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Japan Football: Zaccheroni, Samurai Blue, and general J chatter
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Germany vs Japan plus Player Change
Flash Update

Germany 2-2 Japan
57' [0 - 1] N. Takahara
65' [0 - 2] N. Takahara
76' [1 - 2] M. Klose
80' [2 - 2] B. Schweinsteiger

Thanks to Otto for the very fast update on the comments in the entry preceding this one!

Tanaka Gone

It was disclosed today that defender Makoto Tanaka (Jubilo Iwata) flew back to Japan and is now out of the World Cup due to an injury to the back of his thigh.

In his place, Teruyuki Moniwa (FC Tokyo) has been called up and is now on his way to join the team in Germany.

Kaji Injury

Kaji was injured during the Germany game and had to leave the pitch on a stretcher. Reports now say that he has an ankle sprain.

Nakamura Sick

Shunsuke Nakamura has been suffering from a cold all week -- fever, sore throat, etc. Hopefully he will be able to regain his health soon.
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Japan vs Germany Tonight
Hi Everyone,

Getting in the mood for the World Cup yet? Here in Japan, they have been doing lots of football segments on the news or on football news shows not only about the Japan team but also profiles of other teams and who the key players are. We have been seeing a lot of profiles on Australian and Croatian players and how the teams have performed in the recent friendlies against teams like Austria, Iran, Greece, etc. Of course, Brazil is the king, and everywhere you look you see Ronaldinho's face as well as Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo etc etc. So many stars! We also have seen programs building up the World Cup fever by introducing the other Groups as well.

Japan vs Germany

060529-9.jpgTonight, May 30, is the friendly game between Japan and Germany. I don't know if they are going to show the game in other countries, not just Germany and Japan, but if you are planning to watch the game, remember -- root for Japan! :)

But seriously, it will of course be a test match. Obviously, the first thing is that we want to see some good football, some good technique and creativity as well as spirit and toughness.

Focus on Defense

060529-1.jpgBut if you are also one to look for analytical things (strategy, etc), you may find it interesting to keep an eye on the defensive work. Right now, the Japan team is trying to figure out how they feel most comfortable defensively. In other words, different players are voicing different opinions about the defensive strategy. In many ways this is very worrisome, because at this point we would like to think that this kind of strategic philosophy should have been already decided by the team manager. But Zico is letting the players debate it out themselves.

So, in the Germany game, it will be interesting to see where the back line decides to maintain their position (how close to or far from their own goal) and also at what point the front players apply defensive pressure when Germany possesses the ball. In defense, timing and team unity makes all the difference -- against a powerhouse like Germany even the smallest adjustment problems will result in goal allowances. We should also watch out for long balls, mid/long-range shots, and of course make sure the areas behind the left and right sides are not exposed.

What about the Offense?

This team likes their offense. The key will be how easily or how difficult it will be for Japan to maintain possession. I am thinking that against a team like Germany, we will see fast attacks instead of slow passing build-up. Germany will put on tough pressure and fast defense, so the only way to get past people is to move the ball around quickly, using one or two touches. Japanese players will have to run run run to allow teammates good passing options.

As for forwards, from what I hear from media reports the forwards look pretty good. I don't know how many forwards Zico will substitute, but maybe we will be able to see all 5 on the pitch at some point in the game. In practices, the most worrying aspect of the Japanese forwards has been that if the team gets muddled in midfield the forwards will get lured to the midfield to help out on defense or offensive creation. If that happens, we lose numbers up front -- and the result is that when we do create a good opportunity we don't have enough people to receive the last pass for the shot. Or, they are tired out and their final shot is weak or lacks accuracy.

We could also argue on the other hand that if the forwards come down to midfield, it will be up to some of the free midfielders too make a run up to the top to go after goals. So in offense perhaps the thing to watch for is what kinds of position changes occur and who makes effective overlaps.

The game will air Live in Japan, but the time will be 4:30 AM!! So no sleep for me ...!

Friday, I will post the match review.

Fukunishi and Ogasawara fight for the ball Santos aims past opponent Oguro The team making some noise during shooting practice
Bonn Camp: Day 1 & 2
Click photos to enlarge

may27.06_deplane.jpgThe Japan World Cup squad deplaned in Germany on Friday, welcomed by a group of Japanese school children. They got on a bus and proceeded to the Bonn hotel with a police escort. They were greeted at Bonn by a small group of local fans as well as the media.

