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Japan 1-0 Ecuador Match Review
My schedule went off track this weekend, so sorry for the delay in this write-up of the game played last Thursday... J league Round 6 post will be coming up in the next few days.

The Continuing Saga...

So picking up where we left off last time... after the Bosnia game, we were left a bit deflated. Though the circumstances surrounding that game were less than ideal, there were a few big problems that reared to the forefront -- a) how to handle strong defensive pressure from the opponent b) how to handle physicality from the opponent c) is the 4-back defense line too fragile to depend on (incl. issue of Santos weakness displayed against Bosnia)?

This game against Ecuador was supposed to help Japan address a few issues. 1) Finally record a win against a South American opponent 2) Restabilize the defense line after Bosnia 3) See how Tamada looks (incl creating scoring opportunities) 4) Total defensive pressure
So the 1) Win against a South American opponent, finally, was a nice way for papers to lead the story in the following morning articles. But as a whole, it left a certain degree of uncertainty in the air. Ecuador had arrived from the opposite side of the planet after a journey that took them two days, and were hardly in great condition, as well as missing a number of their key players.

2) With a switch back to the 3-5-2 system, we did not see the 4-back that we saw against Bosnia. The unexpected switch by Zico during the practice a couple days before is either explained by Endo's withdrawal from the team (injury), and/or by Zico's allusion to wanting to keep the team on their toes, avoiding a sense of complacency when it comes to the 3-back.

>>Click to see starting formation

First Half

The first 20 minutes were pretty decent for Japan. Right off, we created a number of chances from the left, and as some of you have commented Santos did do well to create a lot from his side. He has been doing very well in the J league, and it is good to see that being with the NT did not suck that out of him. In this game, since Santos played as a midfielder, and the opponent was not as overpowering, he was allowed to play more in his comfort zone of attack. And he did avoid getting meaningless cards and losing the ball in dangerous areas.

Tamada was certainly making an effort, particularly in dribbling -- during a practice game, where he played as offensive midfielder for the latter portion of the game, he set up a number of goals. In this game, he opened wide to left and right, supporting the midfield. In the 2nd minute, his one-two hand-off to Santos allowed Santos opportunity through for a grounder back from the goalline -- Fukunishi caught up to it for a shot but the ball flew over the bar. Dribbling efforts up left (Santos and Nakazawa) and right (Tamada) wins Japan several FKs and CKs. 11th minute, an Ogasawara free kick is met by a diving Fukunishi. The ball deflects off one side of his face, but the angle is a a bit too high, and the ball goes over the bar.

At 15 minutes, Kaji passes out to Tamada on the right. Tamada dribbles up and in, and sends it through for a running Ogasawara to chase, but the pass is a fraction too strong and the goalie gets to it.

Immediate pressure after loss of possession inside Ecuador's half allows Santos to send in an early cross center to Kubo. Kubo got through the defense to get a foot on it as it reached the ground, but his ankle turned out and the angle sent the ball just right of the far post.

A couple minutes later, Kubo missed another good opportunity after a good mix of one touch vertical passing gets Japan through on the left line with Ogasawara chasing. Ogasawara sends the ball back to Santos who crosses it in to meet Kubo's head -- but the ball lobs over bar.

A minute later, a through pass from Ogasawara is reached by a defender, but Tamada wins it back by putting pressure inside the box. His shot (or perhaps it was a square pass to Kubo) parallel to the goalline sails untouched to the opposite side.

Past this point, the game loses momentum. Ecuador's style in this game was extremely low key and slow, and we seemed to get dragged into their rhythm. Though they were obviously not in their best form, Ecuador showed their possession skills and physical presence, and instead of chasing after the ball willy nilly, Japan had to concentrate their pressure to a limited area inside their half. At 32 minutes, Ecuador gets probably their best chance of the game when Tenorio fired off a nice shot off a loose ball. Kawaguchi just got his fingers on it to deflect, and the ball hit the bar. After this Ecuador got in another mid-range shot from Sledispa that just went wide on the left.

Japan's only shots in the latter 20 minutes of this half were limited to set pieces and mid-range shots. Given the game stagnated, the use of mid-range shots from Japan (not just crosses from side or through-the-middle penetration) was an option, but both shots from Ogasawara and Ono missed the goal completely.

At 40 min, Baldeon's shot following a quick long feed hit the outside netting. And a minute after that, Tamada was taken down as he broke through the defense in response to a nicely placed Ono feed, but the ref did not call foul.

