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June 2011

Kashiwa Reysol 2-4 Gamba Osaka – A tactical commentary

23 Jun 2011(Thu)

As discussed in this column on Monday, yesterday evening’s J1 clash between Kashiwa Reysol and Gamba Osaka pitted the surprise league leaders against – taking into account the latter’s two games in hand – the side with the next most points available to them. Yet both clubs were shrouded in an amount of uncertainty, with Reysol’s mojo dented by a 3-0 home loss to Jubilo Iwata seven days previously, and Gamba forced once again to deal with the mid-season departure of their leading scorer. Even without such contextual seasonings, this match proved to be the highlight of a terrific midweek programme that delivered 33 goals in just nine games – the Osakans coming away from a modern J. League classic at the Kashiwa Soccer Stadium as 4-2 victors.

 

Both managers approached the encounter with similar interpretations of the 4-2-3-1 – the main real difference being the positioning of the central figure within the trio of attacking midfielders behind the lone forward. Visiting boss Akira Nishino opted to field Shoki Hirai, who will be expected to rediscover his goalscoring form of 2010 to cover the loss of Adriano, in the ‘hole’ – a move that naturally enabled Gamba to evolve into a front two whenever the roving movement of nominally left-sided Takashi Usami and, to a lesser extent, deeper-lying midfielder Yasuhito Endo dictated. On the Kashiwa bench, Brazilian tactician Nelsinho Baptista positioned compatriot Leandro Domingues significantly further behind evergreen striker Hideaki Kitajima, with the hard-working Junya Tanaka called upon to cut inside from the left and provide additional presence in the 18-yard area when required.

 

football formations

Kick-off to 40 mins: Both sides begin with 4-2-3-1; Futagawa denies space for Jorge Wagner

 

Akimi Barada, the third and right-sided member of Kashiwa’s supporting three, informed TBS television’s touchline reporter before kick-off that he and his teammates had been told to expect Gamba to control possession; thus breaking forward with pace and taking advantage of whatever chances fell their way would be key. The game indeed began in such a fashion, with the visitors passing the ball around confidently – Hirai even having a third-minute strike ruled out for offside – while the home side counterattacked and looked to cause problems via crosses and set pieces. Their strategy succeeded quickly; Jorge Wagner’s corner finding Tanaka unmarked to accurately fire a low, left-footed shot past Yosuke Fujigaya after ten minutes.

 

Before the opening goal had a chance to impact the flow of the game, however, Gamba restored parity with an equaliser that owed as much to individual skills as it did to the penetration of their passes. Usami dribbled past Tatsuya Masushima and Yusuke Murakami into the left-hand side of the Kashiwa area to square for Endo, who beat Naoya Kondo and Masushima again before slotting past goalkeeper Takanori Sugeno.

 

The sides then settled back into their natural rhythm, with Gamba seeing slightly more of the ball but always having to be wary of the quick break. To that end, Takahiro Futagawa was asked to perform a defensive duty in attacking midfield, hugging the right-hand touchline to deny Wagner, Reysol’s dangerous left-back, the room to burst forward. This was largely successful as Wagner went virtually unseen inside the visitors’ half for the opening 40 minutes. By consequence, the pitch became far more open along the Gamba left – not least with Usami’s tendency to cut inside – and much of the Kashiwa threat came through Barada. The 20-year-old proved equally adept at attacking Takumi Shimohira on the flank or closing inside for Murakami to overlap, and came close to scoring when his 25-yard effort flew just wide of Fujigaya’s left-hand post.

 

football formations

40 to 65 mins: Futagawa steps inside, allowing Wagner to break but creating more space for Gamba to attack

 

After an explosive opening 20 minutes, the next 20 were rather more ‘fascinating’ than thrilling, with the similarity of the two sides’ basic formations meaning every player had a natural marker and space for killer, final balls was at a premium. This changed dramatically five minutes from half-time, when Futagawa stepped away from the touchline. The immediate consequence was that Wagner could finally break forward, threatening twice in quick succession before the interval, but in doing so, there was suddenly much more space for the Gamba forwards to penetrate also. Hirai, Lee Keun-Ho, and Usami were able to operate more as a front three, rotating as necessary but usually with Hirai as the one to link with Futagawa and fill the space behind the Kashiwa left-back.

