-season winning every game 6- or 7-0. You need to be tested because we’re going to be tested in three, four weeks in the Premier League.”

After striking the dramatic late equaliser in United’s second game against Cerezo Osaka new-boy Wilfried Zaha – who is at the other end of the experience spectrum to Giggs – confessed he hadn’t expected either of the J.League sides to be as good as they were, but fellow veteran Rio Ferdinand was also unsurprised.

Manchester United's Official Paint Partner

“I said to the lads before, I’ve never had an easy game in Japan,” he said after the 2-2 draw with Cerezo. “When we play against these teams they’re always good. Tactically very good, all very comfortable on the ball, so I think it’s really good for us to come here because we get tested.”

Ferdinand has of course seen one of Japan’s most technically adept players up close for the past year, and he expects to see further improvement from Shinji Kagawa this season – which kicks off on Saturday.

“He’s got a big part to play, a big role to play,” he said when the inevitable question about Kagawa’s standing in the team cropped up. “You saw today with a great goal. He missed a penalty – too much pressure, maybe – but no, he’s a fantastic player, we love having him here and I think this season we’ll see a big improvement from last season.”

Just how big an improvement remains to be seen, but with Wayne Rooney seemingly on the verge of leaving the club and no replacement immediately apparent it could well be that David Moyes agrees with Kagawa’s former coach Jurgen Klopp and sees him as the solution in the hole behind Van Persie.

He probably won’t be taking over penalty-taking duties though.


International incident

Events at the East Asian Cup demonstrated that Japan-Korea relations are still far from rosy. Are such incidents inevitable, or can football provide a refuge from political tensions…?


I sensed as soon as I got to Sports Complex station and saw the Korean fans sporting “Visit Dokdo: The Beautiful Island of Korea” flags that the match wasn’t going to pass off without incident.

The huge banners looming across the front of the top tier in the home end promised more controversy ahead of kick-off, and sure enough once the national anthems were finished An Jeung-gun and Yi Sun-sin were unfurled, followed a short while later by the now infamous message: “No future if you forget your country’s history”.

Each of these statements were clearly premeditated to provoke a response, which duly came when a fan in the Japan end – who is apparently banned from attending games of the J.League team he supports – waved the naval ensign.

While neither the Korean banners nor rising sun motif had any place inside a football stadium, you can’t expect a game between countries with as complex a history as Japan and South Korea to pass off without nationalistic expression.

The series of ambiguous statements and apologies – or lack of – from a succession of Japanese governments on a range of issues have not helped matters, but unfortunately politicians from both countries will continue to use events from the past to serve their own aims.

Again though, that should have nothing to do with a football match.

South Korea fans, July 28th 2013

Yong-hun Lee, Chief Editor of Korea, was disappointed with the display by the Taeguk Warriors fans, but pointed out that a clear apology from the Japanese government was vital if sporting events were to stand any chance of being contested without political animosity.

“First of all, personally I think the banners that ‘Red Devils’ showed were totally over the line,” he told me three days after the match, with the dust still to settle. “Football stadiums are there to play football, not to debate about the past or show political messages.

“[However] not even 100 years have passed since Korea became an independent country after Japan’s invasion. You cannot expect both countries make peace like nothing happened. It takes time and a sincere apology for Koreans’ wounds to heal.

“I’m sure that individual Japanese people feel sorry if they know [the full details of] the invasion but some politicians have apologized insincerely and still visited Yasukuni Shrine. In that way, Koreans cannot think Japan showed a sincere apology.”

In the days after the game the cycle showed no signs of a sensible conclusion, with all apologies qualified to shift the bulk of the blame to the other side.

The KFA said they warned the fans not to display the banners before the game, but that the rising sun flag provoked the “Red Devils” to ignore such orders. “Ultra Nippon” leaders criticized the use of the naval ensign but said it was an isolated incident and not a co-ordinated performance like that of the Korean fans.

Banners of An Jeung-gun and Yi Sun-sin unveiled before kick-off. Jamsil, July 28th 2013

It is an incredibly thorny issue and one which is far beyond my remit to try and solve. One suggestion I do have, however, is to increase the frequency of the games between the two countries. Ignorance breeds distrust and narrow-mindedness; if you try to ignore or avoid the problem then no resolution will be achieved.