The next day, the energy was good despite the time difference, and the team proceeded to go through the morning and afternoon trainings. The training grounds they are using are the training facilities for the local football club SC Bonn. A total of 300 people watched the practice -- media as well as regular fans. It was the first time I think that all 23 players attended a practice all at one time -- at the domestic camp, we had some late stragglers and others missed portions of the main training due to injuries.

They dove right into the thick of things with defensive work on set pieces as well as the usual training routine.

Zico starts the practice warming up the body
Nakamura kicks the FK Kawaguchi and Nakazawa block Maki's shot

On Sunday, the group gathered for afternoon training, which included what Japanese call a "red-white game". In other words an intra-team game using the full pitch, not a minigame. One side consisted of what we expect will be the starters for the game against Australia, and the other side were made up of those expected to start on the bench. The practice game resulted in exposing some differences in strategy among the players, and it will become very important for the team to decide on their course of action.

Takahara, Nakamura, Miyamoto discuss strategy

L to R: Tsuboi, Ogasawara, Doi, Hide, Ono, Oguro having a laugh Yanagisawa getting egged under Tanaka's attack while Koji runs for cover

It was forward Atsushi Yanagisawa's 29th birthday, and the team "congratulated" him in the traditional Brazilian style -- by attacking him with raw eggs and flour.

Zico had recruited Tita and Junior (photo below) to do the scouting work for the Japan team -- these two have been traveling the globe in the past six months gathering information on opponent teams and attending opponents' games. They arrived at the Bonn camp and met the Japan team for the first time, observing the Sunday practice. The details of their findings are obviously not going to be disclosed.

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The media is prepared as well. If you see this big blue Japan Blue facade, it means you have arrived at GJAMPS -- the offical media center (media headquarters) for the Japan National Team.
Checking In
The Japan National WC Squad arrived in Germany safely on Friday night after a 12 hour flight. Saturday, they went through a solid menu of drills in their practices as well as defensive work on set pieces.

I will gather photos and a little video to post on this blog tomorrow (Monday), so that you get a sense of what the practices are like. I just need some time to collect and organize the materials and information.

The Germany game is coming up, so that's a big game to look to. 12 days until the WC begins...!!
And....They're Off!
The Japan National Team departed Narita International Airport for Germany this afternoon. The team, decked out in the 2006 Samurai Blue version of the Dunhill suit, were greeted by crowds and media as expected.

We're seeing some freshly trimmed heads but nothing showy, a big difference from the 02 squad who were all about standing out on the pitch.

Unfortunately, the local Bonn media exposed the name of the hotel at which the team will be staying.

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What's On the Menu?
may2506_departure3_meal.jpg This was kinda funny. It's a photo of one of the in-flight meals that will be served. If the players aren't already sick of the sight of footballs, this should just about do it! :)

The item on the top left corner is what Japanese call "katsu-don" (shortened for tonkatsu donburi) -- fried breaded pork cutlet on rice, with slightly scrambled eggs in a special broth. It's one of the most popular everyday dishes in Japan. The reason the chef decided to make the menu "katsu-don" is that people often eat it as a good-luck type thing -- "katsu" (shortened for "cutlet") also means "We will win" or "to win". If you visit any local Japanese restaurant anywhere in the world, I would be very surprised if they did not carry this on their menu.
Who Is Zico Japan?
PLEASE NOTE:

Every time new information gets added to the table below, this entry will pop to the top of the page.



I will begin populating the right hand column of the table below with whatever information I think of that may be fun to read about and/or small but appropriate video clips I can dig up. As I work on this table, I will also introduce my post on the style and philosophy of the team, though I'm sure you are already familiar with most of it. I figure it will be good for me to lay down in one place the information so maybe one day in the future I can come back to this time and see if "history" as we see it now is the same years down the road.

