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February 2011

Ready to go – Part 1: The ACL quartet

24 Feb 2011(Thu)

While discussing pre-season predictions at a gathering of football-loving friends in Kyoto last weekend, a topic to spark prolonged debate was the idea of ‘winning everything’ as a valid annual target. Inspired, no doubt, by the achievements of two or three truly elite European teams over the past decade or so, greed disguised as ambition – or is it the other way around? – has become increasingly fashionable across the footballing planet. The symptoms of this epidemic are occasionally quite blatant (J. League coaches like Kazushi Kimura and Levir Culpi declaring such lofty aims in preview magazines), but usually disguised more subtly in semantics. It is apparently now insufficient, for example, to describe the current Arsenal vintage as ‘still in all four competitions’; instead, they are ‘aiming for the Quadruple’.

 

Of course, no honest sportsman or team will ever enter any match with the intention of losing – an argument that takes us back to the rights and wrongs of Takeshi Okada’s infamous semi-final target ahead of last year’s World Cup. And if putting all one’s eggs into a single basket wasn’t so inherently risky then we would have no need for the expression. But the fact remains that multiple, and especially both domestic and continental honours have only ever been achieved in the same season by a small handful of clubs whose places in history are rightfully reserved. There is a reason for this: it’s bloody difficult. Particularly so when around half of the 18 clubs gearing up for the new J1 campaign could be considered genuine contenders, and the negative impact that success in the AFC Champions League (ACL) has had on league position for clubs like Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka has been well documented on these pages in the past.

 

Reigning Japanese champions Nagoya Grampus are a perfect example. Year 1 of the Dragan Stojković project ended in a third-place finish, but when the added pressures of a run to the ACL semi-finals were thrown in twelve months later, Grampus slumped to ninth. Free, by contrast, of Asian commitments last season, they won the league by a record ten points.

 

Stojković’s men stand out from their rivals this term for having emerged unscathed, and indeed slightly stronger, from a transfer window in which European clubs have been quick to show their appreciation for Japan’s performances at the World and Asian Cups. Grampus have done well to replace the departed Magnum with Jungo Fujimoto, while exciting young forward Kensuke Nagai joins from Fukuoka University after five goals and a gold medal with the U-23s at last year’s Asian Games. As such, the Nagoya club remain best equipped of all – perhaps comfortably so – for the challenges that await in 2011, and their priorities could thus have a significant impact on the chances of several others. The manager has insisted that back-to-back domestic titles remain his number one goal, but it would surprise no-one if Toyota wanted its club to win the Champions League – of which the automotive giant is a major sponsor.

 

Those who follow Gamba Osaka are still not really sure how Kansai’s top side ended up second in the league last year. Though glaringly apparent at the end of another up-and-down campaign that the aging squad was in urgent need of rejuvenation, it is equally uncertain how far the winter’s market activity will go towards achieving this objective. Adriano is a cheeky acquisition from Internacional after 19 goals on loan in the pink of cross-city rivals Cerezo last term, but must fill a void created by the departures of Lucas and Cho Jae-Jin. The midfield is boosted only by Kim Seung-Yong from Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors; the leaky defence by two university graduates, Kim Jong-Ya and Hiroki Fujiharu.

 

Shota Kawanishi, a teammate of Fujiharu at Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences and scorer against Gamba in last season’s Emperor’s Cup, provides another new option in attack, but the bulk of the creative responsibilities are likely to be shouldered by a starlet barely out of high school – Takashi Usami. The 18-year-old completed 90 minutes on just five occasions in 2010, but with senior club officials admitting they can only expect two more years before the new number 11 heads for Europe – likely to be less if Bayern Munich get their way – coach Akira Nishino will want to get the most from Usami while he still can. Gamba’s best bet may be to channel the experience of 30-somethings like Yasuhito Endo into recapturing the Champions League, but shock exits in the last 16 have put paid to that theory before, and Hideo Hashimoto has been sidelined for six months with a torn cruciate ligament.

 

The pink half of Osaka were arguably the story of the entire J. League last year, overcoming the loss of Shinji Kagawa with a combination of sensible signings and promising young talent to finish an incredible third in their first season back in the top flight. Qualification for the ACL was a real shock, and all the more surprising considering the slimness of a squad in which a core of nine outfielders each racked up over 2,000 league minutes.