 

Perhaps Nishino decided to roll the dice, sensing that the 32-year-old Wagner would tire as the match went on. The Brazilian had been unusually withdrawn against Iwata, and rested during Golden Week when there had also been two matches to play within four days. In any case, the risk paid off. Almost immediately after the restart, Gamba right-back Akira Kaji made his first notable foray into the Reysol third – albeit mishitting his cross horribly – and was then involved again as the visitors somewhat fortuitously forced themselves in front five minutes later. Endo chased down an overhit Shimohira cross to play the ball back for Kaji, again in acres of space on the right-hand side, to fire in a left-footed shot that hit Lee Keun-Ho and fell kindly for Hirai to score his first of the season.

 

The end-to-end battle ensued, with Barada again shooting narrowly off target from inside the D, and Leandro creating space for himself on the left but firing tamely at Fujigaya. With the onus firmly on Kashiwa for the first time in the match, the visitors took advantage of the situation to counterattack effectively themselves. Breaking through the centre, Endo found Lee Keun-Ho completely open – again exploiting the space behind the retreating Wagner. The Korean appeared to miscontrol his second touch but blasted home from a tight angle to double the Gamba lead.

 

football formations

65 mins to full-time: Kashiwa switch to 4-3-1-2; Gamba counter by sitting Uchida ahead of back four

 

Staring down the barrel of a second home defeat on the spin, the league leaders quickly changed their gameplan in an attempt to recapture the momentum. Nelsinho sent on Masato Kudo and Akihiro Hyodo for Kitajima and Hidekazu Otani after 66 minutes; switching in the process to a 4-3-1-2 system with Barada now on the left of a reasonably flat midfield three, and Leandro pushed further forward in direct support of Tanaka and Kudo. The move paid immediate dividends – the Brazilian playmaker went close to scoring within 60 seconds of the substitutions, before getting the job done another minute later with a low shot that embarrassingly wrong-footed (the possibly unsighted) Fujigaya. Screw duly turned, Reysol continued to surge forward in numbers and created a quick succession of chances – Kudo missing twice when he ought to have done better. Wagner was withdrawn in a like-for-like swap with Wataru Hashimoto.

 

Supporters in Osaka have – not without reason – often criticised Nishino for his failure to effectively deploy substitutions in response to the changing nature of matches. A particular complaint has been his tendency to concede the initiative in protection of a narrow lead, and familiar sighs will have been heard when Lee Keun-Ho was replaced by defender Tatsuya Uchida with a quarter of an hour remaining. But on this occasion, the Gamba manager got his decision spot on. In the absence through injury of Tomokazu Myojin and Hideo Hashimoto, Uchida was positioned in the ‘Busquets’ position just ahead of the central defenders – right in the space of which Leandro had had free reign.

 

As @vinciperosaka astutely pointed out on Twitter, the tactical shift to a 4-1-2-2-1 not unlike that used by Takeshi Okada at last year’s World Cup would also prevent Gamba’s full-backs from being pegged back quite so much. Following a shaky five minutes in which the 19-year-old Uchida, making only the fifth league appearance of his career, adjusted to the pace of the match, the visitors were finally able to absorb the Kashiwa pressure and indeed found room on the flanks again. Hirai’s clever movement enabled Shimohira to burst forwards and, unchallenged, to hit an unstoppable rocket beyond Sugeno’s flailing right arm.

