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Japan vs. Bahrain: Looking for the Next Step
I am exhausted. Yesterday's game between Japan and Bahrain turned out to be yet another heart-stopping patience-wearing battle.

The loss against Iran had a bigger effect on the team than I had initially estimated. The team had three days to train after the Iran game, and it became clear as the match progressed that though Japan looked much more comfortable overall in the 3-back, mentally the shadow of last week's loss loomed. The first half was characterized by Japan's all-too-careful progression. It looked like they couldn't quite find their way forward for fear of Bahrain's counter-attack. Japan's first wave came at about 20 minutes, when Nakamura took a stubborn right-footed shot that flew above the right corner of the goal. From there, Japan repeated corners, free kicks, and throw ins but were continuously thwarted by Bahrain's tall and focused defense.

The second half brought a more invigorated Japan team -- from the first 10 seconds, where Santos ran up the left side to beat the defender to a nicely placed cross, Japan patiently repeated their attempts. Most of the offensive plays took place on the left side of the pitch, as Zico had instructed Santos and Nakamura. Things were looking more promising, but Japan still could not find a goal. Fukunishi (def.mf) stayed back most of the first half, allowing Nakata to go forward, and did not even participate much offensively. But in the second half, the three midfielders changed postions and were able to use the sides widely. The most promising scene came at 57 min when Suzuki was able to fake-out a defender and take a left-footed shot from the left corner of the penalty area. The Bahrain goalie could not hold onto the ball, but Takahara could not get to it in time before the defenders cleared.

Japan finally found their goal at 21 minutes right after fw Tamada was subbed in for Suzuki. From the practice reports, it looked like fw Yanagisawa was displaying some good stuff all week, so I had thought maybe he would be subbed in here like he was at the Iran game. However, considering the 'history' Tamada has with Bahrain (of being able to score two amazing goals against them in last year's Asia Cup semi-final) perhaps Zico was counting on the mental factor of placing him on the pitch at that time. The defenders would be keen to go after Tamada before he got too close; which is exactly what happened when Tamada made first contact with the ball. He was tripped, and a FK was awarded Japan.

The Strategy of Free Kicks
I think Nakamura kicked about 20 FK/CKs in total. I know that going into the game, Nakamura's "image" for a goal was that of Japan's first goal against Bahrain at the Asia Cup -- a kick to the near post which is deflected in quickly by Japan (at Asia Cup, dmf Koji Nakata headed it in). In this second half FK at 21 minutes, Nakamura used a signal/pattern play. The majority of Japan players were to all rush to the near side of the goal, and Nakazawa would pull wide to the far side. Nakazawa was able to make contact with the ball, and the ball flew to the crowd of teammates waiting at the near side. Miyamoto was able to make head contact, and the ball fell to Takahara who dove for it, creating further confusion. The ball fell in front of Bahrain number 10 Salmeen -- he tried to kick it out, but getting pressure from Nakazawa behind him Salmeen caught the ball on the outside of his right foot, and the ball went into the goal. This was not a completely "lucky" goal for Japan, as there was a strategy behind the play (not just hauling it in haphazardly) and Nakazawa's presence behind Salmeen invited the mistake. However, going forward, it is obvious that Japan's free kicks are being thoroughly analyzed by opponents so there is a need going forward for Japan to use different kickers and add variation to their free kick patterns. They have enough quality place kickers and trained receivers for this, so it's more a matter of practice.

Danger Zone
The last ten minutes of the game became a dangerous time for Japan. As the time ticked by, the team began to feel the collected exhaustion from this past week. Bahrain sensing this was their chance to tie the game turned on the heat, and Japan's main aim was to hold on to the ball for as long as possible and use up the time. When Nakamura attempted a cheeky flick pass and lost the ball to Bahrain, he exposed Japan to a dangerous situation. Santos, who is known to blow off his steam some time during the course of a game, blasted at Nakamura "What are you doing, you're supposed to keep the ball, idiot!" Nakamura, who looked to be the most exhausted player on the pitch, yelled back. Nakata went to break up the argument cooly. Nakamura and Santos made up right after the end of the game, and Santos admitted "I was irritated and blew off steam, and felt completely better, but I know I went too far with what I said." I'm actually not very perturbed by this -- in fact it was a good thing to happen with this team, who have been almost too patient with their own game and with each other last year. But last year was a team that was strong because they held together; this year, it is not enough merely to hang on.

Turn the Heat Up
In order for the team to step it up to the next level, scenes like the above between Nakamura and Santos are sometimes necessary. It's a form of blowing off steam, and also of snapping a player out of bad habits. Of course, this team rarely fights like this (probably Santos is the only one who brings it up to this level). The difficulty of incorporating a new system and newish players to the team during the tough Iran match made all the members on the team conscious of the importance of communicating and even sometimes arguing. Where any one mistake could lead to a tragic result, this type of pressure they create for themselves will inevitably strengthen their focus and increase each player's sense of responsibility. Supporters are relived by this win, but they are not satisfied by the finishing capabilities of this team. Now that this team has some of the groundwork out of the way, it will be up to Zico and the players to synchronize their vision.

