Archive Page 2


So VAR so good

VAR has caused plenty of controversy around the world in its early stages, and the discussion is now set to spread to Japan with the system being introduced in J1 for the 2020 season… (日本語版)

Football Channel 14th February, 2020

It was only 22 minutes into his debut for Vissel Kobe and Douglas was already peeling away in delight after prodding home from close range after Andres Iniesta’s corner was headed into his path by Thomas Vermaelen.

Referee Yoshiro Imamura soon brought the celebrations to a halt though, placing a finger to his left ear and holding his right hand out straight in the now familiar pose to signal that a VAR (Video Assistant Referee) review was underway.

Shortly afterwards the 42-year-old indicated that, on the advice of his video assistant Jumpei Iida, the goal would not stand, and Douglas was made to wait a little longer for his first goal for his new club.

“That’s the reason why VAR was introduced, I think, to help the officials come to a decision for goal-scoring chances,” the Brazilian said after Vissel ultimately edged Yokohama F.Marinos 3-2 on penalties after a 3-3 draw in the Fuji Xerox Super Cup.

“I felt as if I’d scored a goal, but the officials checked and that was the outcome, so that’s that.”

While Douglas was magnanimous – something perhaps made a little easier by the fact that he went on to score five minutes later anyway – elsewhere around the world the introduction of VAR has caused plenty of controversy.

A lot of this has been provoked by referees focusing on minor indiscretions rather than ‘clear and obvious errors’, while plenty of discussion has also been raised by the use of the ‘3D line’ employed to check narrow offside calls – most infamously when denying Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino a goal against Aston Villa in the English Premier League last November because his armpit was apparently beyond the last defender.

The J.League, however, won’t initially be using this technology but instead a more straightforward 2D line, and in order to bring the media up to speed on the roll-out of VAR for all J1 games in 2020, a briefing was carried out at JFA House on 6 February.

Manager of the top referee group Kenji Ogiya conducted a presentation on the refereeing standards expected this season, while Yoshimi Ogawa and Ray Olivier (chairman and vice- chairman of the referees’ committee, respectively) were keen to stress that VAR would only be used when absolutely required, and that it is there to prevent clear errors concerning game-changing events and not encourage nit-picking over minor decisions.

J.League officials have been undergoing VAR training for some time, including ‘offline’ tests and trials of the system in the latter stages of last year’s YBC Levain Cup and J1/J2 Play-off, and those invited to the briefing were shown some examples of the system in action from university practice matches over the J.League off-season period.

These videos highlighted the benefits of VAR, with one instance initially looking like a penalty for handball before a fresh angle showed the ball had actually hit a different arm to that first assumed, meaning the correct call was a free-kick from outside the area rather than a spot-kick.

Football Channel, Thursday 13th February 2020

If, as in that case and that of Douglas’ disallowed effort in the Super Cup – which was offside – the addition of an extra filter produces more correct than incorrect decisions then it is hard to see VAR having such a rough ride in Japan as it has elsewhere.

On the whole Japanese fans and media can be expected to exhibit more patience and understanding than those overseas – some of whom’s frustration and anger over VAR often seems rooted in a misunderstanding of its purpose, rather than particular flaws in the system itself.

Even so, referees present at the JFA’s briefing also voiced their hope that media personnel do their homework concerning the rules and uses of VAR to ensure their coverage conveys correct interpretations to fans watching at home.

To that end, the J.League also posted a tweet the day before the Super Cup outlining what decisions VAR would be used for in the upcoming campaign: to confirm the validity of goals, penalties, and sendings off, and ensure correct players are punished for indiscretions.

“Any issues brought up by VAR are the reality, so we have to accept them,” Marinos’ Keita Endo said after the Super Cup.

“If it brings about the correct result then it can’t be helped, and that’s a fair way to play.”

Vissel’s Vermaelen was similarly pragmatic.

I know there’s a lot of discussion but I’m actually a fan because it makes the game more honest, I think,” the 34-year-old said of the new system.

“There are some issues, with some mistakes, but I think overall it makes the game more honest in terms of [things like] offside or not offside, these obvious things. The obvious mistakes can’t be made so that’s a good thing.”

There can be no debate on that front but, as Vermaelen suggested, the system is still not perfect.

