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May 2012

Kashiwa Reysol 2-0 Albirex Niigata (Ben Mabley’s blackboard, Goal.com)

31 May 2012(Thu)

This week’s blackboard column sees struggling Albirex Niigata put up a strong fight but ultimately lacking firepower away to the defending champions, Kashiwa Reysol.

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11. Kashiwa Reysol 2-0 Albirex Niigata (J1 matchday 13, 26 May 2012)

Before the start of the season, I wrote that Albirex Niigata’s survival would depend on the performances of a strikeforce bolstered by the return of Kisho Yano and the loan signing of Shoki Hirai. 12 league games and only seven goals (Yano contributing just one, Hirai none) later, manager Hisashi Kurosaki was out of the door with his former charges five points adrift of safety and their hosts on Saturday, Kashiwa Reysol.

Caretaker boss Nobuhiro Ueno could have quite justifiably parked the bus, but to their great credit, Niigata did the opposite – adopting a high defensive line, pressing the champions into mistakes with terrific energy and aggression, and playing direct balls forward on the counter. The visitors compensated for Kashiwa’s theoretical extra man in midfield by playing with two relatively narrow banks of four when not in possession, covered by the natural tendency of Yano and Bruno Lopes to wander wide. When they broke, it was usually via long passes down the flanks, where the forwards were then supported by full-backs Yusuke Murakami and Naoya Kikuchi, respectively. This also served to quell the attacking instincts of Hiroki Sakai, who could not afford to leave too much space behind him. Reysol were pushed backwards and denied their passing rhythm.

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It took the home side about half an hour to settle, in effect matching the Albirex formation as Leandro Domingues and Jorge Wagner held their original flanks while Junya Tanaka gradually came forwards to support Masato Kudo. Niigata were slightly unfortunate to fall behind no sooner had their early ascendancy been questioned, but given the aggressive nature of their play, it was little surprise that the opener came via a set piece. Naoki Ishikawa overzealously pushed Kudo by the right touchline, Leandro’s cross was flicked on at the near post by Naoya Kondo, and goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi found himself crowded out by a combination of Kudo, Tatsuya Masushima, and his own teammate Yano. The ball bobbled in with Kentaro Oi unable to clear; the protesting Albirex players not appreciating the irony of being caught out by their opponents’ physicality.

The goal destroyed the visitors’ game plan and effectively flipped the game on its head for the second half. Niigata began committing more men forward, with the wingers moving closer to the touchlines and advancing higher up the field. Nelsinho Baptista told his players to close the ball down and play it more directly, wary of the Albirex pressing, though as the latter tired Kashiwa were able to combine in some effective short passing as well. Now it was the hosts who could adopt the narrower formation, with the central midfielders working hard to support the defence. Ueno’s side continued to send in crosses, occasionally finding space inside or behind the Reysol full-backs, but as their ‘goals for’ column implies, they lacked the cutting edge to ever look a serious threat.

By contrast, Kashiwa thrived in the counterattacking role that they now inherited to repeatedly test the outstanding Higashiguchi. Leandro’s forward runs from a more central position were a constant menace, and Reysol perhaps ought to have put the game to bed before substitute Masakatsu Sawa finished off the best move of the match with four minutes remaining.

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Non-league football in Japan: FC Osaka

25 May 2012(Fri)

This article follows on from my previous introduction to Japanese non-league football: ‘Below the line’.

One of the up-and-coming non-league football clubs beginning to garner attention, both within the game itself and even in Japan’s written sporting press, is FC Osaka. Currently plying their trade in the fifth-tier Kansai Soccer League Division 2, the first team is managed by Shigeru Morioka, a tenacious midfielder who played under the legendary Akira Nishino at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 and later with Gamba Osaka en route to J. League title glory in 2005. Morioka is still regarded in such esteem that he was recently the subject of a double-page ‘Human Story’ in the 22 May issue of Weekly Soccer Digest, but his employers have no intention of simply basking in the 38-year-old’s reflected glory. As is splashed about at every possible opportunity on the club’s official website and merchandise, “FC Osaka is going to challenge the J. League”.