 

However, Cerezo are therefore more at risk than most of ‘second season syndrome’. Three of last season’s most consistent performers – Akihiro Ienaga, Amaral, and the aforementioned Adriano – have all caught the eye of other suitors and left for pastures new. Replacements have been drafted in, but whether in terms of quality or quantity, the overall playing resources appear hardly strengthened from last year and one worries what effect continental adventure could have on their fortunes back home. Fans must pray for an immediate impact from young Brazilian forward Rodrigo Pimpão and South Korean international midfielder Kim Bo-Hyung (who spent 2010 on loan at Oita Trinita), and perhaps most crucially, that the Nagai club retains its apparent good fortune with injuries.

 

The dismal draw at lowly Montedio Yamagata on the final day that relegated Kashima Antlers from second to fourth could have been the best thing that happened all year for the outgoing, three-peat champions. Then they had to go and spoil the theory by winning the Emperor’s Cup on New Year’s Day and taking the final ACL spot anyway. 2010 was a tumultuous year in the otherwise gloriously smooth reign of Oswaldo de Oliveira, with the mid-season losses of defenders Atsuto Uchida and Lee Jung-Soo preceding defeat at Shimizu S-Pulse that knocked Kashima off ‘their’ top spot. Eight draws in the second half of the campaign saw them fall twelve points off the Nagoya pace – five more than the combined margin by which the Antlers won their 2007, 2008, and 2009 titles.

 

But the end of the season brought signs of hope. Although Brazilian duo Gilton and Marquinhos – the 2008 J. League MVP and scorer of 80 goals in four years at Kashima – departed at the end of their contracts in mid-December, Kashima still went and won the Emperor’s Cup without them. Successive 2-1 wins in the latter rounds proved de Oliveira’s side still possess that wonderful (or annoying, depending on your perspective) knack of grounding out results when it matters most. 31 goals against was the meanest defensive record in J1 – despite the absence of Uchida and Lee – and in Japan internationals Daiki Iwamasa and the increasingly impressive Masahiko Inoha, Kashima arguably now have the strongest centre-back pairing in the division. 24-year-old striker Carlão is an exciting new arrival after nine goals in 14 games for União de Leiria in the Portuguese top flight earlier this European season, with Alex (JEF United Chiba) and Takuya Honda (Shimizu S-Pulse) completing a promising trio of signings. Without the ACL, they would be clear second favourites; with another early Asian exit, they still might.

 

Look out for a guide to the remaining contenders, those likely to struggle, and – of course – full league table predictions when this column returns next week.

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Go figure II – defence vs. attack revisited

18 Feb 2011(Fri)

Two years ago this month, I penned a piece for this column that investigated which of football’s two most fundamental elements – scoring goals, and ensuring that the opponents do not – bore the closest association to points accumulated over a given season in a given national league. The correlation figures generated as a means to this analysis provide interesting evidence with which to apply hindsight to individual years, but when considered collectively, hint toward a hypothesis with deeper, wide-ranging implications. Attack is usually more significant than defence, but when a certain league becomes the dominant force, this trend is reversed.

 

Correlation coefficients (Premier League, England)

1997/98: 0.905, -0.822 Attack most influential

1998/99: 0.827, -0.845 Defence

1999/00: 0.852, -0.806 Attack

2000/01: 0.905, -0.901 Attack

2001/02: 0.911, -0.798 Attack

2002/03: 0.931, -0.833 Attack

2003/04: 0.889, -0.899 Defence

2004/05: 0.837, -0.891 Defence

2005/06: 0.914, -0.914 No difference

2006/07: 0.954, -0.859 Attack

2007/08: 0.879, -0.945 Defence

 

Above is a list of the coefficients representing the positive correlation between goals scored and points achieved, followed by the negative correlation between goals conceded and points achieved, for each of the eleven English Premier League seasons originally surveyed. In very simplistic terms, a correlation coefficient is a statistical measure that gives a figure between -1 and 1, and the closer it is to either extreme, the stronger the relationship between the variables in question. So, for example, a positive correlation of 0.905 in 1997/98 suggests that season’s goals for column had a stronger bearing on league position than goals against, since the negative correlation for the latter was only -0.822.

 

A trend immediately apparent in this list is that while attack translated to points more effectively than defence in five of the six seasons between 1997 and 2003, this was only the case once in the subsequent five seasons to 2008. The turning point corresponds almost perfectly with English football’s ascendancy to relative dominance over the UEFA Champions League – with Manchester United’s 2008 victory over Chelsea in Moscow the culmination of a five-year period in which the Premier League had produced two European champions, three runners-up, and five beaten semi-finalists. Before 2003/04, there had been just one title for United in 1999 and a combined three other semi-final appearances since English clubs had been invited back into the continental fold post-Heysel in 1990.