With replays not being shown on stadium screens, for example, those in the stands aren’t given any information as to what decision is being made or why, which could lead to confusion and frustration. There were also five minutes of added time in the first half alone at Saitama Stadium after a couple of reviews in the opening period, suggesting delays could become more frequent if the process isn’t executed quickly – something not always possible with the tighter calls that require multiple reviews from several angles.

For the time being, then, everyone is playing nice and hoping the ‘minimum interference, maximum benefit’ mantra rings true, but it will be interesting to see if reactions change as the season progresses and VAR decisions start to alter the outcome of games being contested for real points rather than pre-season friendly trophies.


Transfer triumphs and travails

As ever there has been a lot of transfer activity over the J.League off-season period, but some clubs look in better shape than others as the 2020 season draws near… (日本語版)

Football Channel 28th January, 2020

The transfer window won’t be closing until 27 March, but with J.League clubs now gathering for their pre-season camps in the warmer regions of Japan (and the AFC Champions League qualifiers already upon us) it seems like a good time to take a look at how the squads are shaping up for the 2020 season.

While there hasn’t yet been a headline-grabbing acquisition to match David Villa joining Vissel Kobe last year or Nagoya Grampus signing Jo in January 2018, some teams have acted very smartly in the transfer market.

On the other hand, a few sides still look to be lacking in fresh blood, and if recruitments aren’t made in the next few weeks it is hard to see how some intend to improve on last year’s showings.

Let’s start with the teams whose business looks sound a month before the big kick off.

Kashima Antlers’ work off the pitch has been as unfussy and effective as they usually are on it, and aside from the undoubted blow of losing Serginho to Changchun Yatai last week, the registration of four youngsters, and the tying up of some loan activity, all of their ins and outs were concluded within 24 hours between 3 and 4 January.

Having struggled in both full-back positions for much of 2019, Japan’s most successful club have taken steps to avoid a repeat this season by bringing in three of the best J1 has to offer in Daiki Sugimoto, Rikuto Hirose, and Katsuya Nagato.

In addition, Tatsuki Nara and Ryuji Izumi look another couple of smart pick-ups with proven pedigree at this level, while this year’s Brazilian newcomers Juan Alano and Everaldo have the potential to cover for the loss of Serginho and add their names to the long list of Antlers’ successful imports from the country.

The former has an eye for a pass and should add an extra creative option in midfield, while the latter will bring some presence and goal-scoring threat in and around the penalty area – something Antlers were badly lacking at the climax of last season.

Another side that looks stronger than it did at the end of the previous campaign is Shonan Bellmare, who have freshened things up nicely after almost succumbing to relegation last season.

Norway international Tarik Elyounoussi is an impressive addition up front, with Naoki Ishihara (35) and Yuto Iwasaki (21) offering further options at opposite ends of the experience spectrum in the final third.

Kazuki Oiwa and Kuzuaki Mawatari are steady replacements for the departed Miki Yamane and aforementioned Sugioka, while some neat ball-playing midfielders have also been picked up in the shape of Akimi Barada and Hidetoshi Miyuki.

Another team which likes to get the ball down and play has also done well with its new signings, and having taken everybody by surprise last season Oita Trinita look set to challenge again in 2020.

Ado Onaiwu has moved on, but Daiki Watari and Kei Chinen are two talented strikers capable of getting into dangerous positions in front of goal – and although they occasionally need more than one chance per game to find the net they should be getting plenty of opportunities leading the line for Tomohiro Katanosaka’s side thanks to the arrivals of Kazuhiro Sato, Yamato Machida, and Naoki Nomura.

Football Channel, Monday 3rd February, 2019

Vissel Kobe, meanwhile, have been uncharacteristically quiet so far, although after the bluster and showiness of the past couple of years that could be just what the doctor ordered.

Lukas Podolski has finally been offloaded after two-and-a-half seasons of injuries and strops (on and off the pitch), and the captures of proven J.League goal-scorer Douglas from Shimizu S-Pulse and talented young centre-back Ryuho Kikuchi from Renofa Yamaguchi add some extra quality in key positions – while also not upsetting the balance Thorsten Fink introduced as he led the team to its first ever trophy last season.