 

Conclusions

 

As Barada – or, perhaps more accurately, Nelsinho – had anticipated, Gamba did indeed have the greater share of possession for much of the match, with the hosts happy to concede this advantage in the hope of finding joy via their exciting quick breakaways. Throughout the first half, the tactic worked, with Reysol creating the better of few chances save for a missed sitter from Lee Keun-Ho following a clever Gamba free-kick. Ironically, it was when invited to attack more down Wagner’s flank that Nelsinho’s plan then unravelled. Kashiwa only really began to take the initiative after the visitors’ third goal – one can only wonder how things might have been different had they approached the match with the mindset of league leaders, rather than of a mere promoted side facing such seasoned challengers. It is still too early to claim the Kashiwa bubble has burst – they are still top, after all – but having previously conceded just four goals all season, Reysol have now shipped seven in two home games ahead of a tricky run of fixtures.

 

For Gamba, it was undoubtedly the performance of the season to date, and a welcome second win on the bounce following a barren month that involved elimination from the ACL at the hands of local rivals Cerezo Osaka. Despite an initial goalscoring spurt upon arriving in Japan with Jubilo in 2009, Lee Keun-Ho rarely looks as spectacular as the departed Adriano and, as his first half slip-up showed, is less reliable on a one-off opportunity. But his significantly higher work rate and selflessness – let’s be fair, with Adriano that’s not especially difficult – might just make him a far better fit as lead striker for the passing style of Gamba as a whole. The 4-2-3-1 with Hirai just behind looks promising; the only problem is who will fill the massive hole about to open up on the left. It is, at least, now anticipated that Usami will stick around for four more games – up to and including Vissel Kobe on 13 July – before completing his big transfer to Bayern Munich.

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One-third down

20 Jun 2011(Mon)

Seven-times J. League champions Kashima Antlers and AFC Champions League quarter-finalists Cerezo Osaka both edged away from the bottom three with 2-0 victories this past weekend – in the former’s case, a first win at the Kashima Stadium since it was restored to working order after the 11 March earthquake. While the table remains less than pleasant reading for their fans, they can at least point to a springtime toiling away in Asia, plus the games in hand still to be completed as a result.

 

At Urawa Reds, there are no such excuses. A run of six games unbeaten since mid-May had been rather misleading given that the only victory recorded during this time was a 2-0 ‘scalp’ of Montedio Yamagata in the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup; Urawa’s league position only actually improved by one, from 17th to 16th on goal difference, over this period. Following Saturday’s 3-1 home loss to Shimizu S-Pulse, a far more accurate indicator of their current plight is the stat that reads no wins in nine league matches since the – in hindsight – peculiar 3-0 thrashing of champions Nagoya Grampus back in April.

 

Manager Zeljko Petrovic, who arrived from West Ham United at the back end of last year, is an intelligent man and spoke eloquently to John Duerden of ESPN Soccernet last week about his long-term targets for the Reds. He even offered a welcome dose of reality for a side that has been left behind with its head in the clouds since winning the continental crown back in 2007, saying “This club is a big club like Manchester United but it had a team like Bolton Wanderers”.

 

Yet perhaps his former employers would be a better analogy. The struggles of the Champions League representatives and a series of other, altogether more surprising result patterns have given the early J1 table a decidedly unfamiliar feel; with a line-up that includes the likes of Mitsuru Nagata, Yosuke Kashiwagi, Marcio Richardes, and Genki Haraguchi, it is almost criminal that Urawa have not taken advantage. As much as Petrovic believes his squad are talented and simply not getting the results they deserve, his biggest short-term task is to ensure the players really are under no illusions. As West Ham – and, indeed, the FC Tokyo side full of Japan internationals that just never got around to playing even vaguely well last term – will surely testify, no team is ever too good to go down.

 

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While the weeks continue to the pass with the reigning second division champions clear at the top of the J1 table, scoring more (until Kawasaki Frontale hit five past Omiya Ardija last Wednesday) and conceding fewer than anyone else along the way, plenty of observers have speculated on when the Kashiwa Reysol bubble will finally burst. A 3-0 home thrashing at the hands of Ryoichi Maeda-inspired Jubilo Iwata in midweek looked like it might have given the cynics their answer, but Saturday’s trip to hapless Avispa Fukuoka (played 11, points 1, goal difference -19) afforded the best possible opportunity for an immediate and comfortable recovery.