japan world cup squad zico team players

Profile of National Team Coaching Staff: >>click to read previous post

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Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi
GK
Aug 15 1975
179cm/78kg
>>a profile I did on Kawaguchi last year. The three goalies on this squad are all very different in style. Whereas Narazaki is cool, Kawaguchi is hot. He has a very aggressive style of defending the goal. If you read the profile I linked to above, you know that Kawaguchi has had some big spiritual (in the football sense) epiphanies over the years since WC 02. He saved many a shot during the France World Cup, but the team was only able to score one goal and did not win any games. Kawaguchi has yet to know what it feels like to win a game at the World Cup. In WC02, he had to take a back seat to Narazaki, and played in no games. Kawaguchi reasserted his number one position in 2004 after Narazaki injured himself during a European friendly, when Yoshi became savior time and time again during the now-legendary Asia Cup in China. He returned to J-league club Jubilo this season, and we have seen another demeanor change -- he is moving away from the "benevolent buddha" to a more aggressive and demanding presence. He feels it is more appropriate for the atmosphere of preparing and playing in the WC. Back in his younger days, he was a very excitable player with a wrath that put the fear of god in his teammates -- defender Makoto Tanaka admitted that back in high school (they were at the same school in Shizuoka), Kawaguchi was terribly scary and loud, shouting non-stop from behind.
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Seigo Narazaki
GK
April 15 1976
185cm/76kg
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Yoichi Doi
GK
July 25 1973
184cm/84kg
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Keisuke Tsuboi
DF
Sept 16 1979
179cm/67kg
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Makoto Tanaka
DF
Aug 8 1975
178cm/74kg
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Yuji Nakazawa
DF
Feb 25 1978
187cm/78kg
>>Read profile on Nakazawa written last year The past year for Nakazawa (since I wrote the profile above) has not been a fantastic one, at least not by 2003-4 standards. Nakazawa of course is one of the fairy tale stories of someone who was no one making it to the top of the professional league -- considering how far he has grown since he first set out to become a pro when no one wanted him. His success is probably best reflected in the fact that he won the MVP award -- the only defender to win it in a category where usually it is the goal-getters. He's also been a fantastic role model in the sense of being a big powerful and dependable presence on the back line without the typical characteristics of inconsistencies in emotional maturity and over-aggression to the detriment of teamwork. He is one of the players who pays particular attention to mates who got cut or benched -- during his world cup squad announcement press conference, he started off the session by offering loyal words to Marinos teammate Kubo who was dropped from the team at the last minute. And as you would expect in Japan, what's a great story without a manga to go along? Yup, Nakazawa's life story will be coming out as a mange book in June. Considering his is a greate role-model story, I hardly have any objections -- but you guys must think all we do is publish manga in this country! As I mentioned above, this has not been a great past year for Nakazawa, but he has been consistent in his average, making him probably the only player on the squad who I would consider irreplaceable in Germany.
--Added: Nakazawa just missed out on WC02, having been taken out in the last cut.
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Alessandro Santos
DF/MF
July 20 1977
178cm/69kg
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Tsuneyasu Miyamoto
DF
Feb 7 1977
176cm/72kg
In the role of Captain, Miyamoto has tag-teamed with Hide Nakata for quite a while. When people are asked to describe him with one word, one often hears adjectives like "cool", "intelligent", "fashionable", and "leader". But this last word "leader" may be a little misunderstood by people who hear it without understanding the nature of Miyamoto's role on the team. "Organizer" would probably be a better word to describe him. From his schoolboy days, he has always stood at the forefront of his peers: student government, model student, picked by his classmates to take on the responsibility and leadership of upcoming events. But rather than be the kind of man who forms a gang around him and leads them into various adventures and escapades, he leads with a sense of democratic organization. You might call it "herding". I once saw an interview of Iran's Ali Daei, and when asked who he felt held the key to threatening Iran's chances during the qualification process, Daei said "Miyamoto, because of his intelligence." It's hard not to be less than convinced when one sees Miyamoto on the pitch against teams that average 185cm in height. Miyamoto is only 176cm, and there are a number of very respectable taller defenders in Japan who may be reassuring to see in terms of the physical. But Tsune, as he is called by his teammates, is credited with bringing an intangible factor to the squad through his presence -- something you cannot measure with a ruler. This quality has been best expressed on the various national squads (from U- to Youth, to A), as opposed to his club. From last year to this season, he has been on and off the starting lineup at club Gamba Osaka -- partly due to fatigue, partly due to strategic considerations, but nevertheless the club has been able to find steady success even in his absence. On the national squad however, his style of "herder organization" has played a key role at various turning points. I mentioned in >>this entry (see last portion "Who's the Boss"), how he essentially instigated the rebellion on the WC02 squad. It was a decision made