Vissel will be hoping to build on that Emperor’s Cup triumph with a better showing in the league this year, but two other teams also aiming to improve on their J1 standings from 2019 have been worryingly quiet in the window so far.

Urawa Reds looked like a team badly in need of a shake-up after sleepwalking towards a 14th-place finish last time out – ultimately only avoiding the promotion/relegation play-off by one point – but as well as deciding to give Tsuyoshi Otsuki more time in the hot seat there has been very little activity through the revolving doors at Saitama Stadium, with the only meaningful acquisition Albirex Niigata striker Leonardo.

The Brazilian put up impressive statistics last year as he struck 28 times to claim the J2 top scorer award – following on from finishing as J3’s most lethal marksman 12 months earlier by notching 24 goals for Gainare Tottori – although he took a while to find his feet in the second tier and only managed eight of those in the first half of the season, and things could prove tricky for him if he starts similarly slowly in Urawa.

After making a real challenge for an AFC Champions League spot in 2018 Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo fell away to finish 10th last year, and at the time of writing the only major signings they have made are Lucas Fernandes and Takanori Sugeno – both of whom have merely made their loan deals with the club permanent.

A trio of university players have also been added to the squad and Consadole’s only outgoing is Shonan-bound Iwasaki, but with several of their direct competitors looking stronger than last year some late signings will surely be needed if Mihailo Petrovic has any ambitions of drawing more out of his charges in the upcoming campaign.

The comings and goings of three of last season’s top four – champions Yokohama F.Marinos, runners-up FC Tokyo, and fourth-placed Kawasaki Frontale – have all been steady but unspectacular, and while none have made any standout signings they have also navigated the off-season without losing any key players, suggesting each will be there or thereabouts again.

Of course, there is still plenty of time for the picture to alter over the next few weeks as coaches make the final tweaks to their squads, but the sooner those players are added the quicker they will gel and the more chance there is of teams hitting the ground running when the action gets underway at the end of February.


Around Japan in 72 Games

English football fan Nick Green wanted to see more of Japan, and embarked upon an an incredible football-watching challenge in order to do so… (日本語版)

Football Channel 13th January, 2020

With the opening fixtures for the 2020 J.League season having been announced – and more set to follow in a couple of weeks – fans around Japan are starting to make their plans for the upcoming campaign.

Supporters from Hokkaido to Okinawa will be plotting their schedules and eyeing up the more glamorous weekends away, but none will be doing so quite so spectacularly as Nick Green, a teacher living in Kobe.

Green, originally from London, completed a quite remarkable quest between February 2018 and December 2019, when he managed to see all 71 teams between J1 and the JFL plus the Japan national team play at home.

“It doesn’t feel that impressive, I guess it’s just been my hobby for the last couple of years,” the Arsenal fan says with huge understatement of his achievement.

“I’ve always tried to do projects throughout my life and I’ve always been good at giving them up, so more than anything else I’m just impressed I stuck with it!”

The seed of the idea was planted in 2017, when Green and a friend were regulars at Vissel Kobe home games and a colleague at work suggested he try to visit every stadium in the country. The wheels were set in motion four years earlier though, when he decided on the spur of the moment to fly out from England for Arsenal’s friendly against Urawa Reds.

That experience led to Green moving to Japan the following year, and after initially being fairly casual in his viewing habits he upped the ante in style in 2018.

“I just turned it into my own little challenge. I fancied something to mix it up a little bit and reignite my love of traveling. It wasn’t so much about seeing the stadiums, but kind of an excuse to travel.

“I didn’t initially think of a time limit for it, I just thought it was some kind of ongoing mega challenge that could take my whole life, so I wanted to make it as big as possible.

“After the first month or so I remember thinking to myself that I’d be able to do it in one year, and I tried to plan that out. I think I could have just about physically made it, but doing that would have meant going to two games every weekend and that would have negated the ‘I’d like to travel’ aspect of it.”

Living in Kobe, pretty much the centre of Japan, and the generous holiday allowance afforded to Green as a teacher made the logistics of the mission a little easier, and as the weeks rolled by his scarf collection – he made sure to buy one at every stadium, as well as keeping his ticket and a game log – steadily grew.