 

The real challenge lies in how the squad will cope with an intensive run of difficult fixtures that has replaced the previously scheduled break for the Copa America. Between now and the end of July, Reysol will face Gamba Osaka, Ventforet Kofu, Cerezo Osaka, Vegalta Sendai (three times – home and away in the league, plus the away leg of their Nabisco Cup tie), Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Kawasaki Frontale, and Kashima. But, for now, they most certainly deserve the benefit of the doubt. Nelsinho Baptista has again proved his tactical acumen and moulded a collection of J. League journeymen and inspired acquisitions into something far greater and more attractive than the sum of their parts. Besides, even the very best can be allowed a blip – Grampus actually lost by three or more goals on three separate occasions last year, but the manner in which they bounced back to hoover up points every time was the hallmark of champions.

 

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Two games in hand carried over from the ultimately-best-forgotten Champions League campaign mean that Gamba, who visit Kashiwa on Wednesday, actually have the second highest number of points still available to them. Predicting how the remainder of the season might pan out in north Osaka, however, is rather a mug’s game, following the all-too-predictable reappearance of a pattern that has dogged on-the-pitch preparations at Banpaku for a number of years – sudden mid-season departures.

 

As previously discussed on these pages, the impending loss of wonder kid Takashi Usami to German giants Bayern Munich was unavoidable and, from a broader perspective anyway, by no means undesirable. Ignoring the longer-term issues of value for money for the Japanese selling party, the only immediate problem here is timing; something inexorably linked to the overlapping of the European and Asian footballing calendars and which must thus surely lead – whether Albirex Niigata like it or not – to discussions of a restructuring sooner or later. But the transfer of leading scorer Adriano to Qatar Stars League champions Lekhwija less than six months after joining from neighbours Cerezo is another matter entirely. For Gamba to lose one Brazilian striker midway through the campaign to Middle Eastern oil money was unfortunate; two was annoying. Three, however, was a tad suspicious. Four in as many years is downright scandalous.

 

I must quickly clarify that we should not blame the player himself, tiresome as his badge-kissing antics may have been with the move already public knowledge. Adriano is 29 years old, little-known in his home nation, and has spent the past 18 months living in a country with whose culture and language he is unfamiliar for purely professional reasons. Given that his playing career almost certainly has less than a decade to run, there is little logical argument that he should refuse the opportunity to move to another foreign country and quadruple his family’s income overnight. This situation differs from Magno Alves in 2007, who went AWOL to Saudi Arabia with just two league games remaining and Gamba still in with a shout of overhauling freefalling leaders Urawa; and from Bare the following year, who opted for the dirham of Dubai club Al-Ahli despite bids having been received from at least two far higher-profile clubs in France’s Ligue 1.

 

But the similarities are troubling. All four of the fleeing forwards – the aforementioned trio, plus Leandro in 2009 – fit into the common Gamba template of purchasing Brazilians that have already proved their credentials elsewhere in Japan. Given how shockingly awful the club’s attempts have been to scout players directly from South America – like non-playing left-back Mineiro in 2008 and overweight striker Ze Carlos last year – this policy would be entirely logical if it weren’t for two obviously inherent flaws: one, that said Brazilians with credentials will likely be on other clubs’ radars too, and two, that they will already be that much closer to the maximum duration that they ever envisaged living in this foreign country anyway (a point routinely forgotten when discussing football transfers). It is impossible that the club is not aware of this after four years, and as such their motives should be called into question.

 

Are these strikers being signed with the sell-on value as a major priority? Is this policy a profit-orientated alternative to investment in a proper scouting system? Where, exactly, is all the money going? And what about the long-term players, coaching staff, and fans, whose emotional investment is unquestioned but who have been routinely forced to endure mid-season disruption throughout an era that could have been dynastic?