by the players but the discussion was initiated by Miyamoto, and the resulting strategy was put into play by him on the pitch as he controlled the back line. Zico Japan brought a host of new challenges for the National Team captain. Zico's idea of "freedom" was more a "throw the boys into the water and watch them learn to swim". It was not always pretty, and in some of the more crucial or environmentally difficult competition matches, Miyamoto was careful to the point of irritation. Many supporters complained that Zico had no defensive strategy, and that while Edu and Zico took care of the forwards and midfielders, the defenders were left to be organized by Miyamoto. Zico's only advice given to players was to leave edited video footage of the upcoming opponent in the lounge room. Players were welcomed but not forced to watch these videos -- Miyamoto's teammates would joke that they would walk into the lounge and gasp, "You're watching the video again?!". In essence, for much of the past four years it has been Miyamoto who has been thinking about and planning and discussing and implementing the defense. In other instances, he changed the course of the team's destiny by acting at crucial moments -- remember the Asia Cup quarterfinal against Jordan in which the ref agreed to change the goal used for the penalty shoot-out, or >>the night in the UAE before the Bahrain away game when the team was about to lose confidence (see under "Legend of May 31st"). Miyamoto stepped in to call a players-only meeting, and a lot of baggage and fears were cleared up. In 2005, when many of the Europe-based players started returning to the team (like Hide Nakata, et al after injuries and such), it was Miyamoto who smoothed the gap between what was back in 2003-4 a huge rift. Nakata and Miyamoto have been playing together since they were teenagers, and know each other inside-out. Back a few years ago, only Miyamoto was in a position to speak freely with Hide -- now of course, we've seen an immense change on the team, both from Hide (who's mentality towards his role in the team has evolved) and the other players. As a player, Miyamoto will be challenged by the obvious physical disadvantages against international standards. Croatia and Australia in particular have height averages in the low/mid-180s. This is nothing new to him -- he has been playing in international matches against those bigger than he since his teens.
-Added: Miyamoto is also admired for having studied through his first few years as a pro-footballer. Upon getting a contract from Gamba, he decided that it was important to get a university degree and commuted back and forth from school while also doing studies through correspondence. Miyamoto's English ability was also highlighted during the Asia Cup game against Jordan where he appealed to the ref to change goals. Things have not been easy for him despite the sheen of elitism in his career -- he had struggled to find a place for himself at Gamba back in the early days, sometimes being forced to play a defensive midfield position. He was also just about to sign a contract with a European team a number of years ago, only to have that fall apart -- and worse, to learn that Gamba had already proceeded to find someone to replace him. In WC02, he was not a starter, but the injury to Morioka game Tsune an opportunity to show that there are ways a little guy like him can be a significant presence.
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Yuuichi Komano
DF/MF
July 25 1981
171cm/71kg
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Koji Nakata
DF
July 9 1979
182cm/74kg
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Akira Kaji
DF/MF
Jan 13 1980
177cm/73kg
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Shinji Ono
MF
Sept 27 1979
175cm/74kg
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Mitsuo Ogasawara
MF
April 5 1979
173cm/72kg
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Hidetoshi Nakata
MF
Jan 22 1977
175cm/72kg
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Shunsuke Nakamura
MF
June 24 1978
178cm/73kg
>>read profile written just before Nakamura moved to Celtic last year. The biggest change since this previous profile was written has been that Nakamura has gone from a club only concerned with avoiding relegation to a club expected to lift at least one trophy during the season. Shun commented that back at Reggina, if he displayed good vision and kick quality by sending a point-blank cross to the other side the crowds would ignore it unless it directly led to a goal -- they did not care if a play showed creativity or skill to the extent he had hoped. At Celtic, every twitch of the foot, every display of soft touches, aggressive defending, quality kicks and shots, brought a reaction from the crowds. "C'mon Naka!", and he had the crowds tantalized in his more than successful debut appearance before the Hoops. Still, Nakamura has said, the challenge for him on the team was to consistently win a starting position on the team. He admitted that because it was such a quality side, even if the team played average they could come through with a win without too much trouble in most occasions. However, for him to convince manager Strachan to keep using him, he said the practice sessions were the hardest. He had to keep showing Strachan he was good, competing against a talented pool of player choices. Nakamura felt most rewarded not by the league trophy, but rather the fact that Strachan used him fairly consistently throughout the season. That was his biggest battle. In terms of the National Team, it was obvious from the outset that Zico was placing great faith and trust in the creative midfielder. In the first NT training session of the Zico era, the famous Brazilian handed Nakamura the prized Number 10 jersey. For Nakamura, the number 10 holds awesome meaning. It represents for him the embodiment of the kind of player he wants to be. And when the old guard Number 10s, like Ramos and Kimura (NT and at Marinos) retired, each had