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Their use of English may be a little awkward, admittedly, but not so much as to disguise the sheer boldness of this claim. The Kansai region famously remains the spiritual home of Japanese baseball, and even after 20 years, there are still concerns that
Osaka isn’t big enough for the both of its existing professional clubs, Gamba and Cerezo, as it is. But ever since R-Dash, a ‘total human resource service company’ with fingers in pies ranging from PR to event management and sports agency, took over the operational side in 2006, FC Osaka have been vocal about their ambitions to rise to the professional ranks and offer an alternative to Japan’s traditional model – which is prevalent in Kansai – of clubs evolving as the sporting arm of individual corporations. Harumi Hikida, Chief Executive Officer of R-Dash and the key figure behind their involvement with the club, says that such aims are deadly serious.

“We are indeed working as hard as we can to eventually make the step up to J2, but we have taken a slightly different approach to the other big regional sides. Our aim is to develop an innovative sports entertainment business as a new model for running our football club, and to contribute to local society in doing so. There are two key elements to this. Firstly, we want this to be a genuinely joint effort involving a collection of local businesses. Places like Izumisano [a city in southern Osaka Prefecture], for example, have little in the way of large, singular industries, so we are hoping to bring others together and revitalise these localities with the creation of a local team to stand as their symbol. And secondly, we consider it a highly important responsibility to support the primary and secondary careers of players who are unable to make a living solely out of football at the present time.”

Our conversation takes place in the somewhat unglamorous, albeit pleasantly verdurous surroundings of the Tsurumi Ryokuchi Stadium, one of several small facilities dotted about the prefecture to serve host to FC Osaka matches, ahead of their 11.30am kickoff with Osaka Korean Football Club (popularly known as OKFC). The yellow-lined, rather tatty artificial pitch clashes slightly with the rows of trees that neatly line three of its sides, but a single, fully-seated stand is sufficiently large as to offer a good, elevated view of proceedings. There is plenty of room to spread out with perhaps only a few dozen others in attendance, although they do include a three-man ōendan group decked in the red and yellow FC Osaka colours who welcome the players out with cheers and semi-convincing songs. One lady a block away from me sits with her flag held statically for 90 minutes, curiously muttering the nervous coachings of many an overly-obsessed fanatic on terraces and sofas across the world.

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FC Osaka, in their change colours of white, kick things off against OKFC

In short, it is not quite the atmosphere of a local population caught up in the fervour that usually surrounds a team that is going places. But then again, it would be clearly unrealistic to compare the crowded Osaka paradigm with provincial sides competing at a similar level, and indeed, it is only now – following promotion to the Kansai Soccer League – that the FC Osaka project has been able to start in earnest. Despite stepping up from the seventh tier to Division 1 of the Osaka Prefectural League in 2007, the bottlenecking nature of the Japanese regional football pyramid made it a frustrating battle to get any further. Morioka led the team to comfortable titles in each of his first two full seasons, in 2009 and 2010, only to narrowly miss out on the necessary top two finish in the subsequent playoffs with the champions of the region’s five other prefectures.

He told Weekly Soccer Digest, “The team itself was very strong for the Osaka Prefectural League. But when it came to a decider for promotion to the Kansai League, we always lacked something mentally. The same thing happened both times. Passing football is in vogue at the moment and perhaps our players equated this with good football, but sometimes we would just pass the ball around aimlessly without ever heading towards goal… I realised last year that if we kept playing the same way, we would be doomed to similar failure again. We couldn’t win like that. So I changed our style of play to emphasise more forward-looking, direct football instead of pure passing. I told them: ‘What we’re going to play now is winning football’”.

Promotion was finally achieved at the third attempt, after a 100% record in the regular season, and the land of greater opportunity that is the Kansai Soccer League has immediately led FC Osaka to dream higher and faster. The club has laid out three core playing objectives for 2012 – 1) to finish as Kansai Division 2 champions, 2) to clinch the right to represent Osaka Prefecture in the Emperor’s Cup, and most intriguingly 3) to win the All Japan Senior Football Championship and subsequently skip a division to seal a place in the nationwide third tier, the Japan Football League (JFL), for 2013.

The latter aim sounds far-fetched but there is, at least, a structure in place to make its realisation a possibility. FC Osaka would need to secure entry in this All Japan Senior Football Championship – essentially an equivalent to the English FA Trophy, for clubs below the JFL – via a top-two league position. The winners and runners-up of this competition, held over a highly condensed week in October, join the various regional top-flight champions for November’s 12-team All Japan Regional Football Promotion League Series. Here, the best two gain a spot in the third tier by right, while the third will play off against the 16th-placed side in this season’s JFL.