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3-4-3? It’s really not that exciting, you know

16 Jun 2011(Thu)

Unfortunately, I’m going to have to get a little bit grumpy about the Japan national team now. Don’t worry, though – I only anticipate the feeling lasting about 24 months. You see, with the JFA having reversed their decision to reverse their decision to pull out of the Copa America, I found it entirely appropriate that the recent Kirin Cup should serve up four and a half hours of unprecedentedly goalless dross. As was remarked on these very pages, ooh, about 24 months ago, Japan’s position within Asia and the latter’s within world football means we are somewhat locked into a four-year cycle divided evenly into two halves at opposite extremes of the excitement swing-o-meter.

 

No longer able to place glorified friendlies with Peru and Czech Republic reserves into a context of July in Argentina, the television people advertised their coverage as build-up matches for the 2014 World Cup qualifying rounds, which Japan will enter this September. Bollocks. What these really were, were come-down games.

 

Over the past two years, we have seen Takeshi Okada endure a turbulent period of preparation before leading the Samurai Blue to their best ever World Cup showing in South Africa, a surge of confidence under a new manager, and victory in the Asian Cup built upon last-minute drama, penalty shootouts, and – at the end, anyway – some really quite good performances. Now, all we have to look forward to is a long, drawn-out process to determine which four-and-a-half teams will qualify for Brazil from an AFC region in which three nations indisputably stand head and shoulders above the rest. With no disrespect intended, the opponents Japan have faced in the opening stages of their three successful World Cup qualifying attempts since France ’98 read: Oman, Macau, Nepal; Oman (again), Singapore, India; Thailand, Bahrain, Oman (again again). Played 18, won 15, drawn two, lost one. Scored 59, conceded five. Points 47 from an available 54. Oh yeah, and these days you only have to come second in the group to advance anyway.

 

No, the Kirin Cup was only vaguely notable for the experiment that still-sort-of-new boss Alberto Zaccheroni conducted in lining his players up in a 3-4-3 formation. And this – or, specifically, the number of hyperbolic column inches that continue to be devoted to it – is easily the most annoying thing of all.

 

When ‘Zac’ arrived in his role last September, pundits who had fiercely derided Okada’s desire to abandon an unbalanced 4-2-3-1 in favour of 4-3-3 (a move that instantly made Japan stronger at both ends of the pitch, with and without the ball, and in terms of results) as backstabbingly defensive were suddenly very excited. This, they explained, would mean the Samurai Blue adopting a most attractive 3-4-3 system – with three whole strikers! – akin to that with which the Italian had achieved great success at Udinese and AC Milan. More than a decade previously. Unsurprisingly, Japan instead played the autumn friendlies and through the entire Asian Cup in a revised 4-2-3-1; the new manager harnessing the post-South Africa confidence with greater freedom for emergent attacking stars like Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa.

 

Yeah, but maybe that was just a stop-gap? After all, as soon as the Asian Cup was over, Zac tried out his famous 3-4-3 in the Tohoku earthquake charity match – with reasonable success – before spending the best part of a week coaching the system to his players during the Kirin Cup. Well, perhaps. But then let’s listen to what the manager has actually said. While repeatedly expressing his belief that Japan’s playing resources are well-suited to 3-4-3 – and simultaneously revealing his sustained affection for the style – he has always qualified this by stressing how hard it is to coach, especially with the limited time available for national teams.

 

After the Team as One game in Osaka, Zaccheroni commented, “I spoke with the players about increasing the alternatives available to us. 3-4-3 is extremely difficult – I particularly dislike the tendency for it to collapse into a back five. But I do see the appeal of defending with a three, and hope that we will be able to adopt this system as the match situation demands.” Having drawn 0-0 with the Czechs last week, he elaborated slightly: “3-4-3 is currently nothing more than an alternative option. If you use the same system and do the same things all the time, then the players will never grow, but trialling a 3-4-3 over these two matches has enabled them to grow to some extent. The formation can now be put on the back burner until it is needed again.”