 

Correlation coefficients (Premier League, England)

2008/09: 0.925, -0.925 No difference

2009/10: 0.895, -0.879 Attack

2010/11: 0.858, -0.808 Attack*

(* 2010/11 figures correct up to and including Fulham vs. Chelsea, 14 February 2011)

 

The reason I felt this topic worth revisiting – he says, 400-odd words in – is that the timing of the previous article in February 2009 now appears to have coincided with a bit of a high water mark, for the time being anyway, in both English and Japanese club football. As it had the previous season, the Premier League provided three of the four UEFA Champions League semi-finalists in spring 2009, but on this occasion, those not eliminated by a domestic rival were accounted for by the magnificent Barcelona side of Pep Guardiola. A year later, only two teams from England made it as far as the last eight – both fell at this hurdle – as the seemingly eternal concept of the ‘Big 4’ suddenly began to disintegrate. Each of its former members (with the possible exception of Arsenal, who nonetheless dropped off the pace for two seasons before bouncing back in style this term) can reminisce fondly about the respective peaks they reached in the latter part of the previous decade but have since slipped from.

 

Pleasingly – for fans of a mathematical hypothesis if not a supposed elite football team – this retrogression is reflected in the correlation coefficients. When Barcelona finally broke the English hegemony in the final season before Cristiano Ronaldo too headed for Spain, there was no longer any difference (to three significant figures) between the influence of the goals for and against columns in the Premier League table. In 2009/10, attack regained its status as the more decisive factor for only the second time since 2003, and this turnaround is further underlined by the mid-season data for 2010/11 so far.

 

Correlation coefficients (J. League, Japan)

2005: 0.807, -0.710 Attack

2006: 0.877, -0.740 Attack

2007: 0.820, -0.795 Attack

2008: 0.667, -0.810 Defence

2009: 0.839, -0.648 Attack

2010: 0.817, -0.776 Attack

 

Though its data range is limited by the less analysis-friendly two-stage season format that persisted until 2004, the J. League has shown near-identical trends in terms of both regional performance and domestic correlations over the past few years. Scoring goals was originally a clearly more effective way of winning points than keeping things tight at the other end, but this tendency became much less significant when Urawa Reds won the AFC Champions League (ACL) in 2007, and was comprehensively reversed the following year as Gamba Osaka romped to Asian glory – beating Urawa in an all-Japanese semi-final. Like England, however, Japan’s clubs have quickly lost their continental superiority, with Nagoya Grampus the only ACL semi-finalist in 2009 and nobody even making it past the round of 16 last year. Over this time, attack has once again replaced defence as the largest contributor to league points.

 

Correlation coefficients (K-League, South Korea)

2007: 0.785, -0.806 Defence

2008: 0.769, -0.749 Attack

2009: 0.834, -0.662 Attack

2010: 0.924, -0.873 Attack

 

So, what of Japan’s biggest rivals, on the opposite side of the sea on whose name they still cannot agree? Unfortunately, the K-League offers the smallest (and thus least reliable) data set of all, with the current single-stage format only in place for the past four seasons and just 14 (to 2008) or 15 teams (to 2010) competing. Over this period, defence was the more significant factor in 2007 alone, before the goals for column took precedence thereafter. South Korean fans could make the case that their league had not yet been knocked off its perch for most of 2007, with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors entering the year as Asian champions (having overcome compatriots Ulsan Hyundai Horang-i en route, in the last four) and Urawa needing a tense penalty shootout to finally see off Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma in their ACL semi-final that autumn. Two successive continental titles for K-League clubs in 2009 and 2010, however, do not appear to have had much impact on the correlation coefficients above.

 

Perhaps, though, this latter point should bring us back to the word ‘dominant’ within our original hypothesis. When Pohang Steelers won the ACL in 2009, they had been the only remaining Korean side in the last four; ditto Seongnam last year, even though all four K-League representatives had reached the quarter-finals. The East Asian section and Seongnam’s performances in particular certainly made club football in South Korea look superior to Japan, but overall results suggest it would be premature to proclaim a dominant force. This provides a handy explanation for the ‘goals for’ correlation remaining stronger, and is further supported by evidence from Europe.