An unlikely achievement, perhaps, but the sheer fact that FC Osaka have this vision to begin with may yet see it prove to be self-fulfilling. Hikida says, “We had 50 or 60 players turn up to our pre-season trials, including plenty of good university players, guys with JFL experience, and even those who have previously been on the books of J. League clubs. They might have had some difficulties finding a professional contract, but they’re happy to drop down a couple of levels because they want to play for an ambitious team. We train three days a week and have matches every Saturday, so they still get plenty of football.”

Graduating from prefectural football has finally allowed the club to attract the talent to aim higher. Having begun the season with three straight wins, including a 9-1 mauling of Lagend Shiga, Hayato Yuda converts a Masatoshi Hamanaka cross at the near post to secure a 1-0 result against OKFC and maintain FC Osaka’s 100% record. Hikida’s post-game apology for “by far our worst performance of the season” on the occasion of my visit was in keeping with the high standards he has set for the side, who extended their lead at the top of the division to five clear points with another victory, 3-0 over Kwansei Gakuin Soccer Club, the following weekend.

The real challenges are yet to come. Hikida admits, “We still need to get more local businesses involved and attract greater investment. Dojima Sweets have now kindly added their name to the back of our shirts to complement the main sponsor, BioBank, but once you get into the JFL, that’s when things really start to cost money. You need a settled home then, too, so we are already working with the local governments. As well as Izumisano, Sakai [the southern adjoining suburb of Osaka, but an important historical city in its own right and still the 14th most populous in Japan] has been interested in promoting its own J. League team for some time so we are in discussion them too. Some people at the club are talking about getting into J2 within three to five years, but personally, I think that there is so much to do that five to ten years would be more realistic. Though I suppose it could be sooner if there ends up being a J3 by then.”

And once that day comes, will FC Osaka be coining a strange multilingual portmanteau to sit alongside recent J. League newcomers such as Kataller Toyama and Giravanz Kitakyushu? Or even going down the ‘Ichihara-Chiba’ route in deference to a new hometown like Sakai? “I really don’t want to lose our current name,” smiles Hikida. “But it might not be down to me.”

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Urawa Reds 1-0 Shimizu S-Pulse (Ben Mabley’s blackboard, Goal.com)

23 May 2012(Wed)

This week’s tactics piece for Goal.com Japan sees the in-form Shimizu S-Pulse come up against a well-organised defensive unit and a card-happy referee in their trip to Urawa Reds.

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10. Urawa Reds 1-0 Shimizu S-Pulse (J1 matchday 12, 19 May 2012)

Two months into his first season in Saitama, Urawa Reds boss Mihailo Petrović has not yet had time to instil the flowing, attacking ethos still exhibited by Sanfrecce Hiroshima in their old manager’s 3-4-2-1. Following what was nevertheless a highly successful start, seven points dropped in three league matches placed them further onto the back foot ahead of Saturday’s home meeting with an in-form Shimizu S-Pulse. But most top sides are built from the back, and Reds used this opportunity to demonstrate how far their new system had enabled them to progress in this regard.

Faced with a visiting side playing a 4-3-3 with an aggressively high line and plenty of good possession football, Urawa sat extremely deeply to essentially deploy a back five – supported further by Yuki Abe and Keita Suzuki in front of the defence and, even, by the disciplined tracking back of Marcio Richardes and Yosuke Kashiwagi.

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There was a method to this apparent negativity. For all Shimizu’s good short passing, the congestion on the peripheries of the hosts’ penalty area meant that their best bet was to pull the play onto one flank, utilising their attacking full-backs in doing so, before quickly switching to the other. However, the withdrawn starting position of the opposing wing-backs, Tadaaki Hirakawa and Tsukasa Umesaki, allowed Urawa to double up, respectively, on Toshiyuki Takagi or Genki Omae whenever such cross-field balls arrived.

