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April 2010

Golden Week

28 Apr 2010(Wed)

Having finally finished the Japanese translation of what turned out to be a three-part article on the tactical dilemmas facing Takeshi Okada’s national team – a somewhat more complicated endeavour than my usual rants about Gamba Osaka or whichever tournament could do with a bit of a revamp – I am, quite frankly, absolutely delighted that this country is now set to ground to a halt for the Golden Week holiday. Before I switch off my computer, however, I will just conclude this little series on formations with a quick look at the starting line-up that my discussions concluded might suit Japan the best during the World Cup this summer. The diagram below also appears in the article on my Japanese column published today, on the off chance that Mr. Okada might happen across it and decide to employ me as his personal advisor with a generous six-figure salary. (Wait, I mean eight-figure. Six figures wouldn’t even pay the rent if we’re talking yen.)

 

Conclusion: Potential Japan starting line-up at South Africa 2010 (4-3-3, or strictly speaking, 4-1-2-2-1)

 

Narazaki

 

Uchida   Nakazawa   Tulio   Nagatomo

 

Inamoto

Hasebe              Endo

 

S. Nakamura       Honda

Okazaki

 

In any case, should he choose to accept my advice or not, Okada has said that he will announce his squad of 23 for the South African adventure on Monday 10 May, so the next article to appear on this column will be timed to coincide with that. In the mean time, you can still catch up with the latest happenings in the J. League via the Football Japan Minutecast – available in both written and audio formats, while you can even subscribe to the weekly podcast via iTunes by clicking right here. Please do.

 

And, while I’m on the subject of shameless promotion, I’d be awfully and eternally grateful if you could also click the banner below and sign up for an account with our new friends at bet365, where you can wager your hard-earned yen, pounds, or other legal tender on the J. League and indeed a whole host of other football matches from around the world. Registrations that stem from the links on Football Japan will contribute a little bit of money into our coffers (at no extra expense to yourselves, naturally) to help with the running costs of our websites. 

 

 

Finally, since you’ve all been very good and clicked on both of the links I’ve asked you to, here’s a nice bit of Japanese tactics-related trivia for you to finish off with. Why is a volante called a volante?

 

The term, used to refer to a defensive midfielder, has been borrowed into Japanese from Brazil, where it first originated in the 1940s. After the W-M (3-2-2-3) system had been introduced to Flamengo by the Hungarian Dori Kürschner, his successor as manager, Flávio Costa, decided to modify the style by pushing the left-half further forward and bringing the right inside-forward a little deeper, thus effectively changing the square in the middle of the formation into a parallelogram. The right-half, therefore, become responsible for defensive duties in midfield, and the player to take on this role in Costa’s reshuffled Flamengo team of 1941 was an Argentinean bloke called Carlos Martín Volante. (See Jonathan Wilson’s excellent book, Inverting the Pyramid, for further details.)

 

Happy Golden Week (or, depending on where you are, May Day holiday)!

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51 days to kick off – Midfield, attack, and the ace in the pack

21 Apr 2010(Wed)

(Continued from Back to a back three?)

 

Once we have established that it would be plain foolhardiness for Japan to switch to a three-man defence at the World Cup, there are three main conclusions we can draw right away. The first is that the current back four should likely remain unchanged, since however much the pace (or lack thereof) of Yuji Nakazawa may worry us, his experience and status as captain means dropping the Yokohama F Marinos stopper is a gamble unlikely to curry much favour with coach Takeshi Okada. Secondly, therefore, Marcus Tulio Tanaka will need to put any disciplinary problems behind him, and dominate the defence with the kind of performances that will have people talking up a transfer to Europe again. Finally, the true key to the national team’s fortunes this summer will be the make-up and – crucially – the shape of its front six, but fortunately, midfield is an area in which Japan are at least blessed with plenty of options.

 

Okada has traditionally preferred a double volante pairing at the base of his midfield, but the combination of Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe often fails to provide sufficient defensive cover and leaves the back four overly exposed. This suggests that – rather than panicking and throwing in another centre-back – it might be better to have just one volante, but with a stricter remit to protect the defence. Hasebe could be used in this role himself, but Junichi Inamoto would appear the more suitable candidate. Adopting a central midfield threesome, then, could allow responsibility to be distributed more efficiently without stifling Endo’s and Hasebe’s creative instincts.

 

The idea of fielding Inamoto as an additional defensive player has attracted a certain amount of criticism in the Japanese media of late for its apparent negativity, but this betrays a limited understanding of tactics. Such a switch would not only attend to defensive vulnerability but also allow attacking moves to be developed throughout the midfield. The prominence of 4-3-3 or 4-5-1-based systems in Europe has coincided with an overall increase in goals, with the potential for spectacle exemplified by the UEFA Champions League-winning teams of Manchester United and Barcelona in the last two years. Indeed, it is worth remembering that while fans at Old Trafford angrily chanted ‘four, four, two’ as the influence of Carlos Queiroz provoked a shift away from the traditional style, the best United team in recent years featured an all too short-lived forward line of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and Carlos Tévez – none of whom serving as out-and-out strikers in a formation that could therefore be described as 4-3-3-0.