“In J1 you’re not out of the ordinary at all, but in the JFL it was almost like you’re so out of the ordinary they really didn’t know what to do about you,” the 33-year-old says of the way he was received on his travels.

“I think J2 was where I had the most people befriending me. Usually curious old men – they’re the really fearless ones! They’d shuffle up next to me and chat away – which I was always really happy to do.”

Usually Green would sit in the back stand to take in the action but there were some exceptions, like the time at Kashiwa Reysol when he was dragged behind the goal and encouraged to watch the game with the core fans.

“I had to bounce up and down for two to three hours,” he recalls with a laugh. “It played havoc on my knees. I was told, ‘Behind the goal you’re not allowed to take photos and you’re not allowed to drink’; which are the two things I really like doing at the J.League!”

Football Channel, Tuesday 14th January 2019

Green then helped the supporters tidy up after the game and joined the post-match debrief, during which he was asked to offer feedback on the experience to his hosts.

“Before I knew it I was being inducted into their ultras club – which would have been good if not for the fact that I was going to their arch rivals JEF Chiba the very next day. I kept that one to myself!”

That was one of many highlights enjoyed over the two years, and when it comes to picking a favourite ground Green opts for a left-field choice from J3.

“My favourite, and it was a pleasant surprise, would have been Fujieda’s. That was my first time in J3 and it was a beautiful day. It’s in the mountains and I think it’s quite new. It’s a lot smaller, and really close to the pitch.

“You just feel like you’ve wandered in on a bit of a secret. I think it was the fifth or sixth one I’d managed to do. Every other stadium I’d been to in J1 or J2 would have seated over 20,000, so seeing that was just, ‘wow’. It was so different. Such a pleasant ground.”

The venue for the denouement of Green’s challenge was anything but small, however, with him opting to wrap things up by bringing them full circle at Saitama Stadium – the first Japanese venue he visited in July 2013 to watch Arsenal.

“It’s the one time out of any of the games I went to that I specifically chose the date – Urawa on the last day of the season, when Gamba beat them. I thought it was quite a poetic way to end it all.

“It was pretty cool going around places I remembered from six and a half years before. Seeing how much I remembered.”

Indeed, Green is wistful when looking back over the project as a whole.

“There were certain places where I’d go off and do something or see something; for example, the sand dunes in Tottori,” he says.

“I saw Tottori play then took a bus back into town and walked up and saw the dunes just as the sun was starting to set. It was just such a strange, surreal, and amazing experience, and I realised I wouldn’t have seen that had I not chosen to see a kind of unknown J3 side.

“There’s quite a few places like that. Going to Imabari. They had this food called yakibuta tamagomeshi – it was pretty much the best food I’ve ever had in Japan. And again, whilst I was eating that, I was thinking to myself, ‘These things wouldn’t happen if I didn’t choose to do this’.

He is similarly philosophical when asked to select a key takeaway from the journey.

“Just the experiences I’ve had inside football. The kindness of people and the spontaneity of some people, but also the things I saw outside of it that I wouldn’t have done were I still just in Kobe – or indeed back in London, as I probably would still have been if I didn’t go out to see Arsenal.

“Loads of these good experiences in my life I can really put down to football.”


Vissel one step from glory

They’ve made plenty of headlines off the pitch over the last couple of years, and on New Year’s Day Vissel Kobe have the chance to pick up their first piece of silverware as they take on Japan’s most successful club in the Emperor’s Cup final… (日本語版)

Football Channel 30th December, 2019

Vissel Kobe ensured progression to their first cup final with ease on 21 December, making short work of Shimizu S-Pulse in the Emperor’s Cup semi-finals.

Thorsten Fink’s side were accomplished and incisive in that 3-1 victory – delivered by goals from Andres Iniesta, Junya Tanaka, and Kyogo Furuhashi – and will now face Kashima Antlers at the new National Stadium on New Year’s Day as they aim to pick up their first major honour.

The identity of their opponent makes for an especially interesting contrast, and while Vissel are still looking to establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with Kashima are Japan’s most successful and consistent club, with 20 major titles to their name and a pedigree at the highest level.

Despite another season of underachievement in the J.League though, Vissel have shown signs in recent months of being molded into a tougher proposition by Thorsten Fink.