Things will undoubtedly rumble on in parliament for years to come, but the fans in the stadium needn’t act so churlishly. Post-game I saw Japanese and Korean supporters posing for pictures with each other and Lee pointed out that the previous day an even greater scene had been witnessed at the very same stadium.

“Ironically, just a day before, Korea had shown the great power of football” he recalled. “No political message was uttered but the South and North Korea Women’s teams celebrating together showed the most powerful and peaceful political message. It was really uncomfortable to see the opposite scene right the next day.

“Now is the time to stop that. Supporters should not react to provocative and political messages, they should enjoy football. In fact, Korean fans actually applauded Japan’s great performance in Confederations Cup. The rivalry between Korea and Japan in football can be constructive if we manage it well.”

A yearly game and increased opportunities to understand the other side’s perspective may well help in that aim.


F for fun?

Yokohama F.Marinos have eschewed their safety first approach this season, and it has given them a real chance of challenging for the title…


A couple of years ago I wrote a piece about the Tsumarinos – the Yokohama F.Marinos side led by Kazushi Kimura which looked like it may be involved in the title race, but only by virtue of the fact that it was playing some of the safest, most uninspiring football in the J.League.

That year the team eventually fell away and the more expansive, aggressive Kashiwa Reysol lifted the title, and under Yasuhiro Higuchi last season Marinos had an indifferent year, starting abysmally by not winning any of their first seven games before eventually finishing in a more than respectable 4th place – helped in no small part by a 15-game unbeaten run in mid-season. Even so, they still failed to really go at teams often enough and drew an astonishing 14 games in the league over the course of the year.

Things look a bit more promising this season, and the more positive reincarnation of the side was evident from the very outset as they stormed into an early lead in J1 after winning their first six games, scoring 19 goals in the process.

Former Japan international and Celtic icon Shunsuke Nakamura was the metronome to which the side’s play was set, and he also chipped in with his share of goals and assists. Marquinhos, the 37-year-old Brazilian striker, was the other seasoned performer quick out of the blocks, claiming six goals in his first five games.

Shunsuke Nakamura, Saitama Stadium, July 17th, 2013

Fears about the average age of the side – regularly over the 30 mark – were either dismissed on account of the fact that Marinos regularly fought back to claim points at the death of matches, or cited as a potential obstacle once the summer heat kicked in and ageing limbs struggled to keep pace.

We’re now at that juncture and the signs are that Higuchi has done well to keep his players in the best condition possible. Marinos claimed seven points from the recent spurt of four games in 12 days, with both of their victories coming against sides above them in the table, Omiya Ardija and Urawa Reds.

The victory over Urawa, in particular, was demonstrative of the change that Higuchi has gradually introduced. With things tied at 2-2 it would have been unsurprising if both sides had settled for the draw. The Tsumarinos certainly would have done.

The introduction of striker Yoshihito Fujita in place of defensive midfielder Kosuke Nakamachi with less than 10 minutes to play showed that that’s not how the 2013 Marinos roll though, and Higuchi was instantly rewarded for his proactive substitution as Yuzo Kurihara soared highest at the corner at which Fujita entered play to seal all three points and lift Marinos above Reds into third – just two points off the top.

After the game the head coach was asked if he felt the hectic J1 schedule may eventually take its toll on his more seasoned players.

The Marinos supporters show a banner which reads, "To challenge for the title each game is the last chance".

“I hear that question a lot and I was also a little anxious. But our veteran players were able to prepare well by really paying attention to their condition,” he said. “Maybe that is in part down to experience. I’m thinking that when referring to them it’s better not to use the word veteran.

“We’ve played 17 games and today made it to 34 points. That’s two-thirds of the total points available. If we can continue to accumulate points at that pace then I think we have a chance to challenge for the title.”

Defensive lynchpin Yuji Nakazawa also expressed his contentment at the way things were going but stressed that the side may need to tighten up at the back.

“Now our level and position in the league is good,” he said. “We’ve played everyone once and have to go round one more time. There’s still a long way to go and I’m sure we’ll have many bad games. The important thing is to collect points any way we can, we have to keep going right to the end. We need to concede less goals.”

Higuchi also paid reference to that aspect – saying he wants an average of less than one a game – and for a title-chasing side that is key. I just hope it doesn’t mean the Tsumarinos’ return is imminent.