 

The potency of the Japanese national team is obviously not quite in the same league, with the painfully familiar complaint being that attacking players merely pass the ball around with no end product. As a lone centre forward, Keiji Tamada works hard and holds the ball up well, but this too is part of the problem as he rarely scores himself and Japan lack a real outlet as a result. The player with the most genuine goalscorer’s instinct, Shinji Okazaki of Shimizu S-Pulse, is often stationed out wide, and though he might cut inside to great effect for his club, the 24-year-old tends to look far too isolated on the flank against better opposition for his country. Okazaki should therefore be trusted in the role as Japan’s main striker instead. Playing two up top is certainly an option – personally, I’m not necessarily against this, as the team needs all the goalscorers it can get and I’d love to see Takayuki Morimoto of Catania given a chance too – but starting with a single striker would allow Okada to make the most of his choices in attacking midfield.

 

Alongside Endo, Shunsuke Nakamura is still probably the first name on the Japanese teamsheet, but his teammates can tend to just look desperately to him in times of trouble, and this over-reliance is both pressurising and unhelpfully transparent. The overall potential of the side could be best realised if Nakamura were part of a fluid partnership. This would be conducive to positional variation within the same 90 minutes, with the attacking midfield pair stationed behind Okazaki and allowing the full-backs to get forward; moving wide to enable Endo or Hasebe to advance; or breaking symmetry with one serving as second striker while the other attacks his flank. There are many candidates for this final position, but what Japan really need is a player with a certain ‘plus alpha’ – freeing the likes of Nakamura and Endo to do their jobs while adding something different of his own to boot.

 

That man is Keisuke Honda. The CSKA Moscow midfielder is the one Japanese player capable of shaking things up and striking fear into top-level opponents, following a meteoric rise that has seen his impact spread from the Dutch second division to the latter stages of the Champions League in less than a year. Honda’s versatility has seen him trusted with set pieces and in a number of different midfield roles during his short time in Russia, and the naturally confident Osakan has thrived on such opportunities thus far. His national team career has enjoyed similar progress with four goals in 12 months taking him from the bare fringes to an apparently guaranteed place in Okada’s squad of 23, but this must now be capped with an important function in the starting eleven as well. Japan’s problems mean there is no time for conservatism; the availability of Honda means there is no need.

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58 days to kick-off – Back to a back three?

14 Apr 2010(Wed)

Sitting high up in the north stand at Nagai for the Japanese national team’s woeful 3-0 home defeat last Wednesday against what can only be called a Serbia ‘B’ team, the word that immediately sprung to mind was ‘predictable’.

 

Yes, there were a couple of caveats – Japan had missing players too, and those who were there are in the midst of a busy domestic schedule before the J. League breaks for the World Cup, et cetera – but from the moment Dragan Mrđa raced past a static Japanese back line to open the scoring after just 15 minutes, it was clear that even this young Serbian eleven had sussed out exactly how to see off the best (well, almost) their hosts had to offer. Japan may have controlled the possession, but Serbia rarely found it hard to defend against a side that simply passes the ball ad infinitum without ever looking like developing real opportunities to shoot. Painfully exposed flaws at the other end, meanwhile, meant that if anything, Mrđa and striking partner Dejan Lekić might even have helped themselves to a couple more.

 

Change, then, is in the offing, but as newspapers and fans’ forums do their best to embody the panicked thought processes with which national team coach Takeshi Okada is probably now familiar, one of the more worrying suggestions to have arisen in light of this defeat is a switch to a three-man defence. The mobility of centurion skipper Yuji Nakazawa is certainly an increasing concern, but it seems fanciful to speculate that Okada might consider such a radical adjustment to his first-choice tactical plan so soon before South Africa. Although this story has clearly excited the headline writers in the week since the Nagai debacle, SIX president Katsumi Honda had the opportunity to speak with the Japan boss after the game and suggested to me that the ‘news’ is likely little more than sensationalised exaggeration of a simple, off-the-cuff remark.

 

One can only hope that his interpretation is correct. No back three has enjoyed notable success on the top-level international stage in the eight years since Brazil were crowned world champions in Yokohama. Even that was a bit of an anomaly, while ‘centre-back’ Edmílson was equally likely to be found endangering the opposition’s goal as protecting his own. In Europe, 3-5-2 enjoyed a brief boom in the 1990s, with both Germany and Borussia Dortmund skilfully employing Matthias Sammer as a sweeper on their way to continental titles in ’96 and ’97 respectively, but the system has virtually disappeared from the European top table since Bayern Munich (managed, as were Dortmund four years previously, by Ottmar Hitzfeld) won the UEFA Champions League in 2001.