made a point to share a few words with Nakamura, telling him that he was to carry on the tradition and do the number proud. Nakamura, as you know, was a puny child, and actually had been initially rejected by the Marinos youth team. Though he made a good impact at the club when he did sign on, it did not convert to a like-place on the national squad under Troussier. To Shun, the playmaker position is his home. And Troussier kept using him on the left side. Nakamura admitted recently that in a way, his exclusion from the WC02 squad was of course painful and disappointing, but mixed with a sense of relief -- that this era of being forced to play in a position he was not comfortable in was over. He promised himself that in the following years, he would become the kind of player that was considered unequivocally necessary to the team, regardless of the National Team manager's style or strategy. Since 2002, Nakamura has gained several kilos and has maintained training that has made him stronger -- you may notice he doesn't topple over as easily anymore. Of course, at last year's Confederation's Cup, I think it was Ronaldinho who said "We didn't know about Nakamura." But now they do, and so do the other teams -- he won't be allowed to play freely. One thing I must say, upon seeing his recent attitude and demeanor, is that he definitely has an aura about him that he did not have four years ago. He is a thinking player, and has kept journals since high school -- they are filled with various strategy patterns, movement, types of free kicks, types of touch-work, and many pages of psychological and philosophical words of encouragement for himself. He is the only player from the Europe-based group that has battled through the toughest and most gruelling games during these past four years. He has the utmost trust of the squad, and of course of Zico himself.
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Junichi Inamoto
MF
Sept 18 1979
181cm/75kg
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Takashi Fukunishi
MF
Sept 1 1976
181cm/77kg
>>Previous entry with translation of short Soccer Digest article on Fukunishi. The defensive midfielder position on the National Team is extremely crowded. But Fukunishi has successfully secured a spot under Zico, squeezing out such stars like Inamoto and Ono for the starting lineup. During the time of Inamoto and Ono's absences, Fukunishi was given the opportunity to be a regular player during the most difficult of Japan's competitive matches. Back in 2004, the presence of Ono and Inamoto were so overwhelming we could not imagine what the team would be like without them. But now very few eyebrows are raised, and many believe he has earned that spot. You can always tell which player is Fukunishi because he has a very peculiar way of running -- a strange rhythm to his dribbling when he does it, and also a very unique passing rhythm. In Zico Japan, he's played in 47 games, the most I think for all the midfielders. An all-rounder, having played even as a forward in his younger days, Fuku is famous for having trained as a gymnast for most of his boyhood. People explain this as the reason for his balanced physique, long air-time, and good heading sense, and is particularly religious about proper stretching to warm and cool the body. The way he stands and walks, the posture he maintains caught the eyes of scouts back in his younger days; now it is still a way to recognize him on the pitch. He found his place at club Jubilo as a defensive midfielder under the tutelage of teammate Dunga (yes, that Dunga). Fukunishi gives off the image of being very "grown-up". Even when he was in his early twenties, he had that same demeanor and was often teased by teammates as being 20 going on 40. He keeps a very cool head during games, but is known to jab back at opponents in retaliation for an unnecessary foul. In the past year, we have seen him truly taking responsibility with respect to participating and actively seeking discussion among the team. Last year during the pre-Iran qualifier trainig camp, the media made a very big deal about Fukunishi standing up to Hide Nakata regarding issues of defensive coverage. The whole thing got rather blown out of proportion, but it was true that he was the first person on the team aside from Miyamoto who stepped up and openly debated with Hide. Fukunishi commented that he is now one of the older members of the team, and it is his responsibility to make sure that all opinions are aired. >>read prior entry regarding this incident (under "NT Update"). It helps that he is such a cool cucumber, and even more valuable that he opened up those talks with his partner in midfield. Fukunishi places a great emphasis on positioning balance during games, and though he does not scamper around (he is actually not a big fan of running) he essentially holds the fort while his partner midfielders change positions and participate on the attack. Fukunishi has a good goal instinct though, so he will also go up if he feels its worth the risk or the situation is promising; and of course he is an important weapon during FKs and corners. Last year Serie A's Cagliari appeared to be moving to seal a deal, but Fukunishi declined the offer -- one of his reasons being family considerations (he is married with two boys).
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Yasuhito Endo
MF
Jan 28 1980
178cm/75kg
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Atsushi Yanagisawa
FW
May 27 1977
177cm/73kg
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Keiji Tamada
FW
April 11 1980
173cm/63kg
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Naohiro Takahara
FW
June 4 1979
180cm/77kg
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Masashi Oguro
FW
May 4 1980
177cm/74kg
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Seiichiro Maki
FW
Aug 7 1980
184cm/77kg
Fukushima Training Camp Day 6 & 7
The Japan National World Cup Squad finished up their week-long domestic training held at J-Village in Fukushima yesterday.