Second Half

Thankfully Japan breathed a little life back into the game, and we saw a little more variation and spirit from the team. At 47 minutes, Fukunish picked up on a run, dribbling up the left through three defenders (who all looked a little surprised to see him). Fukunish sent in a decent cross to the far where Kubo was waiting to volley it in, but the shot was a bit wild and the defender cleared.

Tamada put his dribbling to good use a few minutes later. Japan had been doing some good one touch passing in midfield, which was sent back to the defense for a long feed to front right. Tamada caught up to the ball, dribbled around and through the defenders surrounding him, and ended up getting a free kick when he was fouled.

We saw use of width: A heel pass from Ono square to Santos, and Santos sends a long feed from left to top right, where Kubo chases and crosses in to Ono who volleys the ball -- but the shot is wide.

58 minutes, Ecuador gets a free kick a few meters away from the D. The header was met at the far, but the shot was weak and Kawaguchi caught the ball without difficulty. A couple minutes later, Kaji sends in a cross after getting a heel pass from Tamada at the right line. Ogasawara traps the ball but the ball bounces, and all he can do is head it backwards to Ono and Ecuador crowd us out.

A nice chance for Japan at 64 minutes. Kaji persists after Japan loses possession at the right line, and wins it back, sending it to Ono for a forward feed to Tamada. Tamada just got past the defense to chest trap the ball as he turned to face goal, but his shot was blocked by the goalie.

Kubo got another great opportunity when Santos, Fukunishi and Tamada persist on the left, giving Santos a way through to cross to Kubo in front of goal. Kubo gets his head to scarpe the ball, but the ball floats and the keeper fingers it out. This was a period of repeated set-ups by Japan, but there was an element of the haphazard due to all the back and forth bouncing around. One good chance came when Tamada's dribbling through a congested area gave the ball free to Ono, but his shot was deflected by the goalie.

Ecuador are trying to settle down to their rhythm and make use of possession as is their style, but small errors in passing allow Japan to intercept.

At 75 minutes, Zico made the only substitutions of the game -- switching in Maki and Sato in for Kubo and Tamada. The two fresh forwards immediately throw themselves into the game, Maki using his body to smother a defender's recieving, and Sato chasing the ball and forcing the defender to clear poorly.

83 minutes: Maki received a long feed from the back line, is able to hold onto it long enough to let Kaji pick it up and square it to Fukunishi. The ball passes to Santos who dribbles up the left and sends it in low but at the defense line, and is easily cleared. After this play, Sato gestured dramatically to Santos, with both arms indicating he wants the ball more in front, in that space between the back line and the goalie.

Hisato Sato scored at 85 minTwo minutes later, Sato's communication bears fruit, when a bit of back and forth at the left line ends with the ball at Ogasawara's feet. Oga quickly sends it to Santos who is already facing forward. He takes it up and sends in a low cross in again, but this time aiming for exactly the space Sato had gestured to before. Sato slips through the defense, hopping up to deflect the course of the ball with the inside of his left foot. The ball whizzes into goal landing in the side netting.

Now with only a few minutes left, Japan wants to use the speed of the fresh forwards. At 88 minutes, Ogasawara sends in a very nice feed to top right. Sato picks it up into the box, but his last minute flicked shot from near the goalline ricochets off the bar.


The truth is, this is a difficult game to analyze in the context of the World Cup. It was neither here nor there, but if there is one thing it was good for, at least it gave the team a chance to regain their footing after the February games. The quality of the football and technique were not all that great, but there were indications of intent especially as a team unit that at least showed the players were not just going through the motions. They showed overall better organization on pressure. Though it is unwise to tire yourself out chasing possession against South American style teams who know how to set their rhythm with passing, Japan were effective in regaining possession when the ball finally did start to move into a congested area. Ecuador lacked a certain sharpness, but they were tough around the ball to the very last, and they were quick to stretch their legs and get their foot on less than stellar final passes on the set-up.

On defense, then, Japan had less to worry about. Ecuador's chances came mostly from long range shots, though on a good day any one of those shots might have easily gone in. Though some people complain that playing a 3-back system let Zico off the hook for the implosion of the 4-back in the Bosnia game, I think the general wisdom should be that the Bosnia game was not so much a result of just the defense line's fault (although Santos was pretty awful that game), but could also be attributed to decrease in total pressure in the second half and unwillingness to change the style of play.

In this game, Japan used long balls against an opponent who persisted on maintaining a high defense line. In order to free up space, the feeds from the back line were effective in creating more in the midfield. There is still the issue of the quality of most of these feeds (especially from Miyamoto), but as a tool it was ok.