The tactic was highly effective in restricting S-Pulse to just four goal attempts – all from outside the box, none threatening – despite a seemingly dominant opening 45 minutes. Reds were happy to concede possession and hit back on the counter, adopting an atypically direct approach to circumnavigate their opponent’s pressing and get in behind the high defensive line. With Abe and Richardes pulling the strings technically, most of the long balls came down the Urawa left where the energetic Kashiwagi and Tomoaki Makino found space behind Yutaka Yoshida.

The accuracy of these passes dictated that Petrović’s men would create all the genuine chances. On 40 minutes, a long cross-field pass from Hirakawa on the right flank found the onrushing Richardes, whose shot was saved for a corner. Abe’s clever movement allowed him to evade the ball-watching Taisuke Muramatsu and Lee Ki-Je; the 30-year-old got lucky with a misconnected header but the space he had created ensured he was first to fire home at the second attempt.

Everything looked perfectly poised for a fascinating second period, but Shimizu’s hopes of forcing their way level were dealt a crippling blow when Alex Brosque was dismissed, for two terribly harsh yellows, nine minutes after the restart. Afshin Ghotbi was forced to reshuffle his charges into a 4-4-1; Daigo Kobayashi brought on to offer fresh life to the midfield with Yosuke Kawai switching to left-back, and Jymmy França replacing Naohiro Takahara up front.

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Inevitably, the numerical disparity robbed them of their ability to control possession, and barring the occasional set piece, Urawa were able to frustrate them even more easily than they had in the first half. The hosts now enjoyed the luxury of mixing up their approach with a few shorter moves, and their only disappointment will be that they failed to create a second goal even after the introductions of Genki Haraguchi and Ranko Despotović.

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Below the line

18 May 2012(Fri)

It always feels a little strange that domestic club football below J2 should be afforded such little nationwide coverage. Obviously, there would be little market for regular live broadcasts of the third national tier, the Japan Football League, but the emphatically J. League-centric nature of Japanese television rights-holders – which already relegates competitions like the Asian Champions League and Emperor’s Cup to second-rate status – dictates that just to find the scores from elsewhere, you’re going to have to do your own searching.

Such ignorance seems a little hypocritical to the ideals of the J. League’s Hundred Year Vision, which aims to nurture “a new sporting culture rooted in community-based sports clubs” throughout the entire country. In England, football results services will routinely drop two or three tiers below League Two to cast an eye over the Conference North/South and even the top divisions of the regional leagues below. This surely serves not only to sate, but also to fuel the curiosity of the casual observer. But in Japan, it is evidently assumed that interest in events beyond the 40 J. League members should stay the domain of the otaku.

At least, this is true on a national level; a recent trip to Nagano revealed widespread excitement surrounding the local club, Nagano Parceiro, with banners and merchandise on display throughout the city in celebration of a debut JFL campaign last year that saw them beat neighbours and now J2 newcomers Matsumoto Yamaga by two positions to finish second. Parceiro were denied promotion themselves as their small stadium rendered them ineligible for J. League associate membership, and so for the time being, they will not be afforded a place in the wider Japanese consciousness.

However, the situation may be about to change. Throughout the first 20 years of J. League history – the anniversary was this Tuesday – new members have been welcomed aboard as soon as they demonstrate the necessary footballing and infrastructural wherewithal. But with the admission of Matsumoto and Machida Zelvia, J2 has now reached its full quota of 22 clubs, meaning that for the first time, relegation back down to the JFL becomes a possibility as of this season. An associate J. League member finishing as champions of the third tier will replace the second’s bottom team by right; a similarly eligible runner-up would enter a two-legged playoff against either the 21st or (in the case of a non-qualifying champion) 22nd team in J2.

Instead of the old status quo of only watching new teams once they’ve actually made the J. League step-up, then, supporters of sides in the bottom half of J2 – at least – should now be glancing pre-emptively upon the division below and those looking to steal their places in front of the SkyPerfectTV cameras. Kamatamare Sanuki, whose eligibility for promotion has already been confirmed, are currently second in the JFL after 11 matches. Immediately behind them are V-Varen Nagasaki and Nagano, both of whom are pushing hard for associate member status. Blaublitz Akita, currently ninth but only three points behind Kamatamare with a game in hand, could also soon enter the reckoning.