 

There is a reason for this. As the excellent Jonathan Wilson has explained on many an occasion, the traditional benefits of 3-5-2 are numbers to dominate the midfield and an extra man to provide cover at the back, but this assumes that the opposition will play a classic 4-4-2. With most top sides now fielding only one out-and-out striker (or sometimes none at all) in a variety of precise patterns generally bundled together under the 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 label, the provision of a third central defender becomes superfluous. The numerical advantage in midfield, meanwhile, is negated or even overturned; replaced instead by heightened vulnerability to the attacking full back, who – in the analysis of Kashiwa Reysol manager Nelsinho Baptista – can then be deployed both to provide greater width and to help his side boss the possession.

 

Certain other J. League coaches might still lazily fall back on a 3-5-2 whenever they want to give their teams a bit of a ‘shake-up’, but where the back three still does succeed – to a certain extent in Asia but most noticeably with Egypt’s unprecedented three-peat in the Africa Cup of Nations – this is often largely assisted by the naïveté of opposing sides unable to evolve from their two solid banks of four. The one African team that has adapted and consistently given Egypt problems, incidentally, is Cameroon – Japan’s opening opponents in Bloemfontein on 14 June. Meanwhile, the two European outfits that complete Group E, Holland and Denmark, are characterised by their own interpretations of the 4-3-3 and would hardly baulk at the prospect of an Okada back three this summer.

 

(To be continued)

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Sort it out

6 Apr 2010(Tue)

Right, let’s be honest. How many people actually noticed the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup getting under way last Wednesday?

 

Certainly, this opening matchday struggled even to inspire real mobilisation amongst the supporters of the dozen clubs actually involved. Average attendances were less than two-thirds of those recorded by the host sides in their J. League matches so far this year, with even the most high-profile fixture on paper – holders FC Tokyo’s dramatic 2-2 draw with Nagoya Grampus – attracting just 12,991 spectators to the National Stadium in the capital. Yokohama F Marinos only managed to draw 8,593 people to the Mitsuzawa Stadium for their 1-0 win over Montedio Yamagata, as opposed to an average of almost 32,000 for their three league games at the Nissan Stadium to date. Even the day’s highest figure – 22,836 fans for Urawa Reds against Jubilo Iwata – contrasts sharply with the 36,790 who turned out for Urawa’s league meeting with Shonan Bellmare this weekend, and all the more so with the 50,096 attendance recorded when they hosted FC Tokyo last month.

 

Midweek fixtures that kick off while many Japanese fans remain stuck in their offices are admittedly a factor, but the J. League has hardly helped itself with the format of its secondary competition. The unavailability of Japan’s – since last year – four AFC Champions League representatives until after the summer interval means that they need to be given byes to the last eight, leaving 14 J1 clubs to be whittled down to fill the remaining four spaces. Having two groups of seven teams all playing each other once might well be the only way of achieving this, but aside from the potential imbalance of who gets to play at home against whom, the system is prone to throwing up a lot of uninteresting matches.

 

The first two matchdays – played out in the shadow of far more glamorous fixtures in the ACL – often seem to lack immediate significance in the context of a drawn-out group stage, not least when there is then a five-and-a-half-week gap before the competition reconvenes again. With only the top two teams from each seven going through, the latter matches involve a number of dead rubbers as well, and while cramming four matchdays into an 18-day period during May and June should at least give the tournament some rhythm, everyone will at this point be far more interested in the Japan squad’s final preparations for the World Cup and their friendlies against South Korea, England, and the Ivory Coast. Sharp-eyed observers will have noticed that ‘everyone’ here includes the national team players, who will therefore not be around to aid their employers’ chances of progress back home anyway.

 

With the bread and butter of the J. League and a historic national knockout competition in the form of the Emperor’s Cup, the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup is bound to take third billing whatever happens – or fourth if we include the Champions League – but this is precisely why it needs to be interesting in order to serve any purpose. Now that their league programme has been reduced from the 51-game marathon of last year to a far more manageable 36 matches this, bringing the J2 clubs back into the event would improve things dramatically.

 

Firstly, the addition of 18 teams from the second tier would give us a total of 32 to play with before the ACL sides come in, meaning we could have three two-legged knockout rounds to fill the six available dates in the calendar. This, as well as ensuring that every match remains meaningful, would lead to less familiar matchups between teams from different divisions, providing greater novelty for J1 fans and the exciting possibility of a scalp for clubs in J2. An open draw for the next round could be held immediately after the second legs to give a further sense of occasion, while the first round could either be similarly open so as to potentially facilitate cup runs for the lower sides, or seeded to ensure as many of them as possible are guaranteed the opportunity to profit from ties against top flight opposition.

 

The arrival of Giravanz Kitakyushu to take the J2 membership up to 19 teams means this proposal doesn’t fit as cleanly as it would have last year, but then perhaps Giravanz could have played off against bottom side Fagiano Okayama on the weekend of the Fuji Xerox Super Cup to determine the final first round entrants. Additional ties could then be brought into what would strictly remain a single playoff round should further teams win promotion to the J. League in future. Or, considering that the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup was originally held in 1992 to help prepare for the inaugural league season a year later, perhaps the four J. League associate members in the third-tier Japan Football League could be invited in straightaway to give them a taste of the standards that await their eventual promotion.

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