At the end of September I spoke to Thomas Vermaelen about the team’s prospects in the short-term future, and in particular their ambitions in the Emperor’s Cup.

“I think we had a difficult time in the past, but now I think we have some kind of winning streak,” he said after Vissel’s 2-1 win away to Kawasaki Frontale.

“It’s good to look up instead of down. But I think this is a team with lots of quality that has to look up. Now we have a winning streak and we have to keep that going and try to go step-by-step forwards.

“The Emperor’s Cup is massively important for this club, and we’ll do everything to go as far as we can and hopefully win it.”

At that point Vissel were on a run of just one defeat in seven in the league, but sat ninth in the rankings and fully aware they had no chance of getting involved in the title race – meaning the Emperor’s Cup was already looming as their priority.

Ten days previously they had disposed of Frontale from the competition with a 3-2 win, although they then followed the league victory at Todoroki with a couple of heavy defeats against sides jostling for points at the summit – going down 6-2 against Sanfrecce Hiroshima and 3-1 at home to FC Tokyo.

Football Channel, 28th December, 2019

They recovered well to those humblings though, and as well as beating Oita Trinita 1-0 in their Emperor’s Cup quarter-final on 23 October they also ended the league campaign strongly, winning their last three games and four of their last five as they wrapped up an eighth-place finish.

Twenty-three points behind eventual champions Yokohama F.Marinos is still nowhere near where the club want to be of course, but Vermaelen feels the ingredients are in place for them to make a bigger impact next year.

“I think to be well organised as a team is very important,” the Belgian said. “I think if you have that under control then I think you will do well in the J.League.

“That’s the main thing, work together as a team. Also defensively is very important, and if you have that co-ordination and organisation (done) well then we’ll do fine in the league. And then we have the quality in midfield and up front to score goals. So if we have that shape we’ll be all right.”

Marinos of course provide fantastic inspiration on that front, finishing 12th in 2018 – only avoiding the J1/J2 play-off on goal difference – before wrapping up their first title in 15 years this season.

Prior to trying to emulate such a turnaround in the league next year, however, Vissel are now fully focused on claiming their maiden piece of silverware.

For them the Emperor’s Cup is more than just the chance to adorn their trophy cabinet with its first trinket; it is an opportunity to show that their ‘project’ is working, that all of the millions of dollars being thrown around to attract the likes of Iniesta and David Villa are producing results.

Perhaps most crucially of all, victory over Antlers would enable Vissel to parade their expensive acquisitions on the continental stage in next year’s AFC Champions League, gathering more attention for Rakuten and bringing them ostensibly closer to their stated aim of becoming ‘The No.1 Club in Asia’.

The stage is set for a classic encounter between the established power and a big-spending upstart, and the new National Stadium couldn’t have hoped for a better match-up for its grand opening.


Ange the toast of Australia

Ange Postecoglou may have taken Yokohama F.Marinos’ J1 glory in his stride, but the Australian media were in raptures over his success… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel 12th December, 2019

In the whirlwind of media activities that followed Yokohama F.Marinos’ J1 triumph on Saturday, Ange Postecoglou cut a rather bemused figure.

The 54-year-old is one of those coaches who favours being out on the training field rather than in front of the cameras, and while he is always happy to talk football it is not his style to bathe in the limelight.

An hour or so earlier, as the final seconds of his team’s 3-0 win over FC Tokyo ticked away and the rest of the bench danced around behind him in anticipation of impending glory, Postecoglou was still on the touchline keeping an eagle eye on his players, characteristically focused on the performance rather than the result – even though this one confirmed the title.

“I don’t enjoy this bit too much, the success,” he said in the post-game press conference, insisting he prefers the nitty gritty of bringing his approach to fruition. “I enjoy the bits where maybe there is a little bit of doubt, maybe people do question the way I do things.”

And rather than basking in the glory after achieving his mission, Postecoglou was focused on what his team’s success meant to others.

“I’m not great at celebrating, I kind of enjoy just watching everyone else. It’s not just winning the championship or being champions, it’s a 15-year wait for a lot of people. I said to the players last week, imagine being a supporter of this club and for the last 15 years waiting for that next time.”