No Hisato Sato?

Scoring lots of goals is normally the primary demand of a striker. For Alberto Zaccheroni that gift is obviously not enough…


It was quite the week for Hisato Sato.

In Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s 4-2 win over Kawasaki Frontale on Wednesday night he set the outstanding record of having scored 10 or more goals in each of the past 10 J.League seasons – and not being content with just one strike he helped himself to a hat-trick.

His final finish – a sublime hit from 20 yards – exemplified a player in the form of his career, perhaps even more confident and lethal than last season when he claimed the top scorer award with 22 goals.

Just watch it again. The way he sets himself, lets the ball come across his body and then sweetly guides it over the despairing dive of Rikihiro Sugiyama and into the back of the net. For me what was more impressive than the technical execution of the strike was the sheer certainty with which he carried out the skill. He knew exactly what he was going to do and how he was going to do it. And he knew that he was going to score.

There are few things as fearsome in a striker as that level of self-belief, and bearing that in mind it is astonishing that just five days later Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni elected to omit Sato from his squad for the East Asian Cup – a selection comprising entirely of J.League players.

Hisato Sato warming up for his club Sanfrecce Hiroshima

That blow may very well have sounded the death-knell for his national team career – and almost certainly his hopes of making a last-ditch run at the Brazil 2014 World Cup finals – and it is very difficult to understand why Zaccheroni doesn’t rate him.

Ahead of the season Sato’s club coach Hajime Moriyasu admitted that they had relied hugely on the veteran’s goals on the way to their maiden J1 title last season, and suggested they may have to adapt their approach this year to defend the crown.

“Of course I want Sato to get more than 20 goals again but I can guess the marking against him will be tighter so other players need to score goals, too,” he said.

He needn’t have worried. Despite the fact that everyone knows what a threat the 5 foot 6 striker poses, they don’t seem to know how to stop him and he made it to 12 goals this term after just 15 games.

I spoke to his teammate Mihael Mikic a week or so ahead of the East Asian Cup announcement, and he was in awe of Sato’s adaptability and suggested that if he didn’t make the trip to Korea the Purple Archers would be the ones to benefit.

“He’s a really, really good striker,” the Croatian said. “For us it’s better if he doesn’t go but I think for Japan it’s better if he plays because he’s so dangerous. In the box he’s really, really dangerous. He has this perfect technique, movement, everything. Now many teams know how he runs but again he scores. That is unbelievable. Even though they know, he always scores.”

These guys appreciate him, even if Zac doesn't

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, as those who knew Sato as a youngster believe he always exhibited those traits.

“[When I was coach at JEF in 2001] he quickly showed that he was a prospect for the future and there was the feeling that he was going to become a big player,” Zdenko Verdenik told me in April. “He has speed and the ability to cut through teams. He also had a fantastic sense to sniff out chances in the penalty area and to find the spaces from which it is possible to score goals. He’s an incredibly gifted player.”

Urawa Reds captain Yuki Abe came through the youth ranks at JEF with the 2012 Player of the Season and also recognized a rare gift.

“I played with him since the junior youth, so for about eight years,” he said after last year’s J.League Awards. “His play style and one touch finishing, and the way he adjusted his body to meet passes and timed things to escape defenders were always good back then.”

He’s still got it now and is one of the most consistently prolific forwards in the J.League, capable of scoring a wide variety of goals.

Zaccheroni, however, just isn’t interested.



When FC Gifu hosted Gamba Osaka recently it was always going to be a mismatch, but should it have been that bad…?


‘G’ seemed to be the letter of the day a couple of Wednesday’s ago, and it was grey and gloomy as I pulled into Nagoya station on my way to Gifu against Gamba – bottom against top in J2.

I was told by a Gifu-supporting friend on the way to the ground to expect goals, too, with Gamba unsurprisingly prolific at the top of J2 and the home side also enjoying something of a glut in recent games having won three of their last four 2-1, 4-3, and 2-1, as well as losing the other 4-0.

Even so, while the encounter always looked likely to be something of a mismatch I never thought I’d be seeing a new J2 total goals record on my first trip to the better-than-I-expected Nagaragawa Stadium.