The continued trend for expansion, the cessation of its automatic nature for teams fulfilling the promotion criteria, and the inevitable – if, as yet, unofficial – talk surrounding the future creation of a J3 sits uncomfortably with some long-term JFL members. Koji Sadanaga, a colleague and fellow Kansai-based freelance writer, has firmly sided with clubs like Sagawa Printing and Honda FC, which have continued to hold true to the pre-1992 model of corporate football ‘departments’ and bear no ambitions of J. League membership, in questioning the viability of a professional third division as an entertainment-based economic entity. Their argument, he writes, is that relegating these company teams to the fourth tier would strike a fatal blow for motivation – currently derived from testing themselves at the highest possible level of amateur football and effectively serving as ‘gatekeepers’ for opponents who are looking to qualify for J2 through their JFL position. Board members could pull the plug, thus denying opportunities for skilled amateurs still eager to combine playing with separate working careers.

However, in a nation that has been held back by political, fiscal, and corporate conservatism over the past two decades – during which China and South Korea have grown into rather more than noisy neighbours – Japanese football stands out as the perfect example of how progressive thought can deliver astonishing results on both microscopic and macroscopic levels. The newfound global status of the national team and the eagerness of major European clubs to procure its top players have evolved against a background of long-term initiatives to develop football as a positive influence within society as a whole, under the aforementioned Hundred Year Vision. JFL clubs that understand the concept of genuine socioeconomic planning already attract crowds of several thousand; even pushing into five figures on occasion. Undeterred by the lack of nationwide coverage – or spurred by the desire to share in its spoils – it is only natural that more and more municipalities should grow keen to follow and ultimately join the J. League model.

The interests of parent companies must take second billing to those of the hometowns that clubs under the progressive system will represent, for this trend is now not only well established, but diversifying. Following the example of Fagiano Okayama, who rose from the fifth-tier Okayama Prefectural League Division 1 in 2004 to take their place in J2 just five years later, Matsumoto and Machida were both able to soar through the ranks thanks to the will and wider vision of those associated therewith. In January 2010, S.C. Sagamihara were awarded J. League associate membership months after finishing as champions of the seventh-tier Kanagawa Prefectural League Division 2B; they currently sit atop the Kanto Soccer League Division 1 table following two successive promotions since. From Nara Club in Kansai to Volca Kagoshima in Kyushu, the regional leagues are growing ever more awash with teams demonstrating similarly lofty intentions.

Next week, this column will pay a visit to FC Osaka, the three-times reigning Osaka Prefectural League champions now aiming to achieve an unusual double promotion en route to eventually becoming the city’s third J. League representatives.

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Sagan Tosu 1-1 Omiya Ardija (Ben Mabley’s blackboard, Goal.com)

16 May 2012(Wed)

The ninth in my weekly series of tactics articles for Goal.com takes a first look at both Sagan Tosu, performing so superbly in their debut J1 season, and Omiya Ardija. Click on the image below for the main Japanese version, or scroll down for the English edition.

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9. Sagan Tosu 1-1 Omiya Ardija (J1 matchday 11, 12 May 2012)

Both sides were forced into an attacking reshuffle ahead of Saturday’s meeting at the Best Amenity Stadium, with Sagan Tosu missing star forward Yohei Toyoda through suspension and Rafael only fit enough for a place on the bench after picking up a knock against Gamba Osaka. The visitors brought in Yu Hasegawa for a first start of the season, while Kei Ikeda took the advanced role in front of Ryunosuke Noda for Tosu in what was nominally a meeting of two 4-2-3-1s.

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However, the differing patterns of the respective front fours had a profound effect on the balance of play over the first hour. While Omiya were astonishingly rigid for a 4-2-3-1, the home attackers moved and interchanged as a unit. This was particularly significant when not in possession as Sagan defended ferociously from the front, with Ikeda dropping back to play his part in the pressing game – effectively creating a temporary 4-2-4-0 as he did so – while the energetic Noda charged on to apply additional pressure when Ardija’s back four retreated.

It meant that when the Squirrels did get the opportunity to build possession, they were forced to do so from a highly withdrawn starting point. Although Keigo Higashi showed keenness to pass and advance, their short, patient moves typically reached a stalemate shortly beyond halfway and ended with long, hopeful crosses towards the unsupported Hasegawa. Tosu showed greater variation going forwards in terms of both speed and the length of their passes. The only disappointment was that their relative control of the game produced a succession of half-chances but no real gilt-edged ones.