Day 6

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The squad assembled for the morning session for workout and shooting drills. Zico, who had been telling the players to speak up if they felt unnatural strain or pain, felt it would be beneficial to let the players rest alittle -- he cancelled the afternoon session.

Day 7

The highlight of this day's training was another practice game. The opponents were a local high school team (a different one from Monday). The starting lineup was the same as in the previous practice game, in a 3-5-2 system: Takahara, Yanagisawa, Nakamura, Kaji, Santos, Hide Nakata, Fukunishi, Miyamoto, Nakazawa, Tsuboi, Kawaguchi. GK Narazaki guarded the goal for the opponent team.

In the previous game, the theme was "keep the ball moving". Holding the ball too long would increase the danger of getting swarmed by the opponent and losing the ball, so the players went into the game agreeing to not stop the ball during the build up.

In this day's practice game, the theme was "initiate a fast attack after a stable defense". The emphasis was placed by the defensive half of the team -- to avoid getting caught up by pressure from the opponent forwards/attackers. This counter-attack theme was obviously not necessary against a much weaker opponent like a high school team, but in the context of training the players felt it was a valuable weapon to have in a World Cup situation.

The origin of the attacks came from the defenders and the defensive midfielders like Hide and Fukunishi, and the attack sequences used the sides widely to create good opportunities. In the last six months or so we have been seeing a much better effort from the defenders with regard to participating in an effective attack process. We've seen appropriate run-ups by Nakazawa and Miyamoto, and better feeds sent from the back. It will be important for the defenders to read the game, and understand when it is better to prioritize safety (and clear the ball) and when it is worth the risk to connect passes, and when to be alert for good counter-attack chances. Japanese players are fast, and our forwards are especially good at timing their breaks through the defensive line.

Of course, we are a midfield-oriented team, but the style of Zico Japan is to be flexible and creative, and most of all, intelligent. It would be silly to stubbornly stick to midfield-only creation if the opponent is effectively crushing us with fast pressure in midfield.

Someone asked me what the scores were in these practice games. In the previous practice game the final score was 12-0 (7-0 from first half starting group, 5-0 from second half bench group). In this second game, the score was 22-0 (10-0 first, 12-0 second). What has been really good to hear is that the forwards are scoring -- Takahara scored 8 total, Maki scored 3 in the first game, Oguro scored 6 in the second game, and Yanagisawa scored 3 total with a number of assists).

Zico has been spending a whopping amount of practice time on shooting drills, and the players are aware that this is a message to them that all their training and hard work will end in disappointment unless they score goals.

060522-3.jpgThe group was released home, and the training camp ended yesterday. Today, everyone will go about spending time with their family and friends. Tomorrow, everyone will be boarding the plane for Germany. This Day 7 is the last time we are seeing the team train on Japanese soil. The crowds were huge, and the players went out of their way to acknowledge the support. The overarching theme of the week was building fitness. But we also saw the team bond strengthen, some good chemistry during games, and my general impression is that the players look really good -- healthy, relaxed, but also alert. In Germany, we will be seeing more opponent-specific strategy.


Bonn e Youkoso

bonn_flag.jpgBonn has been making preparations to welcome the Japan team (and all the Japan fans) to their city -- photo of flags are at the Japan camp in Bonn. Very few locals seem to be aware that their city will be headquarters for the Japan side, but that will inevitably change when they start seeing an inordinate number of Asian people milling about. How do you say, "Where are all these Asian people coming from?" in German....? ;)

Dogs Love Germany

Germany is a dog-loving country, and that's good news for the two Japanese canines heading there to support their squad at the World Cup. Ronmel, a dachsund so he's originally from Germany!, and Rao, forward Oguro's devoted chihuahua, have packed their suitcases. Ronmel, as you may remember from >>this past entry, is supposedly our Good Luck Mascot. In the past 18 national team games he's attended, the Japan team has not lost one game. With so much at stake, can you blame us for becoming superstitious and silly?! ;)

Okay, so that is the news for now -- I will come back tonight and tomorrow to fill in the individual profile info on the squad members. If you have little bits of info you know that you'd like to share about one or more of the players, leave a comment, and I'll put it in! I obviously don't know every player equally, so I'd appreciate your input, and share it with all our visitors.
Avispa's Matsuda Sacked
J1 club Avispa Fukuoka announced that they are letting current manager Hiroshi Matsuda go, pointing to poor results/performances as their reason.