Anything other than a Gamba win would certainly have been a shock, but having seen the similarly unfashionable Gainare Tottori battle to a 1-1 draw with the former J1 and AFC champions League winners at Banpaku back in March I didn’t think Kenta Hasegawa’s men would have things all their own way in front of what turned out to be a record home attendance of 11,719 for Gifu.

Stoke-on-a-Tuesday syndrome for Gamba?

Indeed, as the clouds which had been threatening for hours finally vent forth their fury as kick-off approached it seemed as though Gamba didn’t really fancy it. While the Gifu players began their warm-up on the pitch in the torrential rain the visitors continued to jog around under the main stand, occasionally glancing tentatively out at the elements and then thinking better of it and remaining sheltered from them, not emerging for a good 10 minutes after their hosts.

They may be overwhelming favourites to win the league and make a swift return to J1, I thought, but could they do it on a wet Wednesday night in Gifu?

Yes, actually, they could.

“Gamba Invasion” was how the game had been marketed to the locals, with the promotion focusing heavily on the fact that the guests had a large number of “national team class” players, and although in actuality they only currently have two Japan regulars seven of Gamba’s starting eleven were in their first spell in J2 while Gifu had just one – and that wasn’t because Taiuske Mizuno had played higher up the ladder but because he was a 20-year-old rookie.

It turned out that he and his teammates were just as in awe of their opponents as those in the stands, and it took just a couple of minutes for a slick, almost half-hearted, passing move to free Paulinho inside the Gifu box to get the scoring started.

The scoreboard operator’s work was only just beginning and six minutes later Takahiro Futagawa was capitalizing on more substandard defending to double Gamba’s lead and effectively end the tie as a contest.

Gifu and Gamba are worlds apart

In keeping with the day’s alphabetical theme a goalkeeper was soon in the spotlight as a howler by Shogo Tokihisa allowed Gamba to move three ahead, the 29-year-old – who came into the game having stopped five penalties thus far this season – miserably allowing a tame Futagawa effort to elude his grasp and trickle over the line.

After the match Gamba boss Hasegawa confessed that he’d been expecting more of a challenge from the hosts – who eventually fell to a quite ludicrous 8-2 defeat – with the minnows having made Gamba work for their win earlier in the season at Banpaku, losing just 2-0, the second goal of which came in the last minute. He credited the strong start as key this time around, and the early goal really did seem to take the wind out of Gifu.

The gulf in quality was embarrassing, and the difference between the bigger sides that drop down to J2 from the first division and those battling to stay in existence is plain for all to see, but I can’t help but feel that Gifu could have approached the game a little differently.

It seemed to me as if the club had treated it almost as an exhibition and this must have filtered through to the players. Instead of being swept up in the glamour they could perhaps have done with some more guts and gaman.


East Asian Cup squad suggestions

The squad Japan takes to Korea in a few weeks for the East Asian Cup will look very different to usual. Perhaps something like this…?


After the rather anticlimactic Confederations Cup campaign – which aside from the few highlights in the Italy match did not go according to plan (“People don’t expect much of us, but I’m going there to win it”, Keisuke Honda had declared ahead of Japan’s arrival in Brazil) – Samurai Blue fans now have the intriguing prospect of the East Asian Cup on the horizon.

At the time of writing Alberto Zaccheroni had not made it entirely clear what his selection policy would be, although he had suggested it would be a wholly different squad to that we are used to seeing, with European-based players and regulars from the Confeds omitted.

Taking that as my guide I have drawn up a 23-man list of J.League-based players that I would take to Korea if I was the man tasked with picking up the pieces from the last three defeats. Here it is:

Goalkeepers: Shuichi Gonda, Shusaku Nishikawa, Takenori Sugeno

Defenders: Yuhei Tokunaga, Tomoaki Makino, Kyohei Noborizato, Yuichi Komano, Daiki Iwamasa, Daisuke Nasu, Hiroki Mizumoto

Midfielders: Keita Suzuki, Toshihiro Aoyama, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Gaku Shibasaki, Hiroki Yamada, Manabu Saito, Yoichiro Kakitani

Forwards: Yohei Toyoda, Masato Kudo, Hisato Sato, Yuya Osako, Shinzo Koroki, Yoshito Okubo

Nakazawa was a popular national team member but his time has been and gone

The two main topics of discussion have been which young players Zac should give chances to, and which veterans (if any) he should bring back into the fold.