 

Contrast this with the continental championships in January, throughout which the manager insisted that Japan’s 4-2-3-1 way of playing would not be changed regardless of the opponent, and constantly emphasised that getting the players used to this system was of far greater significance than any glory in the short term. Given that Japan improved throughout the tournament and ended up crowned champions of Asia, why on earth would this plan have been abandoned? Despite what certain ‘analysts’ wanted to hear, 3-4-3 is still what Zaccheroni has always said it is: an alternative option. The fact that 4-2-3-1 succeeded so well in Qatar simply allowed him to spend more time exploring his options this spring.

 

So when will this alternative be deployed? Well, everybody needs options. And nobody, least of all Zac, will have failed to notice that Japan’s biggest problem in January came in breaking down very defensive, theoretically much weaker opposition like Jordan, Syria, and (to a slightly lesser extent) the host nation. A lack of cutting edge against teams content to play for the draw – maybe not with a Macau, but certainly against a Bahrain – has been a common Japanese affliction in previous World Cup qualifiers. Perhaps a cultural preference for contributing to the whole above personal glory is behind a shortage of number nines and an abundance of tens in the new golden generation, but either way, it is sensible to have a different means of dealing with this than simply throwing on additional, inadequate strikers. As seen in the first hour of the charity match, a 3-4-3 can offer Japan a controlled manner of attacking in numbers if opponents sit back and afford them the time and space to do so.

 

To cut a long story short, there’s no reason whatsoever to assume that Zaccheroni has put 4-2-3-1 – a formation with which Japan could face the world on equal terms at Brazil 2014 – on the back burner. That’s where he’s already said he’s put the 3-4-3. It would be a real surprise if the Italian opts to start with the latter formation in August’s friendly with South Korea in Sapporo; much more so come the qualifiers a month later. We should expect to see it when Japan need a goal against a Syria or a Qatar – therefore, the only way it would ever become the regular formation is if the Samurai Blue are found wanting in the final third every time.

 

Hang on, perhaps that’s what Zac’s been planning all along.

 

No, stop it, I was joking...

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München calling

7 Jun 2011(Tue)

So the eagerly-anticipated full international debut of Takashi Usami will have to wait until at least tonight after Japan’s new number 25 watched 90 goalless minutes against Peru from the bench last Wednesday, but the 19-year-old has still managed to dominate the headlines throughout an otherwise uninspiring Kirin Cup week thus far. Once all remaining t’s have been crossed and front vowels umlauted, Usami will join German giants Bayern Munich – initially on loan, with a view to a reported €1.5 million permanent deal next year – ahead of the squad’s pre-season training programme in July. Few, if any Japanese players have ever attracted quite as much attention from quite as early an age.

 

Fast-tracked through the Gamba Osaka youth system, coaches that had already produced five Europe-bound internationals (Junichi Inamoto, Masashi Oguro, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, Michihiro Yasuda, and Akihiro Ienaga) quickly rated Usami as the best yet. Despite missing the cut for Alberto Zaccheroni’s Asian Cup squad, previous Bayern coach Louis van Gaal admitted to Sport Bild back in January that the Kyoto-born attacking midfielder had been invited for trials in Munich. His employers in Osaka refused, but such a categorical statement of intent made his transfer as inevitable as the disturbance caused to millions of workers, sleepers, and other innocent bystanders by politicians’ loudhailers ahead of every Japanese election.

 

Gamba president Kikuo Kanamori confidently told Football Japan last November that the jewel in his club’s crown, then 18, would complete his footballing development over the remaining two years of his contract before boarding a plane to make the next, logical step come January 2013. It will come as little comfort to fans, then, that Kanamori’s optimism was only misplaced by about 18 months. Many will mourn yet another mid-season departure; one that potentially derails Gamba’s title challenge effectively just a third of the way into what was supposed to be the first full year with Usami as main man. But while the timing is unfortunate and adds weight to the argument for a European-style August-to-May season, transfers like this are unequivocally a good thing for the sport in this country as a whole.