 

Correlation coefficients (other European leagues, 2009/10)

Germany (Bundesliga 1): 0.861, -0.824 Attack

Italy (Serie A): 0.856, -0.741 Attack

Spain (Primera Liga): 0.941, -0.811 Attack

 

The hegemony of the Premier League may be over, but in an era of few really good European club teams, no one country has yet stepped up to present a clear frontrunner as far as domestic competitions are concerned. As such, attack remains a more significant contributor to points gained than defence in each of the other three leagues to have produced Champions League finalists over the past two seasons (and, indeed, since 2005); just as was the case in the original article two years ago. Of course, the figures may be influenced by the respective styles of football common to each nation, but our hypothesis still comfortably passes the test if we consider the genuinely dominant European leagues of the past few decades.

 

Correlation coefficients (dominant European leagues)

Italy (Serie A) – 2002/03: 0.883, -0.916 Defence

Spain (Primera Liga) – 1999/2000: 0.640, -0.827 Defence

Italy (Serie A) – 1993/94: 0.658, -0.889 Defence

England (First Division) – 1980/81: 0.706, -0.856 Defence

 

Internazionale are the reigning Italian, European, and world champions, but the last time you could argue hands-down that Serie A was the best around was 2002/03, when AC Milan won a last four derby to set up an all-Italian Champions League final with Juventus. Three years earlier, Real Madrid beat Valencia in the first ever final to feature two clubs from the same country, with Barcelona falling to the latter in the semis, and Deportivo La Coruña pipping the lot to clinch their first ever La Liga crown. 1993/94 was perhaps the peak of the Football Italia era, with Fabio Capello’s Milan winning a ridiculously strong Serie A for the third year in a row before demolishing the Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ 4-0 in Athens. Finally, way back in 1980/81, Liverpool secured the fifth in an unprecedented run of six consecutive European Cups for English clubs, with Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town taking the UEFA Cup for good measure. In all four cases, the goals against column had the greater influence on points accumulated, and often considerably so (even if Milan’s miserly record of just 36 goals scored and 15 conceded over 34 league games in 1993/94 suggests the trend isn’t necessarily conducive to greater entertainment for the neutral).

 

So, what now?

 

Without wishing to recycle the Benjamin Disraeli and Homer Simpson quotes with which I concluded the previous article on this topic, the caveat remains that the sample discussed above is relatively small and thus not necessarily all-telling. But the hypothesis does at least appear to provide quantitative support for a trend, qualitatively evident in events on the pitch over the past few seasons, which has left the positions of ‘dominant’ league in both Europe and Asia very much up for grabs. With the former, periods of domination have been cyclical in the past and it seems reasonable to expect a continuation, but the Asian situation is rather different as countries like Japan and South Korea look to further their impressive development in global terms. As a consequence of rapid improvement at both club and international level, a succession of East Asian players are now transferring to and thriving in higher-profile European climes. It may, therefore, be desirable for the J. and K-Leagues to weaken slightly in the short term in order to reach yet higher levels in future.

 

And if anybody wants to commission a more exhaustive survey of these correlation trends, they know where to find me.

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Six things we (Japan) learned from the 2011 Asian Cup – Part 2

3 Feb 2011(Thu)

(Continued from Part 1)

 

With so many goals, red cards, penalties, and late, late recoveries, to call Japan’s victorious Asian Cup campaign ‘dramatic’ would be a masterpiece of understatement. To be honest, each of the six points made in this feature could have warranted an article of their own, but despite my best efforts to summarise, the overall volume still grew bulky enough to be best spread over two articles. The first three points were covered in Part 1; the final three are detailed below.

 

 

4. ...but one old issue could re-emerge in World Cup qualification

Footballing matters are often decided by fine margins. Another problem with 4-2-3-1 is that it can be ill-suited to penetrating weaker opponents who are more than happy to sit back for 90 minutes and play for a draw or whatever else they can get. Resultant dropped points against teams in the lower half of the table have derailed many a title challenge in the past – Liverpool under Rafael Benitez immediately spring to mind – and this is why, for example, Sir Alex Ferguson will routinely abandon his single-striker system for a more ‘basic’ 4-4-2 in matches he expects Manchester United to win (especially at Old Trafford).