On the young-guns front I don’t really think my selection involves many shocks – except perhaps Noborizato, who I’ve been impressed with when I’ve seen him for Frontale this year. Yamaguchi, Shibasaki, Saito, Kakitani and Osako have all been touted as potential national teamers for a while now, and with each of them continuing to impress for their respective J.League clubs it wouldn’t be a surprise if most – if not all – of them are making the short trip to Seoul in a couple of weeks.

My decision to leave out Takahiro Ogihara is perhaps a little unexpected, with he and Yamaguchi usually referred to as a pair, but the 21-year-old looked a little nervous at last year’s Olympics and I feel that, on current form, there are other players in his position who deserve the chance to show what they can do.

Debate about whether or not to recall Yuji Nakazawa and Tulio – who were outstanding at the heart of defence in South Africa in 2010 – has also raged, and while they have every right to feel more than a little aggrieved by the way they were so promptly cast aside by Zaccheroni after he assumed the reins, I wouldn’t bring them back.

Both players were must-picks in their prime but for me they peaked at the last World Cup and if they were reintroduced now it would probably not end well for anyone involved. Neither are blessed with anything approaching pace, their decision-making is not what it was, and while they can get away with their increasingly regular lapses in concentration in the J.League they would almost certainly become liabilities at international level.

Tulio has also been moved to the margins since Zaccheroni took over

Of course, some experience is surely needed and Zac could do worse than slotting Keita Suzuki into one of the deep-lying midfield roles. It took me a while to fully appreciate the Reds veteran, but after being advised to take a closer look by a colleague earlier in the season his contribution is outstanding. He sets the pace of the team, and the number of times he nips opponents’ attacks in the bud with an impeccably-timed interception is remarkable. Having him alongside Yamaguchi with Shibasaki sat just in front in the No.10 role could work very well.

His Reds teammate Nasu also deserves serious consideration as a solid presence when defending and attacking set-pieces – still a major flaw of Zac Japan – and Yoshito Okubo has been in fine form since joining Kawasaki, and his aggressive, tenacious and committed style sets him out as a rather unique player amongst his contemporaries.

All six strikers I’ve named are well aware of where the goal is, and all-in-all I’d opt for an experienced defensive line-up and slightly more experimental attacking combination. My starting XI would look something like this:

(4-2-3-1 (R-L)) Gonda; Tokunaga, Mizumoto, Nasu, Komano; Keita, Yamaguchi; Kudo, Shibasaki, Kakitani; Sato

What do you think?


Total Recall

Nagoya Grampus ended the first phase of J1 a shadow of themselves. Will the break have done them some good…?


Neither Omiya Ardija nor Urawa Reds will have been particularly happy about the fact they just had to take a six-week break. Both sides were in great form and would surely have preferred to maintain their momentum than spend a month-and-a-half treading water back in training camps.

While the interlude won’t have been greeted warmly in Saitama I imagine things were a little different down in Aichi though, with Nagoya Grampus having been desperate for a bit of time away from the stresses and strains of league action.

Grampus under Dragan Stojkovic don’t lose two games in a row. At least they didn’t for two-and-a-half years. Between October 2009 and April 2012 each time they lost Grampus took points from their next match. Consecutive losses to Urawa and Kawasaki brought that phenomenal run to an end and while there were a couple more instances of back-to-back defeats in the 2012 season it never stretched to more than two games.

Considered in that context the club’s current run is astonishing.

The 2010 champions are without a league win since April 13th and have lost their last five matches. They are only three points outside the relegation places and Stojkovic is in no doubt about the fact that he is in charge of a team in crisis.

Will Nagoya fans still be watching a shower once things restart?

“I cannot recognise my players,” he said after the most recent defeat to Cerezo Osaka. “I’m very disappointed like all the fans from Grampus. All I can do is apologise to the supporters for the last five games. This is shameful and we must do everything to change the situation. This is why the break is very important to us.”

What makes the recent slump all the more surprising is that the squad has not changed drastically from that which surged to the title in 2010 – the most comprehensive champions in J1 single-stage history, which wrapped things up with three games to play and eventually finished 10 points ahead of second-placed Gamba Osaka.