The statement came on the heels of Avispa's elminination in the Nabisco Cup group rounds, which ended on Sunday. As you know, they just got promoted to the 1st division this year after a 5 year stay in the 2nd division. After the first eight rounds in the league, Avispa failed to win any games. Their current league results include only 1 win, 5 draws, and 6 losses.

The club is planning to choose the new manager in time for the Ishigaki Island (Okinawa) mid-season training camp to take place at the end of June.
Fukuoka Training Camp Day 5
Two days of the domestic training camp remain before the Japan National Team heads to Bonn, Germany.

The dominant theme of the domestic training camp has been fitness and conditioning. With the players from Europe and J-league at different fitness levels, the most important thing was for everyone to be building up a good foundation.

At this point in the training week, the players' fatigue levels are at their first peak. But the comments I've read indicate that it's a healthy satisfying kind of tiredness and muscle soreness.

Morning: Mini-Game

Yesterday (Monday), the team trained in the usual morning and afternoon sessions. In the morning, the team was divided into starters and substitutes to form two teams -- and proceeded to use a section of the field to play a 10-on-10 minigame. The players had not played in so long that the main aim was for everyone to get used to the ball again, and also to get a little sense of game-rhythm back.

Afternoon: Practice Game

In the afternoon, the team had their first practice game. The usual huge crowd of spectators were there (though the numbers were held back to a reported ten thousand). The opponents were a local high school team.

Theme: Hot Potato

The goal of this days' game was to move the ball fast. Though Zico Japan's style is to keep possession and pass the ball around, against organized strong opponents, this tends to end in a lot of sideways and back passing. The aim in this game was for all the players to receive and pass the ball on in a matter of one or two touches -- it calls for focus, good support movement, and creativity, especially at this time when the mind and body are tired. It will be important for the team to be able to change their speed levels during the course of the game, and one-touch passing is particularly effective when the opponents are aggressive in their defensive pressure.

Starters

The starting formation was 3-5-2, FW: Yanagisawa and Takahara, Nakamura behind, Hide and Fukunishi in front of the defense line, with Alex and Kaji on the sides, and Nakazawa, Miyamoto, Tsuboi defending. GK Kawaguchi. Substitutes: Oguro, Maki, Ono, Inamoto, Komano, Koji Nakata, and Narazaki and Doi. Defender Tanaka was out of practice the day before due to a strain, so Tsuboi took the starting position from him. And Tamada alerted the doctor to some pain in his foot during the morning practice and went to get xrays (the results show that there don't seem to be any broken bones, but no further info).

Overall, it was a beneficial practice game. The players promised each other to stick to the theme of the day -- to move the ball fast and move fast themselves. In terms of game-making, it was evident Hide and Nakamura were the creative ones.

Kaji Shines

But everyone mentioned how Kaji stood out in his energy and assertiveness, running up and down the length of the right side, creating a chunk of the chances. After the game, Nakamura spent a lot of time commenting on Kaji, and how effective he was that day. Nakamura commented that he saw a host of new possibilities with Kaji's performance that day, and hoped to be able to use Santos on the left as well to balance out the attack. It was ironic, because Japan usually depends much more on Santos on the left to help create the game. Santos has I believe the second highest assist rate. But in this game, perhaps because Santos was still recovering from the small knee injury or perhaps because Kaji stood out so much, strangely lacked presence. In terms of the team, though, this is very good news, because opponents in the past have formed their defensive strategy around locking down Santos. But if the midfielders can confidently call on Kaji, or make wide use of both sides, it will be that much harder for opponents to concentrate their defense.