 

After the drama of the knockout rounds, it is easy to forget that Japan could quite feasibly have been eliminated in the Asian Cup group stage. Without a 93rd minute equaliser in the opener with Jordan and an 83rd minute penalty against Syria, the Samurai Blue would have gone into that Saudi Arabia match with just one point and qualification out of their hands no matter how many goals they scored. Although the team undeniably grew into the tournament and used to their system, it is not insignificant that they struggled most for fluency against these two lesser-fancied and – particularly in Jordan’s case – more defensive sides.

 

This throws up a potential dilemma for Zaccheroni come next year. With likely four or five places in Brazil up for grabs, Asian World Cup qualification is not so much a matter of beating South Korea or Australia, but of ensuring maximum points against everybody else. The manager will be loath to dispense with the 4-2-3-1, but must therefore strike the right balance between fine-tuning his gameplan for the big boys and making sure to complete the tasks more immediately at hand. Memories are still fresh of Japan’s regular struggles to finish off opponents like Oman, Bahrain, and North Korea under Zico and Okada.

 

 

5. Still. At least everybody loves ‘Zac’, and with good reason

It is only right that this feature’s overwhelming focus on purely Japanese issues be concluded on a positive note. In Zaccheroni, Japan have a new manager of proven pedigree both at club and, immediately, at national team level. His early successes have guaranteed his favour with players, fans, and journalists alike, ensuring that the team will show confidence in his judgements and (hopefully) be spared the harsh criticism from terraces and headlines that Okada Japan so often had to endure.

 

This has not just been about results. The Italian may not yet speak the same language as the rest of the dressing room but the affection he shows toward his charges appears most genuine. The tactical shift he made midway through the second half against Australia – introducing Iwamasa for Fujimoto, switching Okazaki back over to the right, pushing Nagatomo forward into attacking midfield, and asking Konno to fill in at left-back – betrayed a deep, inherent understanding of what each of Japan’s players are capable of contributing as and when the conditions of the match demand. It was with great joy that he asked the Japanese public, live on television after the full-time whistle, to share his pride in what had now become a “really good” national team.

 

Finally, for all this talk of long-term objectives, there appears little reason to doubt that Zaccheroni fully intends on being there to see the Brazil 2014 plan through personally. This can only be excellent news for football in this country.

 

 

6. East Asia’s big three are moving head and shoulders clear of the rest

The fact that the 2007 Asian Cup final was contested by two Middle Eastern nations – Iraq beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 – appears more of a historical anomaly with every match played and every ball kicked. Though the title holders and their neighbours, three-time champions Iran, emerged from Group D to respectively take Australia and South Korea to extra time in the quarter-finals, their shortfall in quality was underlined by the apparent acknowledgment in their approach that penalties represented their best hope of further progress. The Saudis’ 5-0 capitulation against Japan came after their elimination had been ensured in two matches and their manager sacked after just one.

 

For the first time since 1964 – when none of them had bothered entering anyway – not one of West Asia’s traditional big three reached the semi-finals. The trio’s status on their own half of the continent is now threatened not only by Uzbekistan (who did make the last four, only to suffer a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of the Socceroos), but also by the likes of Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, and even Syria. By contrast, Japan, Australia, and South Korea will all look to build on greatly more impressive showings with renewed ambition outside of the region.

 

A look at the club scene suggests this trend is only likely to continue. East Asian sides have won the last four AFC Champions League finals, while the J, K, and A Leagues are all producing more and more players capable of forging careers in Europe. In time, the intercontinental transfer fees will rise from their current modest level and provide significant income with which the new big three can reach ever greater levels of competitiveness.

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Six things we (Japan) learned from the 2011 Asian Cup – Part 1

2 Feb 2011(Wed)

With so many goals, red cards, penalties, and late, late recoveries, to call Japan’s victorious Asian Cup campaign ‘eventful’ would be a masterpiece of understatement. To be honest, each of the six points made in this feature could have warranted an article of their own, but despite my best efforts to summarise, the overall volume still grew bulky enough to be best spread over two articles. The first three points are detailed below; the final three in Part 2.


 

1. Japan have the depth of playing resources to cope with a squad game

So the Samurai Blue didn’t always set the world on fire? So the defence rode its luck at times? So Jungo Fujimoto struggled a bit in the final? Before anybody tries to qualify Japan’s record-breaking fourth Asian crown, it is worth repeating that the dramatic 1-0 victory over Australia was achieved without Yuji Nakazawa, Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Tomoaki Makino, Gotoku Sakai, Daisuke Matsui, Takayuki Morimoto, and Shinji Kagawa. The loss of all three senior centre-backs before the tournament even kicked off was compounded by further injury problems for Daiki Iwamasa, forcing coach Alberto Zaccheroni to name the highly makeshift pairing of Maya Yoshida and Yasuyuki Konno for five matches out of six.

