Monday, 24 September 2018

A Look Toward the Future

For true lovers of The Beautiful Game, the past month has been a joyous gust of cool fresh air on a hot and stagnant night. While a great many of the matches at this year's World Cup have been as dull and calculating as the average European Cup affair, many are already calling it the best World Cup of the century, and giving Japan (along with France and Belgium) much of the credit for reviving a dedication to attacking, creative, inspiring football. Even Croatia and England -- while they may not be as open in their play or as willing to take risks on attack -- are at least above average in terms of the watchability of their matches.

Yet even before the final act of Russia2018 can play out, there are already disturbing signs that the forces of darkness are at work, taking steps to snuff out this fragile spark of creative brilliance before it can burst into flame. Before we get into the detailed discussion of impending problems for the Samurai Blue, let me pose a question for you to consider, as you read along: What words or phrases would you use to summarize the most competitive and "world-class" aspect of Japan's game?

As you turn that question over in your mind, a few comments are needed to put the final frosting on Japan's performance at this World Cup. Many people have written articles examining Japan's performances, and this writer has offered his own postmortem in comments posted to The Rising Sun News' Facebook page. Essentially, the Samurai Blue demonstrated to any lingering doubters that they do have the underlying potential to compete at the very top level, and indeed, even to have a legitimate chance -- however slim -- to win the World Cup. There were plenty of opportunities to note the weaknesses that remain, particularly the uncertainty shown by the rank-and-file players when faced with unexpected circumstances. 

The best example of this was provided in the opening match, against Colombia, when Japan took an early lead and were handed an opportunity to play their most creative, attacking brand of football, but failed to do anything with the advantage until coach Nishino had time to chalk up a new game plan at half time. The team had entered the contest with the sole tactic of containing Colombia's potent offense and making sudden counterthrusts when gaining possession. When put in the position of control, and asked to create offense through their own initiative, nobody knew how to respond. The result was 40 minutes of aimless uncertainty culminating in an equaliser for Colombia. As creative as their play can be, in the best of times, most Japanese players still lack the leadership, the initiative and the self-confidence to take charge of a situation and devise new tactics on their own.

On the other hand, the most common criticism leveled at the team, in the post-Belgium search for scapegoats, rings very hollow. Many have said that after taking the lead, Japan was not "cynical enough" to preserve their advantage and secure the victory. These commentators suggest that the Samurai Blue should have "parked the bus" following the second goal, and tried to withstand Belgium's efforts to get back into the contest. I tend to agree that coach Nishino dropped the ball by failing to make the necessary changes in response to Belgium's insertion of Fellaini and Chadli. 

However, Belgium is far to powerful, and has too many weapons at its disposal, to hold off by just packing ten men in the box and hoping to survive the barrage. If Nishino had responded by bringing on two defensive subs, perhaps Japan would have taken the contest to extra time. But the key to winning that contest would have been to insert Honda and either Okazaki or Muto, and threaten Belgium with enough counterattacking potential to deplete their attack. By the time Nishino finally brought on Honda, to hold the ball up on the counterattack, it was already too late. Nevertheless, the contest was there for the winning. One more goal would have sealed the result, and even one or two dangerous counters would have forced Belgium's wingbacks to ease the pressure on the flanks. The failure was not in being "too naive", but in failing to take the active, valiant, counterattacking strategy to its logical endpoint. 

Have you answered the question yet?

Well, for your consideration, here is my own view of Japan's greatest competitive strength. It is also the characteristic that makes Japanese football completely unlike any other MODERN style of the Beautiful Game. Several paragraphs may be required to explain it in detail, but the essence can be captured in just two words (and some might even find the modifier repetitive): "Selfless Teamwork".

Watching European football, these days, one cannot help but notice the tendency toward individualism in the content and philosophy of play. Certainly, football is a team sport and without some degree of teamwork and cooperation it is impossible for even the Lionel Messis and Cristiano Ronaldos of the world to create goals. But the underlying assumption of every single player is that the FIRST thing they should do upon receiving the ball is try to beat their man, or create an opening, and only then look to pass off. Even teams that adopt the so-called "tiki-taka" style that Spain used to great effect in the early 'teens will still display this underlying assumption in their individual play. 