Jun Suzuki sent his troops out for the second half with the instruction to play more longitudinal balls and do a bit more pressing themselves. The shift in momentum was reinforced by the introduction of Rafael for Higashi in what became a 4-4-2, or 4-4-1-1, with the Brazilian in a freer striking role. Omiya’s more direct approach helped prevent their defence from getting pushed back; Tosu’s pressing grew tired and their ability to attack in numbers deteriorated.

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A substitution apiece in the 80th minute had a direct impact on the opening goal, which followed almost instantaneously. Suzuki introduced volante Kota Ueda for the frustrated Cho Young-Cheol, allowing Carlinhos to switch to the right flank and combine cleverly with his compatriot, Rafael. As the number 10 cut inside, his tricks and turns attracted five opponents – including Yusuke Inuzuka who, having just replaced Tomotaka Okamoto, unnecessarily charged across to provide additional cover from midfield. This left the space for Takuya Aoki, who had started the move, to continue his run and collect Rafael’s pass to score.

It appeared as if Tosu had fallen into the visitors’ trap, as Omiya quite comfortably retained possession immediately thereafter. However, when Suzuki sent on Kim Young-Gwon as an extra defender on 88 minutes, they suddenly stepped onto the back foot again. The 193cm Kim Kun-Hoan advanced into attack as the hosts eagerly accepted the invitation to fire balls into the box. A long throw from the prodigious arms of Naoyuki Fujita produced the equaliser – ironically, the last unfortunate touch came off Hasegawa, who had so seldom threatened the opposite net.

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Rational or irrational?

10 May 2012(Thu)

As the European club season approaches its conclusion, attention begins to turn towards next month’s European Championships in Poland and Ukraine. While Giovanni Trapattoni was right on the ‘b’ of the ‘bang’ in announcing his Republic of Ireland squad this Monday, new England boss Roy Hodgson is another set to get off the mark quickly when he names his final – and, indeed, first – 23 next Wednesday, prompting excited speculation as to who might and might not make the cut.

It is at this stage of the build-up to every major international tournament that I am confronted with a particular pet peeve. There is nothing wrong with the desire to speculate and make one’s own predictions – doing so is perhaps even one of the great joys of following the football soap opera – but what riles me is the entirely unsystematic way in which not only most fans, but even many paid professionals go about doing it.

To give an example, I distinctly remember watching a television programme in the weeks preceding the 2010 World Cup, during which a fairly sizeable panel of Japanese media experts gathered to debate the players that Takeshi Okada ought to be taking to South Africa. Echoing any number of conversations that will undoubtedly take place in pubs across England this coming weekend, their discussion began with each participant eagerly making the case for their own favourites. “You’ve got to pick him!” “He would definitely be in my squad.” The two clearly inherent problems here are that the conversation will immediately focus on candidates whose inclusion is less than certain, and that more often than not, people’s eyes will have been caught by those who either convert or create chances. As a result, the first dozen ‘must-haves’ mentioned by this panel two years ago soon gave us half a squad full of attacking fringe players.

Again, it is fine to have our own personal preferences, and if we all knew how to think like top-class international managers, the FA’s golden handshake bill over the past six years would have been several digits shorter. But seriously, this whole naming game is really not that difficult; you just have do it the complete opposite way around. Start with the likely first eleven, add the most obvious/regularly called-upon alternatives and substitutes, then ensure you have a full quota of two backup goalkeepers. Once you’ve done that, you can see how many places are left, which positions you don’t have cover for, and make your choices accordingly.

When I sat down and pencilled out my 23 for Okada Japan, twenty of the names I chose ultimately did find themselves with a squad number for the southern hemisphere winter. Even the three discrepancies – I had Shusaku Nishikawa as third-choice ‘keeper instead of Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, the Dortmund-bound Shinji Kagawa ahead of Yoshito Okubo, and Ryoichi Maeda in place of Kisho Yano – were arguably Okada idiosyncrasies and were, indeed, quickly reversed by his successor, Alberto Zaccheroni. But none of this made me a genius, clairvoyant, or even vaguely clever. It was simply the practice of a common sense, logical argument methodology; as opposed to counting off five fingers the Gamba Osaka players who had excited me most from the Banpaku terraces and shoehorning a national squad around them.