Their seven-game winless streak this season started with a 3-1 loss at FC Tokyo in April, after which Piksi referred to the errors his team made as being like those of “amateurs”.

Josh Kennedy agreed, and gave an insight into what may be the problem for the side.

“We made a few mistakes and everybody caught onto them. It went through the whole team. You know, a few guys make a few mistakes and then everybody catches the next one and all of a sudden nobody wants the ball.”

As well as confidence sorely lacking on the pitch there are suggestions that all is not rosy behind the scenes, with the relationship between Kennedy and his coach seemingly deteriorating.

Can Piksi regain the trust of the fans, players and board?

“[We have] no determination, no player who is able to score,” Piksi said after the loss to Kashima Antlers. “Psychologically, we are not good enough. I accept all the responsibility. I accept all the criticism from the supporters. We play with the best team. But the quality is a big question mark.”

Then in the press conference after the Cerezo defeat he was even more explicit, saying, “I decided to use Tulio as a striker [after the second goal] and if I do that you know our attack is nothing, zero. But this is the reality.”

Another reality, he admitted after the Antlers game, is a relegation battle if things don’t improve quickly.

“It’s a difficult situation, you don’t need too much intelligence to understand that. We are very close to J2. This is how you go to J2: by losing every game and J2 will be waiting for you. This is the reality.

“The only positive thing is the break is coming. This is very good for us at this moment. I will talk very seriously to the players and I will hear from them what they are thinking because this is not good. We must think of our reputation and name. We don’t want to be bottom. So, this break is very good for us.”

We’ll find out this weekend just how good it proved to be. Will they come back rebooted and fully functioning as the ruthlessly efficient outfit of recent times, or did the time off just give them a bit of a break from losing games?


Take two?

It’s not gained a popular reception, but would reverting to a two-stage J.League really be such a bad idea?


At the moment J1 is taking a mid-season break for the Confederations Cup so it seems like an apt time to offer my five-yen on the J.League’s rumoured preference of returning to a two-stage season from 2014.

The proposal – as with everything in football these days – has polarized opinion and produced fairly vociferous opposition.

My initial reaction was predominantly anti the idea too, as, having grown up watching one of the most traditional leagues in the world, the idea of a division not contested as one straight-through competition just seemed a bit odd.

The more I think about it the less of a bad idea it seems, though.

Those against reverting appear to have two main complaints: firstly they argue that the two-stage system doesn’t actually determine the best team, and secondly they suggest it demeans the league and detracts from its ambitions to compete with the more established divisions around the world.

Of the first accusation I would counter that no set-up produces an unquestionably just champion, and the margins can be just as fine in the current system as they would be with two stage-champions playing off in a final.

Did Manchester City really deserve to be crowned Premier League champions in 2012 when they needed that injury time strike by Sergio Aguero to settle things? On goal difference. Why is goal difference the way things are decided and not ball possession, number of passes completed, or most saves by a goalkeeper? I’m being facetious but hope you see my point; no system is perfect.

These Omiya Ardija fans could be celebrating a championship soon if this were a two-stage season...

Five of the eight single-stage seasons in Japan have also been decided on the final day of the season – never more finely than in the first year, 2005, when Gamba emerged victorious in dramatic style at the expense of Cerezo, finishing just a point ahead of their local rivals and three other clubs, Urawa, Kashima and JEF.

That is undoubtedly exciting, but were attendances and interest consistent throughout the season or just at the climax? In a two-stage version you’d have two final straights plus a grand finale to top it all off.

This, some say, is too ‘manufactured’, but that, too, is rather subjective. The most high-profile league I can think of which operates a two-stage season is that in Argentina, and for the many criticisms that can be made of fans of the Primera División lack of passion is not one of them. They take their league seriously, and winning the Inicial or Final – or, ultimately, emerging as the victor from the one-off match at the end of the season – is not considered inauthentic.

Even taking a break in the middle can’t be cited as a complaint as not one single-stage season has been completed uninterrupted. At least three weeks have been taken off each year to allow for something or other, disrupting the flow and, along with player transfers to Europe in the summer, often giving the illusion of two separate stages anyway.

Mitsuzawa Stadium is usually sparsely attended but they were queuing all the way to the road for last year's play-off semi-final...