Watch a J.League match, however, and you see an entirely different mindset. The underlying assumption of every player on the pitch is that the sooner they move the ball on to a teammate, the more openings it will create and the less opportunity the opposition will have to adjust their positioning. I firmly believe that this is the most compelling reason why many international "stars" are unable to adjust to the Japanese game. Players like Diego Forlan, Freddie Ljungberg and Lucas Podolski have struggled to adapt, because their first instinct is to take on the opponent. By the time they have finished their individual foray, the rhythm their teammates are accustomed to has been disrupted and the other team has had time to adjust their defensive positioning. Watching the match unfold, one can clearly see that the Forlans and Podolskis are the most "skillful" players on the pitch. . . . . but their net impact on the TEAM is negligible, or even negative.

The selfless teamwork that is instilled in Japanese players from a very early age may be a source of difficulty when they are trying to adapt to a team in Europe. While teammates may appreciate their willingness to pass off, it often causes their overall contribution to go unnoticed. Several very talented players -- most recently Takashi Usami and Yuki Otsu -- have returned from unsuccessful European ventures because, despite making useful team contributions they failed to catch the eye of the coaches and fans. However in a Japanese perspective, the team orientation of play allows the Samurai Blue to take on opponents with far more "famous" and "fancied" individuals, and outperform them as a team. 

The JFA's plans for the future, therefore, need to reflect the understanding that Japanese football is NOT the same as European football, or South American football, or any other type of football for that matter. A quarter-century into the "Hundred Year Plan", Japan has already reached the age where it has its own character, its own peculiarities an its own sources of strength and weakness. It should be obvious, therefore, that whoever takes over the coaching duties from Akira Nishino has to be someone whose strategic sensibilities and basic football philosophy has been thoroughly steeped in the local culture. 

The sports tabloids are currently filled with all sorts of rumours about who will be the next coach of the Samurai Blue. The first name to be tossed around -- Jurgen Klinsman -- has already scuttled the rumours, provoking a heavy sigh of relief among those of us who know what a disaster that could be. But despite a healthy interest in Nishino's assistant and former Sanfrecce Hiroshima manager Hajime Moriyasu, most of the names being bandied about are foreigners with no experience whatsoever with the Japanese game.

This is ridiculous.

I think it is too extreme to trot out mildly xenophobic slogans like "Japan needs a Japanese coach". On the contrary, some of the very best candidates to take over the National Team are non-Japanese. At the top of the list are current Consadole Sapporo coach Mihailo Petrovic and Cerezo Osaka boss Yoon Jung-Hwan, both of whom are thoroughly familiar with the style of football that best suits Japanese players. Other excellent options would be Nelson Baptista Junior (Nelsinho), Gert Engels, or even Guido Buchwald (despite the fact that he has been away from the Japanese game for a decade).

But a non-Japanese coach with no Japanese experience would be a disaster -- another exercise in cross-cultural miscommunication. There are plenty of excellent options here in Japan -- not only the ones already mentioned, but also people like Takuya Takagi, Hiroshi Jofuku, Naoki Soma, Takashi Oki, Yasutoshi Miura and Masami Ihara. If the Japan National Team is to better its results in the World Cup, it is essential that it begin with a relatively clear slate of young players, and start cultivating the underlying strengths of the Japanese game. Thankfully some of the most prominent veterans -- Keisuke Honda, Makoto Hasebe and Gotoku Sakai -- have announced their retirement from international play. Other over-30 veterans (Yoshida, Nagatomo and Kagawa, in particular) should follow their example and step aside, as well. There is an abundance of talent rising through the ranks, with at least a half-dozen legitimate prospects for each position. But they cannot develop into the confident, competitive leaders a team needs to actually win a World Cup unless they are given a chance to develop. 

I hope that the events of the past month have made believers out of you all. JSoccer is on the rise, and it is only going to get better. Yes, there are still plenty of hurdles to clear -- most importantly the lack of competent leadership at the JFA -- but as the Samurai Blue demonstrated in Russia, this is now the genuine home of The Beautiful Game. 

No more "wanting". I Believe.