Ah yes, Gamba Osaka. For, you see, we football observers enjoy making predictions so much that, a lot of the time, we’re not even consciously aware that we’re doing it, and this only makes us more prone to fall into the same logical trap. One particular favourite, the jolly cliché “too good to go down”, is usually bandied about as a qualitative judgement of a team that might not happen to be playing so well at the present moment, but has enough good players to be really rather better once they finally get their arses in gear.

However, relegation is not just a qualitative issue. Like most things in football once you think about it – the score of any individual game, for instance – it is actually very quantitative. You get three points for every league win (regardless of margin), plus one point for each draw, and your cumulative points tally over the course of the season determines your position in the division once tabulated and ranked against those achieved by your rivals. In many high-profile leagues, and specifically in J1, the bottom three clubs will then be demoted. Too good to go down? Alright, then. But first, you’re going to have to decide upon the unfortunate trio – at the very least – of sides who are actually going to wind up with a shorter points total than that rabble in which you seem to have such blind faith.

Essentially, this principle was what saved last year’s Urawa Reds, who were rubbish all season but could point to the presence of two others who were utterly out of their depth plus, happily for their sake, a Ventforet Kofu that didn’t quite have enough either. As for whether Gamba will be able to rely solely on similar fortune this term, I’m not so sure.

The ludicrous situation whereby Brazilian-born former Japan international Wagner Lopes was supposed to be appointed as managerial successor to Akira Nishino, only nobody had realised that he wasn’t actually qualified and thus had to come along holding the hand of long-term ‘mentor’ José Carlos Serrão – who predictably turned out not to have a clue what he was doing – was thankfully short-lived. But the turmoil it created may yet go down as rather more than just a footnote in the Osaka club’s history. To quote from a definitive piece written in Japanese by my colleague, Jun Nagata, in the wake of the management team’s dismissal in late March:

“The team began work this season still surrounded by the question – ‘Exactly which one of the two is actually in charge?’ Watching them actually train, ‘head coach’ Lopes would give the players their instructions, with ‘manager’ Serrão providing backup. But officially, Serrão was always the man at the top. If he was really a ‘puppet’ manager, the club were not admitting it. Interviews after training consisted almost solely of ambiguous, empty comment from Serrão… The players, too, were unhappy with the lack of clarity over the manager’s position. They were presented with no specific tactical direction, and once the season began, they were suddenly asked to do things quite differently to the orders they had received throughout the training camp. In such circumstances, it was quite ridiculous to expect them to maintain much faith in the coaching staff.”

Things have improved under the charge of former playing stalwart Masanobu “Mr. Gamba” Matsunami, most notably in terms of morale and cohesion. But results are still only marginally better, and while the defence still concedes by the bucketful (as they always did under Nishino, even when they were champions), this is no longer being compensated for by a free-scoring attack. The core problem, as has been discussed on multiple occasions on these pages before, stems from a haphazard player recruitment policy, and it is neither easy nor fair to make a value judgement on Matsunami given the difficult situation into which he has been parachuted. To very quickly cite one example, the departure of the classy Lee Keun-Ho has simultaneously exposed the hole left by Takashi Usami, the age-associated concerns surrounding Yasuhito Endo, and the simplistic nature of Rafinha’s striking brain. Former Tokushima Vortis journeyman Akihiro Sato is the best of a quite average bunch brought in, almost at random, to complement the latter.

Early elimination from the AFC Champions League (ACL) for the first time since 2006 is undoubtedly a blessing in disguise, and it is worth remembering that Oswaldo de Oliveira’s Kashima Antlers also flirted with the nether regions of the J1 table throughout the early months of last season before rallying to eventually finish up in sixth. But the most urgent task facing Matsunami is to ensure that the acute depression that set in under Serrão/Lopes does not become chronic. Ten games in is still early doors, but it will be a most uncomfortable three weeks of self-reflection should Gamba fail to escape the drop zone before the J. League pauses for June’s World Cup qualifiers. Fixtures at home to leaders Vegalta Sendai, away to resurgent Yokohama F Marinos, and then at home again to surprise package Sagan Tosu dictate, however, that a high points haul before then will be no small challenge.