Thanks to him that time is now, and while the man himself was keeping his composure the reactions back home in Australia were far more exuberant.

“Ange Postecoglou has secured his crowning achievement in club football,” Vince Rugari wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald, praising the way in which Marinos stuck to their attack-minded football even though it was Tokyo who needed to win by four goals.

“Any other coach in Postecoglou’s shoes might have tweaked their tactics ever so slightly and emphasised the importance of defensive structure over attacking freedom, knowing their opponents would have no choice but to throw everything at them to have any hope.

“But Postecoglou is like no other coach. He has an unshakeable belief in his methods and his record at South Melbourne, Brisbane Roar and the Socceroos shows that those who put their faith in him are always rewarded.”

Yokohama are the latest to have benefited from Postecoglou’s precise and proactive style, and, writing in the Herald Sun, David Davutovic insisted the triumph confirms the former Australia coach is one of the best the nation has ever produced.

“Ange Postecoglou’s J1 League title with Yokohama F. Marinos is one of the greatest international coaching achievements by an Australian.

“Japan is the No. 1 league in the rapidly growing Asian continent, in the world’s most competitive sport.

Football Channel, Friday 13th December, 2019

“Tony Popovic’s 2014 Asian Champions League triumph with Western Sydney Wanderers was extraordinary, but Postecoglou’s 2019 J1 League title is top of the football pops.”

Paul Williams of The Asian Game reiterated the esteem in which the J.League is held.

“Generally Australia doesn’t have the greatest respect for Asian football,” he said. “Although it is changing slowly, there is still largely the view that most of the continent is beneath us, but the one outlier to that is Japan.

“Japanese football, and in particular the J.League, has a lot of respect in Australia. It is viewed as the best league in Asia, primarily because of the technical abilities of the players in the league. Japanese sides have often made light work of A-League clubs in the AFC Champions League, and from this there is a large amount of respect for the J.League. More so than any other league it is seen as the pinnacle of Asian club football.

“To highlight how significant [Marinos’ league] win was, it was headline news across all the news networks across the weekend, and these are networks that barely talk about football, so for Ange and Yokohama to be reported on every outlet shows how much this has cut through into the mainstream.”

The J.League is receiving increasing attention from fans and media overseas on account of proactive efforts in Southeast Asia and the high profile transfer activity of clubs like Vissel Kobe, and in the face of that scrutiny it is vital that the football out on the pitch remains up to scratch.

Postecoglou’s success – and the reaction to it back in his native Australia – can only help in that regard, and some pundits were suggesting he should look to embrace a new challenge in Europe after this latest trophy.

“He knows he is a winner, and he knows he has got the recipe to get success because he’s done it now time and time again,” former Leeds United and Newcastle Jets striker Michael Bridges said of Postecoglou on Optus Sport’s ‘Scores on Sunday’ show.

“What he’s done over there [in Japan] is absolutely incredible. I think this guy can go wherever he wants in the world and coach.

“I’ve worked under some coaches in the Premier League and the Championship that have been a shambles and do not work anywhere near a quarter of the hours this man does. That’s what it’s about. If you want to put in the hours and have a game-plan and a structure and challenge your staff, he’s got it. There’s big things coming for Ange.”

For the time being, those big things are aiming to defend the J1 title and achieve glory in the ACL in 2020. Postecoglou has shown over the last two years that he has the wherewithal to find success wherever he goes though, and the triumph with Marinos could just be the latest milestone in a managerial career that still has a long way to run.


Principled Postecoglou on verge of pay-off

Ange Postecoglou arrived at Yokohama F.Marinos promising glory without sacrificing his principles, and with two rounds of the 2019 J1 season remaining he is on the verge of achieving it… (日本語版)

Football Channel 30th November, 2019

Yokohama F.Marinos only avoided the relegation play-off on goal difference last season, but with two games of the 2019 campaign to go they know maximum points will see them crowned J1 champions for the first time since 2004

The turnaround from 12 months ago – they lost fully half of their games in 2018 but have tasted defeat just eight times this year – is nothing short of remarkable, and the manner in which Ange Postecoglou has transformed the team into champions elect is testament to the Australian’s methods and the club’s willingness to give him the freedom and time to implement them.