 

Seemingly as amazed as anyone else, the Italian admits he cannot remember a previous event where “reserve players produced results like this”. Morimoto would almost certainly have been first-choice striker ahead of Ryoichi Maeda had Catania not unexpectedly sent him for knee surgery just before Christmas. Matsui started the first two matches before suffering a torn thigh muscle; Kagawa all five until breaking his fifth metatarsal against South Korea. For Japan to wind up as champions despite such a casualty list was remarkable; to do so as tournament top scorers all the more astonishing.

 

 

2. Nagatomo’s ascendency highlights the strength of the first eleven

Keisuke Honda was officially named as the Asian Cup’s most valuable player, but with typical honesty and good humour, even the man himself publicly questioned his right to accept the honour. During the awards ceremony immediately after Saturday’s climax, this writer’s Twitter feed was awash with comments suggesting that a more deserving recipient would be Yuto Nagatomo – he of the rampaging, overlapping runs from left-back and devilish crosses that produced goals in both semi-final and final.

 

But a prize of much greater value was waiting around the corner. No sooner had Nagatomo arrived back in Cesena, his Italian home of just six months, than he was being whisked off to Milan to conclude a deal with Internazionale. If Kagawa to Dortmund trumped Honda to CSKA Moscow, then the choice of this effervescent former FC Tokyo star to finally fill what has long been a problem position for the reigning Serie A, European, and world champions is arguably the biggest overseas transfer in Japanese football history.

 

Clubs in Europe are finally recognising the qualities that Japanese footballers can offer. Pleasingly, a virtually full-strength national team XI can now be formed exclusively from European-based names. Even more exciting is the realisation that, of the line-up below, every outfield player bar captain Makoto Hasebe (27) is aged 24 or younger.

 

European-based Japan XI (4-2-3-1):

Eiji Kawashima (Lierse SK, Belgium); Atsuto Uchida (Schalke 04, Germany), Tomoaki Makino (1. FC Köln, Germany), Maya Yoshida (VVV Venlo, Holland), Yuto Nagatomo (Internazionale, Italy); Makoto Hasebe (VfL Wolfsburg, Germany), Hajime Hosogai (FC Augsburg, Germany), Shinji Okazaki (VfB Stuttgart, Germany), Keisuke Honda (CSKA Moscow, Russia), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund, Germany); Takayuki Morimoto (Catania, Italy)

 

 

3. Japan have a long-term plan geared toward greater impact in 2014...

Of course, it is not just about the players. Takeshi Okada’s Japan used a version of the 4-2-3-1 system so en vogue in the upper echelons of contemporary world football throughout much of qualification for the 2010 World Cup, but dismal friendly performances against the likes of Serbia and South Korea proved that the Samurai Blue were not yet ready to face the planet’s best on equal terms. This prompted the belated, but highly successful decision to introduce defensive midfielder Yuki Abe into what then became a 4-3-3 (or, more accurately, 4-1-2-2-1) formation in South Africa.

 

The beauty of a well-executed 4-2-3-1 is the devastating fluidity with which attacks can be developed; the trouble is that such execution requires plenty of talent, mental dexterity, and above all practice. The latter is a problem exacerbated at international level, where coaches have only a limited time to spend with their players, and undoubtedly contributed to the goal-shy nature of much of last year’s World Cup. Spain, by contrast, benefitted from having drawn so many players from one club (and, in Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, what a club), as well as having grown together as a national squad since before Germany 2006.

 

For all the Wikipedia-inspired excitement in the Japanese media over the chances of this new Italian manager bringing over his famous (but actually a decade out of date) 3-4-3 tactics, Zaccheroni has been quite clear about his philosophy from day one. In the likes of Honda, Kagawa, and the other names mentioned above, the 57-year-old has identified a core of players he believes can be groomed to take on European and South American opposition without fear or inferiority. This is why he repeatedly emphasised the importance of retaining the 4-2-3-1 in Qatar so that the team could grow used to one another therein – even if this came at the expense of short-term results and/or performances. In this sense, actually winning the Asian Cup was a bonus, and doing so without the crocked 2010 vintage particularly significant. The next test, at the Copa America in July, will be one to savour.

 

(Continues in Part 2)

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