Three Promises
Japan went into this match with three key things in mind:
1) Must Win -- needless to say, this team's main objective for this game was a win. It is always difficult to tell any football team that they must win 100%, no matter what. There were even articles in the media regarding the fate of Zico should the team lose/tie against Bahrain. However, JFA chair Kawabuchi did publicly state that "Japan is no longer a team where we panic every time we find ourselves in a tough spot -- we stand by Zico, and are not going to make a habit of hiring and firing coaches like some wheel of fortune."
2) Always be prepared for the counter-attack -- Japan most feared the kind of swift and accurate counters that Bahrain showed during their game against North Korea last week. In this, I believe the players organized and defended well and there only a couple times when there was any true danger from Bahrain.
3) On 1-on-1 matchups, beat your opponent. The players felt that their loss to Iran was due mostly to their ineffectiveness 1-on-1 against Iran players -- that they did not take the numerous challenges with guts and intelligence; and blame for this cannot be laid on any strategic reason. They just did not show the guts they should have. For the Bahrain game, this was on each player's checklist. There was definitely a visible change among the players yesterday compared to last week. Whether by foul, running, fake-outs, etc., the players were able to create good scenes defensively and offensively by being aggressive in these situations.

Cleverest Plays?
Probably would have to go to Nakamura, who invited a yellow card for Bahrain's Salmeen in the first half. Japan was fouled and Nakamura was about to pass the ball to a teammate when Salmeen tried to get in the way by leaping back and forth about a meter in front of him. Nakamura kicked the ball into Salmeen, and the ref penalized with a yellow. This is Salmeen's second total yellow, which means that Bahrain's playmaker will be unable to play in the next game (against Japan in Bahrain). Nakamura also first brought the tempo to Japan's side by taking an aggressive right-foot shot in the first half. Up until then, Japan had scarcely kicked anywhere near the goal -- this shot brought about ten minutes where Japan had numerous chances at a goal.


Sadist meets long-lost Masochist?
The re-integration of Hide Nakata was a big theme this past week. Understandably it did not go so well at first, what with the system change and Hide's long absence. He is a prickly and sometimes harsh personality who has high expectations of teammates -- probably the biggest hurdle for him was to be able to communicate better and less abusively. In the Iran training camp, the media made note of an "argument" that Fukunishi had with Nakata regarding positioning and defensively zones/responsibilities. Fukunishi is the same age as Nakata and was in the NT at World Cup 02; could explain the ease with which he was able to speak up. Looking back on that now, it turned out to be a good thing afterall -- with Fukunishi being paired with Nakata in def. midfield. The two were seen to be constantly exchanging instructions, and doing so effectively (lots of nodding agreement). The other player Nakata is paired up with on the offense is right side Kaji. Kaji is known to be somewhat of a masochist -- he is a die-hard health nut, and loves to push his body running up and down the length of the pitch. He also admitted to finding pleasure in being used by teammates, for example as a red-herring-type lure for opponent defenders. The problem was that last year Kaji was not able to contribute to the offense more actively. This year, he has shown more independent thinking and challenge-taking, probably sending up more crosses in this last 2-3 games than he did all of last year. Nakata (who has a bit of the sadist in him) may pair up nicely with Kaji. He can release some of his bossy tendencies on an eager Kaji and push him to want more in the process. Kaji was also involved in the "argument" with Fukunishi and Nakata last week, so it is a sign that he is making himself involved in these discussions. Nakata is also dependable defensively, so Kaji can aggressively play a bigger role in offense without worrying about the back line. If these two can work together effectively and Nakata can pass on some good ideas to Kaji, it will mean a much stronger right side.

Lonely Goal
Looking at the past few qualifier games, it is undeniable that the JapanNT needs some help offensively. It is not that they don't have quality players -- it may be more of a question of prioritization and speed-shifting. Playing against most Asian teams, they have had difficulty overcoming teams that have clearly analyzed Japan and teams that play a stubborn defensive/counter game. The thing I felt was missing from yesterday's game was the speed-shifting. And more specifically, plays that involved two or three players invading Bahrain's defense with quick one-touch back-and-forth passes. This requires a certain amount of unified thinking and timing, and the quick change in speed is also necessary. The forwards may have prioritized their contribution to the midfield a little too much, due to the fear of counter-attacks. Takahara and Suzuki did play their part in switching positions with the midfield and sides, but it may have taken some of the energy away from them. Neither are known to be particularly quick, mostly tough. This team may have to spend a little more time together ironing out these problems. Yanagisawa is quite good at these one touch passes near the goal, and maybe if he had been substituted for Tamada in the last 15 minutes of the game he may have come out with a goal or assist. However, I do feel that starting Suzuki and Takahara was the best choice going in. These two were probably best suited for the demands that were being placed on the forwards, and it is still an option to use the unknown Yanagisawa or Oguro in the next game.

Still Haven't Found What We're Looking For...
From interviews with players it looks like the team is still searching for their character of attack. Many supporters want Zico to put his experiences as an inspired player to use and give the players some direction. The players themselves have spent the last week constantly talking to each other, but in the end it can only be done through concentrated practice time together. Zico, who used to be quite the whip-wielder during his days as an advisor coach for Kashima Antlers (J.League), has been the target of dissatisfaction among supporters because he is not giving the team a clear plan of attack, a strategy. People are divided on whether the players will be able to answer the expectations put on them by coming up with their own creative plays and by taking advantage of team unity. As far as peaks and valleys go, these few weeks we were in the valley. And probably a necessary one, too, looking at the greater picture. I would prefer for the team to find the next peak in June: they will have two qualifiers with Bahrain and North Korea, and then will head to Germany for the Confederations Cup group games against Brazil, Greece, and Mexico. This is not an inexperienced or unintelligent team -- but finding this last important piece will continue to be difficult with half the players playing on the other side of the world. They will all need to arrive at the NT with ideas and put what little practice time they have together to effective use.
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2007/10/30(火) 01:08:47 |
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上記広告は1ヶ月以上更新のないブログに表示されています。新しい記事を書くことで広告を消せます。