Yanagisawa On His Feet

It was the first time Yanagisawa had played in a proper game since he broke his foot bone, and many were anxious to see how much he's recovered. Yana's game-legs still seem to be off a little, in terms of his finishing -- he missed a few good chances; but he also made one very good trap and volley shot. However, he has clearly not lost his sense of movement. Yana is a very clever space-maker, and with his movements he confuses the defense and gives his teammates more passing options. Takahara got three goals (Maki, who played in the second half also got three), so it was also good to see that the two people who got three goals each were actually forwards.

Second Half

The second half saw a complete member change. The remaining players went on, and a staff and one of the highschoolers filled in as defenders in a 4-4-2 system. Ogasawara and Ono were behind forwards Oguro and Maki, and Inamoto and Endo and the defenders (Koji on left, Komano on right).

The Skeleton Key?

From what I saw of the game, Ogasawara mixed very well with the forwards, and switched positions with Maki and Oguro by overtaking their position or dropping back as the needs of the game dictated. I am certain that opponent countries will make sure to mark Hide or Nakamura, and I believe Ogasawara will be a key player in terms of creating the game. There is such a quietness and self-containment about his demeanor that oftentimes people are caught off guard by the choices he makes. He may not have the creaminess of Nakamura, or the exuding presence of Hide, but he will be an important go-to guy should these other two get bogged down by marks.

***

There is still a lot of time until the first match against Australia, so the above game was purely a venue in which the players could start getting accustomed to each other and their style, get their game brain back, etc. It was also weird to have so many people watching this pratice game (more people were watching than at some J-league games!), and some players commented afterwards that there was something surreal about it -- being used to training in relatively privacy.

Overall, it was a good day for the players to begin thinking about what they need to work on as a team and as individuals. The players are demanding a lot from each other, and there was a lot of quick one-touch plays both through the middle and from the sides.

Defense

The defense was not that threatened in this game, so it was not great defensive practice. But the team ignored the fact that they were playing a high school team and kept their defensive strategy, even though in a way it wasn't that necessary. In particular, the defense line and the defensive midfielders have been making clear instructions to each other in terms of coverage and timing of offensive participation. This day, Fukunishi was particularly careful about maintaining his position as balancer in the midfield -- so that the defense line was not left stranded too much.

There is still work to be done on the timing of the run-ups by the defensive midfielders like Hide and Fukunishi. In this day's game, the high school team found themselves able to exploit this. The problem being that like I said the defenders could be left stranded with a gaping hole between themselves and an offense-minded midfield. The answer lies in the ability of the players to communicate their opinions on what is best, and have some basic ground rules in place. Hide is particularly keen on going forward when Japan has possession, and this leads to trouble if we lose the ball and fall victim to a quick counter attack. It is not a new problem -- obviously, in this day and age, football has become about scoring through multiple players, especially use of midfielders up front in overlapping sequences. But a small adjustment problem during a WC game could be the difference between going through to the next round or not. It will be important for the team to be able to organize quickly in those instances, instead of scrambling.

The team still needs to work on defensive organization, timing their pressure and marking zones, etc. The team places significance on balance and coverage, but those things can only be tested during proper matches against strong opponents -- the friendly agaisnt Germany will be the only true rehearsal in terms of defense.
Exciting Nabisco Match-Ups
The Group rounds were completed yesterday, and the 8 teams who are going on to the next knock-out rounds are all very attractive teams with strong unique personalities.

For all the info on the Nabisco Cup, please >>click to go to this entry.

May 18 2006
Albirex Niigata 0-0 Jef Chiba
Jubilo Iwata 1-2 Ventforet Kofu

May 21 2006
Urawa Reds 4-2 Yokohama F Marinos
Avispa Fukuoka 0-0 FC Tokyo
Kawasaki Frontale 2-1 Kashima Antlers
Kyoto Purple Sanga 1-2 Oita Trinita
Jef Chiba 1-0 Shimizu S-Pulse
Albirex Niigata 0-1 Sanfrecce Hiroshima
Jubilo Iwata 2-1 Nagoya Grampus
Cerezo Osaka 3-2 Omiya Ardija

Unfortunately, there were no upsets -- usually Nabisco offers a couple upsets in terms of advancement into the next round. But it is good to see Jubilo and Cerezo gaining momentum. Should be a very entertaining round.

2006 Nabisco Cup QuarterFinal Fixtures
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Gamba Osaka
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Kashima Antlers
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Jef Chiba
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Cerezo Osaka
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Jubilo Iwata
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Yokohama F Marinos
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Kawasaki Frontale
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Urawa Reds
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