When the former Socceroos boss arrived ahead of the 2018 season he spoke of changing the way Marinos would play, and his actions backed up his words as he allowed both Manabu Saito and Quenten Martinus – central players under Erick Mombaerts – to leave ahead of the season.

“I think there will be a distinct difference from the way the team played, and that’s our challenge now,” he said ahead of his maiden campaign. “Obviously the players were used to playing a certain way and our challenge is to try and get them to play a little bit differently.

“I want to be successful, that’s why I’m here and that’s why I coach. The first thing is to get the team to play the way you want, and in the past whenever I’ve done that the team has been successful. So, what that success looks like we’ll see at the end of the year, but I’m certainly here to help the club be as successful as it can be.”

2018 did very nearly end with a trophy despite the struggles in the league, although Marinos ultimately had to settle for runners-up medals in the Levain Cup after losing the final 1-0 to Shonan Bellmare.

Ahead of this season, Postecoglou insisted his assessment of the team’s overall performance last year wasn’t affected by that near miss, and that he knew what was needed to bring about an improvement.

“We reached the cup final last year, but to be honest I don’t think we deserved (to win on the day) and (that)’s probably indicative of where we were as a team. If we were able to do that last year, then this year I’m not going to set limits or say what we want to win.

“More important for me is that we can bridge the gap between our best and worst, and we deliver our best every week. Our best this year I expect to be better than our best last year, (and that will) give us a chance to have some success.”

His first pre-season was marked by the departures of Saito and Martinus, and 2019 has also seen several key players exit Nissan Stadium as the 54-year-old has ruthlessly disposed of inherited regulars in order to carve the team in his image.

Hugo Vieira, Yuji Nakazawa, and Ryosuke Yamanaka all left ahead of the season – the latter a player Postecoglou wanted to keep, but to whom’s departure he reacted superbly with the acquisition of Theerathon Bunmathan – while Hiroki Ikura and Jun Amano were also granted transfers mid-season.

For Postecoglou, this evolution was key to his aim of having the team play his proactive, possession-based football.

Football Channel, Thursday 28th November, 2019

“Everywhere I’ve gone there’s a bedding in process, because we kind of do things a little bit differently,” he said before the 2019 season began.

“The challenge was to see what areas could be blockages for us in the way I work. For the most part I thought the footballers adapted really well (in 2018), the club embraced the journey we were on, and everyone understood that it’s not going to be smooth at the start. I think we’ve built a really good foundation, but obviously we want to be more consistent.

“One way is we just needed more players who can play our style of football. I think we were a little bit constricted last year in the playing squad I had. I think I worked out from pre-season last year we’ve changed 19 out of 27 players. It’s not a judgment on the footballers that were here, it’s about bringing footballers that I think play our style of football.”

And the success he has had with the players brought in is perhaps unprecedented in such a short space of time in the J.League.

Eight regulars from 2017 are no longer at the club – Ken Matsubara, Takahiro Ogihara and Takuya Kida are the only players from that season who can still be considered as first choices – while mid-season pick-ups from last summer Thiago Martins and Shinnosuke Hatanaka now form the bedrock of the defence.

In addition, a further four of the signings made at the start of this campaign have established themselves as starters, with Park Il-gyu installed as No.1, Theerathon filling Yamanaka’s shoes, and Edigar Junio – when fit – and Marcos Junior making instant impacts in the final third.

The latter pair demonstrate the benefit of City Football Group’s involvement, with Postecoglou and his coaches able to capitalise upon the organisation’s scouting database and highlight the players who pique their interest.

“They offer expertise in certain areas and we tap into that expertise,” Postecoglou explained of the arrangement with CFG back in February 2018.

“They’re very well resourced in terms of their scouting networks and the sports science side of football. We tap into that and the analytical side of it. But they’re not hands on, they’re not there on a day-to-day basis, that’s not how they perceive their involvement. My contact daily is with Yokohama F.Marinos people, and the City Group are there to support.”

Such an approach has worked wonders in bringing Marinos to the brink of glory, and means things have progressed almost precisely according to Postecoglou’s plan.

“I’ve never done long-term projects, because as a coach you never last with a long-term project,” he said ahead of this season. “It’s about trying to have success, but I won’t compromise the way we want to play our football.”