Failing that, who might save them if things do get out of control? Returning to our quantitative premise, Consadole Sapporo and Albirex Niigata both represent the kind of strugglers that even Gamba in their present guise would hope to outscore (although it’s marginal for the latter, with whom they could only draw in Matsunami’s first game in charge). But who else? Characteristically, positions four (Urawa) down to fourteen (Kashima) are so incredibly tight that it is foolish to make predictions, and more to the point, every one of the sides in that mix have played well for at least some of this season so far. With no obvious Kofu this time, you’re either looking for Tosu’s bubble to explode (as did Montedio Yamagata’s in their first J1 season, back in 2009), the slow retrogression of an Omiya Ardija or a Kawasaki Frontale, or the post-Olympic decimation of youthful city rivals Cerezo Osaka.

None of these options appear greatly more probable than the chances – a discussion for another time – of Kashiwa Reysol’s struggles with being champions and the additional, consequent demands of the ACL lasting all the way through to December. As such, Gamba really will need to get their arses in gear and actually prove that they are too good for all this pessimism after all.

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Nagoya Grampus 2-3 Kawasaki Frontale (Ben Mabley’s blackboard, Goal.com)

9 May 2012(Wed)

The return of the blackboard this week takes a first look of the season at 2010 J. League champions Nagoya Grampus, and by sheer coincidence happens to feature this column’s second straight 3-2 away win for Kawasaki Frontale – albeit with a different manager.

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8. Nagoya Grampus 2-3 Kawasaki Frontale (J1 matchday 10, 6 May 2012)

The key tactical difference between new manager Yahiro Kazama’s revised line-up and the previous versions of Kawasaki Frontale that we have seen this season is the positioning of Junichi Inamoto as a third central midfielder, starting just in front of the back four. This is a neat way not only of covering the defence with numbers in the middle, but also of ensuring cohesion from back to front and allowing the wide players greater freedom to break forwards. It replicates the belated introduction of Yuki Abe by former Japan boss Takeshi Okada in the run-up to South Africa 2010 – Inamoto might have got his chance then too had the switch from 4-2-3-1 come sooner – which was incorrectly derided by a naïve domestic media as being negative in its intentions.

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With Joshua Kennedy returning from injury, Nagoya Grampus’s first half system varied between 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-1-1 thanks to the movement of a highly mobile supporting trio. This lent itself to characteristically sustained possession and patient passing going forwards, while defensively, the hosts’ relatively high line kept its shape and looked to play the offside trap. In a contrast of approaches, Kawasaki retreated more deeply but pressed much more determinedly in their own third before looking to attack on the counter – almost exclusively via bursts down the flanks and balls in towards the effective but occasionally isolated Takuro Yajima.

Three goals in the opening 14 minutes gave the visitors a 2-1 advantage upon which they could sit and play to their strengths. Yajima created the opener by drawing both Nagoya centre-backs towards him to head down for the consequently unmarked Yusuke Tasaka. The Frontale defence was then pulled out of position slightly when Jungo Fujimoto and Keiji Tamada dropped deep, allowing Kennedy the space to shoot superbly from 25 yards. But they were back in front soon afterwards, when Yajima easily got in behind to head home a Kengo Nakamura cross after Marcus Tulio Tanaka had tried and failed to play offside.

Although Grampus generally dominated the possession thereafter, the effect of the visitors’ shape was to eventually and predictably force the former’s passing moves out wide, from where they were usually quelled. It is worth noting that their two best chances in the remainder of the half came through breaking runs from Mu Kanazaki which dragged Inamoto sideways and thus freed up space in the centre. Neither produced a goal, but Kawasaki found a third right on half time when Yajima beat another offside trap to another Nakamura pass and fired in at the near post.

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Dragan Stojković frankly described the opening 45 minutes as “catastrophic”, and looked to claw a way back with three substitutions and a shift to 4-3-3. Tulio replaced the physical presence of the struggling Kennedy up front, flanked by Tamada and Kensuke Nagai. This immediately enabled them to concentrate things more centrally without compromising their domination of possession; Tulio holding up play and serving as an effective target man. It was, as Stojković admitted, a much better way of emphasising their own qualities, but alas failed to produce more than a single Fujimoto goal in response. Frontale adjusted to the aerial threat, continued to retreat deeply, and worked hard to hold on for a 3-2 win.

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