 

It is almost surreal to recall the uncertainty with which Japanese football was surrounded as the national team touched down in South Africa exactly one year ago. We weren’t quite sure of it then, but star midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura was on the verge of being dropped; the 31-year-old still hopelessly out of form despite returning home to Yokohama F Marinos after six unhappy months at Espanyol. Many had reached the easy conclusion that Japan’s players still weren’t ready for La Liga, but in truth, Nakamura was past it. Eight years the former Celtic hero’s junior, Keisuke Honda warned a new generation who had grown up with the J. League that aiming to be the best in the country was no longer sufficient. After starring for Russian side CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Champions League against Sevilla and Internazionale, Honda was now suddenly earmarked to play a pivotal – and hugely successful – role at the World Cup in Nakamura’s stead.

 

The tournament was a coming of age. Like girls and boys standing awkwardly at opposite ends of the hall during a school disco, neither the Japanese players nor their potential European suitors had previously had the balls to take the plunge. Now, the latter knew that the talent was ready and willing. Honda’s star was quickly usurped by Shinji Kagawa, who had only travelled to Africa as 24th man but lit up the Bundesliga for half a season with eventual champions Borussia Dortmund. After his unfortunate metatarsal injury during the national team’s victorious Asian Cup run in Qatar, the baton was carried to yet greater heights by Yuto Nagatomo at reigning club world champions Inter, and Atsuto Uchida through to the Champions League semi-finals with Schalke 04.

 

The trickling outflux of talent became a stream during the winter transfer window – to the point where it is fringe internationals like Ienaga and Yasuda who are now being picked up by the second-tier clubs and leagues. The successor to Shinji Ono at Feyenoord, where the Shimizu S-Pulse midfielder became Japan’s most prominent export in the mid-2000s, is 18-year-old Ryo Miyaichi – a hugely exciting winger who joined parent club Arsenal straight from high school without any J. League, let alone international experience. A single year older, Usami will now enjoy similar benefits in learning directly from the Bayern school at an early stage of his fledgling professional career.

 

So where does this leave Japanese domestic football? If we accept that players with the ambition and ability to succeed in the top European leagues will be most desirable for the national team, then the J. League must unavoidably aspire to be an exporter of talent. Although the economic situation has admittedly changed considerably in Brazil, there remain a maximum of four national leagues worldwide where the best local talent will stay out of choice. Though fans may be disappointed with a 21st-century reality that sends their favourite players home for international matches alone, the benefits of the exporter model will be considerable. For a start, the successes of sempai like Kagawa and Nagatomo will inspire today’s teenagers, for whom first-team opportunities can only be increased by the exports; simultaneously, clubs will be forced more than ever to invest in youth programmes. Another peculiar advantage is that the abnormally competitive nature of the league – perhaps its biggest charm over the two decades since its inception – will only be perpetuated if champions sell up before evolving into dynasties.

 

Much of this will be of limited appeal to the clubs individually, but even then the bigger picture must be considered. Their current, highly generous model of standard release clauses for bids from overseas can be evolved into something altogether more economically advantageous. €1.5 million for Usami is still peanuts by European terms but at least represents a near-fivefold improvement on the €350,000 for which Cerezo Osaka were compelled to release Kagawa. One senses that there should be plenty of room for further, ideally quick manoeuvre.

 

And, given a few years, the pool of experienced talent able to return and give something back to the J. League will be exponentially larger. Perhaps, if the clubs have profited sufficiently from their transfer dealings, then Honda, Usami et al might be tempted home while still at, rather than past, their playing peak. Attendances and standards should rise as a result, while as sempai and then as coaches, the older stars can directly inspire and mentor ever more privileged generations of successors. The developments thus far this decade represent another genuinely desirable step within the rapid rise of the league; in the short term, it must get weaker to grow stronger.

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