Added to this, let’s be honest, the J.League is never going to compete with the likes of the Premier League or the Bundesliga when it comes to quality or appeal. The division has to maximize its potential and operate within its means.

The opinions of core supporters need to be acknowledged, of course, but for the continued success and development of the league the more casual fans can be just as important. Those who hark back to the good old days of the J.League when the hype was at its peak and attendances were consistently high often neglect to remember that large swathes of the supporters in the stands were fair-weather and needed regular excitement to keep them interested.

The money of those supporters is vital to the league and its clubs, and full(er) stadiums also look much better on TV and would likely make the J.League more interesting for international audiences – and sponsors – as well.

The J2 play-offs last year demonstrated how adding a bit of structured excitement can raise interest in a division in need of a bit of a pick-me-up, and a glance at J1’s dwindling attendances suggest that something similar may be required in the top flight as well.

Besides, if it doesn’t work out they can always change back again.


Dogged success

Japan’s marathon man Shinji Okazaki has put in the miles to establish himself as a key starter for the Samurai Blue…


Shinji Okazaki is really growing on me.

His scoring record for Japan has always been impressive (33 goals in 63 games after his decisive strike against Iraq) and his work-rate has never been in doubt but I have always seen him as something of a trier, lacking the control and intelligence of the more refined players left out of the Samurai Blue squad. He reminded me – particularly in his longer-haired days – of a big dog chasing a ball around a park: full of boundless enthusiasm and clearly loving every minute of his playtime, but completely clueless as to what he was supposed to do once he was in possession.

I’d frequently bemoan his presence in the team while others were overlooked, and would groan in frustration as he inevitably found himself in the right place at the right home to tap home the goal that would keep him involved for the next match.

Now, however, I am starting to think that he wasn’t just Johnny-on-the-spot in meaningless Kirin Cup games against Finland, but that he is a far smarter player than I initially assumed.

Once is chance, twice is coincidence, after that there must be more to it, and it seems there is more to Okazaki than meets the eye.

Shinji Okazaki, Osaka, March 2011

Before South Africa 2010 I attended a press conference with the then-Shimizu S-Pulse striker, when he was struggling to live up to his expectations as the central striker for Takeshi Okada’s side as the World Cup edged ever-closer. At the time he had scored just twice in his last seven appearances for the Samurai Blue, something of a dip after he’d raised expectations by plundering seven in his previous three games.

While he of course denied feeling any pressure as the focal point of the attack, he did admit that he had perhaps started to overthink things out on the pitch.

“I wanted to score so badly that I think I killed my instinct to do so. I was thinking too much about it so I killed my strong point,” he said.

There were suggestions even then that he maybe struggled to focus, and that he expunged too much energy chasing after lost causes.

“That’s my character,” he responded. “If I don’t do that then it’s not me. I have done it from when I was very young.”

It is precisely that characteristic which persuaded Alberto Zaccheroni to shift Okazaki back a little though, into one of the three supporting roles behind the main centre-forward. While Keisuke Honda struts around expending energy only when he absolutely must and Shinji Kagawa possesses such wonderful technique and ability that he rarely looks flustered, the third point of that trident presents opponents with a far different proposition to defend – as well as putting in a shift heading back in the opposite direction.

Shinji Okazaki, Shimizu, May 2010

Despite my initial impressions Okazaki’s movement is not performed without thought, and he has improved dramatically since Zaccheroni – who prides himself on his intricate coaching methods – has been in charge. Okazaki doesn’t just luck out when the ball falls to him in the box, he has made sure he is exactly where he should be to cause the most danger, and now that he is not relied upon to lead from the front he is able to act more instinctively coming onto the ball rather than needing to work with his back to goal.

It takes more than just hard work to change your game once you are established in the national team, and Okazaki deserves credit for having persevered to improve his weaker points. It shouldn’t really have surprised me as he paid reference to the strength of character needed to make it in football back at that press conference in 2010.

“My [high school] teacher said that personality was vital and combined with your football performance,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for that teacher.

“I was better at marathons and longer races [at school] – stamina is one of my strong points,” he added.

His persistence has certainly won me round, and if I was in charge the Stuttgart man would be one of the first names on the teamsheet for the final straight in Brazil next year.

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May 2022