Welcome Back My Friends to the Show that Never Ends

 

Snow still lies thick on the ground, across much of Japan, and the chill winds of February still howl in the dark of night. Yet this Saturday the J.League season kicked off with its annual curtain-raiser, the Fuji Xerox Super Cup. This marks the earliest start to the J.League season ever, and there are very reasonable concerns that snow may preempt many early-season contests, causing havoc with the schedule. Nevertheless, this year the J.League agreed to an early kickoff date in order to give the Japan National Team a full month to prepare for this summer's World Cup. As cold as it may be in the mountains of central Japan, where I am writing this report, the weather in Saitama was bright and warm enough to attract a massive crowd to watch last season's league champions, Kawasaki Frontale, take on the Emperor's Cup winners Cerezo Osaka.


 


 3 - 1 

Last season, Cerezo Osaka made what JSoccer.com viewed as one of the most important acquisitions in team history, when they signed former Cerezo attacking midfielder and highly regarded Korean coach Yoon Jong-Hwan as the team's new manager. Coach Yoon has already demonstrated, in his three seasons at Sagan Tosu, that he is one of the more creative football minds to emerge from Asia in recent years. The team also reclaimed some highly talented former members of the Pink Wolfpack as players like Hiroshi Kiyotake and Yoichiro Kakitani returned from Europe to rejoin their former club. In his first season at the reins, Coach Yoon struggled to produce immediate results, as the personnel at his disposal did not quite fit the style of play he pioneered at Tosu. But as the year progressed, Cerezo climbed towards the top of the heap and in the final two months of the season they hit their stride. A stirring victory in the Nabisco Cup final marked the team's first title of the J.League era, and demonstrated beyond question that this team is emerging as one of the league's top competitors.

Frontale also achieved historic success in 2017, as a victory on the final day carried the Blue Dolphins to their first J1 title. Though Frontale had won the Second Division crown previously, and thus had more in their trophy cabinet than Cerezo, this is the first real accomplishment for a team that had earned the reputation as perpetual bridesmaids -- a team that always seemed to choke in the most important matches. Just a year earlier, the team had lost a frustrating playoff match to Kashima Antlers which deprived them of silverware once more, so it was delicious revenge to snatch the title trophy out of Kashima's hands on the last day of the season.

This year Frontale made a large number of additions to the squad, but none that seem likely to produce immediate dividends. There are some "big names" in the list, but Manabu Saito – former captain of Yokohama F.Marinos – has spent the past three seasons in and out of the mix due to recurring injuries, and it is an open question whether he will ever return to the form of his youth. Yoshito Okubo, meanwhile, made the worst decision of his career when he jumped to FC Tokyo last season, hoping to finally get a chance to play on a title-winning team. As luck would have it, this proved to be the year that Frontale broke their long drought, while FC Tokyo failed to even contend for any silverware. Though a player who always gives 110%, and has plenty of experience and guile to offer, his best years are behind him now and Okubo will mainly be useful as a reserve, and an example to younger teammates. Striker Shohei Akasaki joined from Kashima Antlers, where he never really made an impact, and with all the talent Frontale already has up front, he may struggle to get playing time. The only major "addition" this year will be centre back Michael Fitzgerald, who missed almost all of last season due to injury. If he can stay fit, he will be a valuable addition to a rather shaky Frontale back line. 

Though the reigning champions went into this contest as slight favourites, it took less than a minute for Cerezo to announce that they will be even more competitive this season than last. In 2017, Cerezo often had difficulty making connections on the attack, as the fast-paced style that Coach Yoon prefers seemed to stretch out the formation too much, leaving far too much space for counterattacks and making it hard for the Cerezo midfielders, in particular, to complete their long passes into space. Clearly the tactics Yoon used at Sagan Tosu were a poor fit with the personnel he had available. In Saturday's contest Cerezo provided a completely different look, and one that seems to be another stroke of brilliance by the Korean Gaffer. 

From the opening kickoff until  around the 80 minute mark, when the team brought on two defensive substitutions, all ten Cerezo players held a tight, compact formation no matter where on the pitch the ball might be, and no matter whether playing offense or defense. Nominally a 4-4-2, the formation was so tight that it was often impossible to differentiate separate lines. There were often six, or even seven players in a single line of defense, as they dropped to the top of their own penalty area, while on attack, they played the ball about not in triangles, but in pentagons or even hexagons. For creative, technically proficient passers like Kiyotake, Kakitani, Kenyu Sugimoto, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Kota Mizunuma and Yusuke Maruhashi, this made it easy to find open teammates and move the ball through the Frontale defense. Every time Cerezo got the ball to the edge of the Frontale box, the defense seemed in danger of collapsing.

Though only Coach Yoon can say where he got the inspiration, the tactic looked for all the world like the old "pitch compression" strategy that Takeshi Oki introduced at Ventforet Kofu in the mid-00s, when all ten field players would cluster into a tight matrix no more than 30 meters square. As a long-time fan of Ventforet, I am quite familiar with the advantages of this formation, particularly if you have a team of technically solid and extremely hard-working players. On offense, it gives you a large number of passing options, so long as you keep the ball moving constantly with no more than two touches. By the time defenders react to close down passing lanes the ball has already moved to another player. In addition, even when a pass is deflected or stolen, a teammate is usually two or three meters away, ready to win the ball back or at least take down the opposing player and prevent a counterattack. The defensive merits are similar, since two or three players are usually within range to challenge an opponent as they receive the ball.