With two games to go, Postecoglou and Marinos are on the verge of having their cake and eating it.


Forza Furuhashi

Kyogo Furuhashi is only in his third year as a professional, but the Vissel Kobe forward has taken to the J.League like a duck to water and looks more than ready to test himself with the national team… (日本語版)

Football Channel 13th October, 2019

In football, and especially in Japanese football, there is usually a tried and tested process for introducing young players into the first team.

Whether having graduated from the club’s youth set-up or a high school or university team, the youngster more often than not has to spend the initial stage of their integration waiting for a chance, perhaps earning the odd appearance from the bench or in one of the cup competitions as they learn the ropes as a professional.

When it came to Kyogo Furuhashi, however, Takeshi Oki – as is so often the case with the idiosyncratic coach – did things a little differently.

FC Gifu announced Furuhashi’s signing from Chuo University on 22 December 2016, describing him as a “player who can dribble at pace, with excellent technique”, and there was a short comment from the man himself stating that he wanted to, “help the team win games by capitalising upon (his) speed, and get out on the pitch as soon as possible and work hard to become a player the fans love”.

So far, so standard – with new signings hardly able to say anything else.

What was different about Furuhashi, though, was that he evidently meant it – and Oki clearly knew it.

The Nara native, who turned 22 at the end of the following January, was named in Gifu’s starting 11 on the opening day of the 2017 season against Renofa Yamaguchi, and would go on to do so in all 42 of their league matches that season – as well as both their Emperor’s Cup games.

In doing so, he scored six goals and provided nine assists, ending the season as a key player for the team as it steered comfortably clear of its habitual battle against relegation, finishing in 18th place and 26 points above relegated Thespakusatsu Gunma.

He continued to improve and was utterly unplayable at times at the start of the 2018 J2 season, terrorising opposition defenders with his direct running, blistering pace, and clinical play in the final third.

After scoring 11 times – including finding the net in five consecutive games – and setting up a further six goals it was clear that the second tier was too small a pond for this fish, and Furuhashi made the switch to Kobe when they came calling in the summer.

Yet again, despite suddenly finding himself installed as a regular starter in the same team as Andres Iniesta he took everything in his stride, scoring on his first start against Jubilo Iwata on 11 August and ultimately claiming five goals and an assist in 13 games.

Football Channel, Wednesday 13th November, 2019

“One of my goals was to play as a professional, and I also had the aspiration to show my play in front of a big crowd like this,” he said after a 4-0 loss away to Urawa Reds at Saitama Stadium on 23 September.

“The fact I have done that is good, but just playing like this is no good, and I have to play well.”

When asked if he anticipated any difficulty adapting to more managerial changes – Takayuki Yoshida had been replaced by interim Kentaro Hayashi for the Reds game ahead of Juan Manuel Lillo’s appointment the following week – Furuhashi, just as he had done when joining Gifu as a university graduate almost two years previously, demonstrated terrific faith in his own ability.

“What I have to do doesn’t change. When I came here from Gifu my coach changed, but what was required of me didn’t. What I have done until now has given me confidence and means I believe in myself, and I just have to keep trusting in what I have done.

“Last year and until halfway through this year at Gifu I learned the importance of football, the importance of how to pass, and I knew within myself after moving to Kobe that I had to improve even more. There’s a pressure not just to be out on the pitch but to win, and I feel that.

“Beyond that there is the national team and overseas, and I think I have to aim for that as well. There are many players excelling for the national team at this age, so I think there’s a chance and I just have to keep playing proactively.”

He has certainly done that, and in spite of the fact that Kobe have once again spent a season spectacularly underachieving he remains among the most potent attacking players in J1, with the 24-year-old receiving his first call up to the national team on 6 November after scoring nine and assisting eight for Vissel – meaning he has had a hand in almost a third of their league goals this campaign.

Now he has been invited to show Hajime Moriyasu what he is capable of at the next level.

The Samurai Blue boss has been more than willing to give young, attack-minded players opportunities to shine in his year-and-a-bit in charge, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Furuhashi were also offered his against Venezuela on 19 November.

And, based on what we have seen of him so far, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Furuhashi were to grab that chance with both hands.

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May 2020