The other thing which was good to see was that the switching back and forth between offense and defense. The speed was not too slow, and if the quality of our touches had been better we may have created some more effective plays off the quick switch back to offense. In defense, we also saw some good support, but again this is harder to evaluate because Ecuador were not playing too fast.


Still this game ended for me with a bit of a "so what?" Without the players from Europe it is hard to truly address overarching issues of chemistry, and against a team that did not threaten our defense too much it is hard to say "great job".

I mentioned earlier that one of the points of the game (in Zico's mind) was to see how Tamada was doing. Tamada is the only forward who has not been scoring, among the NT's domestic forwards (heck, even defender Tanaka scored a few rounds ago). His only goal recorded so far was a penalty. So with so little time to the final roster announcement, it was important for him to show the range in which he can contribute. In that respect, there was a clear difference in motivation and spirit; Tamada moved around and contributed on various levels. He still has problems on the first trap/touch, which really bothers me, but overall he gave the midfield opportunities to overlap, helping out on the sides and winning free kicks.

Kubo, as you know, is an all or nothing type of forward. When he is "on", he is ON, and worth his weight in gold. When he is not, he is dead weight. This game, he had three really good chances, and during better periods, he would've scored at least one easy. Should Zico have used him in this game? Probably not. He was not doing great in the league recently, and was complaining of fatigue. But Zico was interested in seeing Tamada play along with Kubo. So Kubo's presence there was also partly a test of the chemistry between the two. This is probably good news for Tamada -- if Zico is seriously looking at Tamada as a partner for Kubo, it could mean Tamada has a very good chance of making it into the WC roster.

One ironic thing about Kubo and Tamada's chances in this game was that most of the close shots they took were forced on their right foot -- but both are left-footed. Zico had mentioned he liked the idea of putting two left-footed forwards in (he claims it is harder for defenders), but in this case it sort of backfired.

Though I had wanted to see Maki and Sato play, the fact that they were substituted in together probably means Zico is not considering them for the final roster (ie, if he is uninterested in mixing and matching). I could be wrong -- but Sato did throw a wrench into things by becoming the new "hero" (a la Oguro) by gettinga much needed goal. The goal from Sato was 100% Hisato -- this is his kind of goal. The fact that he spoke out to Santos during the game and was vocal about what kind of ball he wanted was great to see. The Japanese midfield has a lot of talent, but since they are not mind-readers, it is important for the forwards to be more vocal and demanding.

It was also obvious that Ono was still not in form. Not necessarily the physical aspect, but more the mental. His strength is in his ability to read the game and in his vision, but in this game we saw him looking inwardly frustrated. Many of his passes lacked that magical see-all placement, and Ono himself commented after the game that personally he still has a way to go to normal. Even at Urawa, his teammates have been superior to him in performance.

From Here Onwards

After the game, it took a while for Zico to come out for the press conference. Apparently he had taken each player aside and was addressing each individually.

I know in my head that we have something like 70 days until the World Cup, but after two years of "World Cup" this and "World Cup" that, it seems almost unreal that the event itself is finally going to take place.

The last World Cup was in Japan, so the degree of WC Fever was completely different. Right now, we are only starting to truly switch into gear -- there is an anticipation in the air, but nothing concrete. Electronics stores already trying to predict how many flat screen tvs they can sell; football news shows are starting to extend the show times and are introducing teams and players from participating countries. Still, it feels unreal.

Probably the biggest factor is the separation of the players in Europe. Aside from the Bosnia game, which the team had barely one snowed in day to practice, the entire and whole Japan National Team has not really played. It's like a long distance relationship, and the more time that passes the more we get anxious.

Bulgaria and Scotland?

So I've been hearing news that the May Kirin Cup friendlies are against Bulgaria and Scotland. But I have not really seen anything official, so I guess they are in the midst of negotiating the contract. For now, I have included these two matches in the NT calendar in the left column.

Of course, added friendlies will still be rather devoid of meaning if we can't get the entire gang together. I hear the JFA is going to try (very hard) to convince the clubs to allow our players to come back to Japan in mid-May. It would be nothing short of amazing if this happens, and will depend on the generous spirit of the clubs.... I indicated before that this Ecuador game would be the last before the squad announcement, but I guess these two friendlies (if the negotiations are successful) in May will come just days ahead of the roster announcement (scheduled for May 15 tentatively).

I have no time to edit this meandering post, but I hope this entry made some sense. When the NT roster is announced, we can go over the squad in detail and learn more about each player (got lots of silly tidbits of trivia just burning a hole in my pocket).
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