The greatest demerit of the system is that it requires a tremendous amount of energy, hard work, constant movement and intense concentration. If one player stops running, misses their assignment or fails to close an open passing lane, the other team has two-thirds of the pitch to run into, with unstoppable counterattacks. It takes a lot more running to follow the ball no matter where it is on the pitch, than it does to spread out and let the ball do all the "running". Coach Oki was able to use this system at Ventforet because the entire team was selected for their work ethic, and understood that unless they ran themselves to exhaustion every week, they would be unable to compete at the top-flight level. It remains to be seen whether Cerezo has the energy and dedication to implement such tactics week in and week out. But the system was ideally suited for the Xerox Cup, since special rules introduced this year allow each team to make five substitutions. By the time Cerezo players started to run out of gas, they had already built a secure lead.

The Flaming Pinks opened the scoring in the 26th minute, when Yamamura received a pass into the right corner and he crossed for Sugimoto, just to the right of the penalty spot. All the Frontale defenders expected the big striker to spin towards goal and try to muscle a shot for the near post, but Sugimoto baffled them all by taking his first touch and spinning towards the top of the box, where he immediately spotted Yamaguchi with no marker in sight. Sugimoto laid the ball back for the Samurai Blue midfielder and Yamaguchi drilled the ball into the low right corner.

Though Cerezo continued to dominate play, Frontale seemed to catch on to the Cerezo strategy as the half progressed, and they responded by trying to take advantage of the open space with long balls and cross-field passes. By the time the whistle blew for intermission, they had regained their focus and the run of play was starting to even out. Frontale coach Toru Oniki also tried to make adjustments by substituting two players at half time, bringing on Ryota Oshima and Yoshito Okubo to offset Cerezo's advantage in technical ball skills, at central midfield.

However, the new additions had barely set foot on the pitch when Cerezo extended their advantage. Once again, Cerezo's tight formation gave them a numerical advantage in a small area of play which allowed them to break down the Frontale defense. Three minutes after the restart, a Cerezo clearance sent the ball to Kota Mizunuma, who was alongside Sugimoto near midfield. Mizunuma chipped the ball for Sugimoto's head, and made a move into space. The two Frontale defenders had the duo pretty well marked, but instead of heading back towards Mizunuma, Sugimoto headed the ball almost straight down, into an empty lane between the two defenders. Kiyotake had begun his run even before Mizunuma collected the clearance, so by the time Sugimoto headed the ball into his path, he was at full sprint. With one touch Kiyotake was through the gap and off on a gallop, leaving everyone else flailing in the dust cloud like Wile E Coyote bypassed by the Roadrunner. The former Hannover midfielder stroked the ball easily past Jung Sung-Ryong and the Flaming Pinks had a 2-0 advantage.

Fortunately for Frontale, the referee tossed them a lifeline. Just moments after Kiyotake's goal, Mr. Fukushima awarded Kawasaki a PK on what seemed like a VERY soft touch on Hiroyuki Abe's back. Abe sprawled to the turf and did his best to accentuate the contact, but even at a distance it looked like a play that should have been waved on. Instead, Mr. Fukushima pointed to the spot, and Yu Kobayashi cut the deficit to 2-1.

But Cerezo's dominance persisted and they were soon knocking on the door in search of a third goal. The Blue Dolphins never did adjust to Cerezo's tight formation. Instead of trying to use the open space that the Osaka team left unattended, they tried to muscle through a six- or seven-man pack of Pink Wolves. Even the daunting Frontale offensive unit was unable to make a dent. With 12 minutes left, Cerezo slammed the door shut. Newcomer and Korean target-man Yang Dong-Byung, who scored 19 goals in the K.League last season, played a pass behind the Frontale line as Toshiyuki Takagi -- who had just come on as a substitute -- slanted into the box. Takagi sent his first touch past the keeper and the Pink half of Saitama Stadium erupted with joy.

Frontale managed to cut the deficit just as the game clock hit 90, when Osaka defender Riku Matsuda foolishly tried to keep a ball in play on his own end line and was pickpocketed by Kentaro Moriya. Moriya quickly flicked the ball in front of net for Yoshito Okubo to stroke into the strings, but it was too late to alter the outcome. After 23 years of waiting, Cerezo claimed their third cup trophy in a single 12-month period. Judging from their performance they may be a team to recon with in this year's title chase. Both Cerezo and Frontale must now prepare for midweek ACL clashes, before the J.League kicks off next weekend. We hope you will visit JSoccer often, this year, as we try to keep you posted on all the action of the J.League, National Team, Nadeshiko and more . . . 


 

Date:
10 Feb, 2018
  Location:
SaitamaStadium

3

1 1H 0
2 2H 2

2

Hotaru Yamaguchi (26')
Hiroshi Kiyotake (48')
Toshiyuki Takagi (78')

Scoring  Yu Kobayashi (51')
Yoshito Okubo (90')
Hiroshi Kiyotake
Takaki Fukumitsu
Cautions Hiroyuki Abe

Lineups:

  Kim Jin-Hyeon; Riku Matsuda, Yusuke Maruhashi (Yusuke Tanaka 81'), Matej Jonjic, Tatsuya Yamashita; Hotaru Yamaguchi; Kota Mizunuma (Takaki Fukumitsu 64'), Hioroshi Kiyotake (Toshiyuki Takagi 64'), Kazuya Yamamura; Yoichiro Kakitani (Yang Dong-Byen 45'), Kenyu Sugimoto (Daichi Akiyama 81') .
  Jung Sung-Ryong; Yusuke Tasaka (Hidemasa Morita 52'), Tatsuki Nara, Shogo Taniguchi, Shintaro Kurumaya; Eduardo Neto, Kentaro Moriya (Ryota Oshima 45'); Kengo Nakamura (Yoshito Okubo 45'), Akihiro Ienaga (Kei Chinen 79'), Hiroyuki Abe (Tatsuya Hasegawa 71'); Yu Kobayashi.

 


 

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