Sunday, July 10, 2011

Japanese youngsters shine in Mexico

By Nobuyuki Tosey

Naoki Kawaguchi and Hiroki Akino
battle with Brazil's Adryan (Getty Images)
As the final whistle blew, many of the defeated Japanese players broke into tears. Consoled by the victorious Brazilian coaches and players, the two teams left the pitch to the applause of the fantastic Mexican crowd; a wonderful illustration of just how much Japan had impressed at this tournament.

Japan's World Cup had ended in the midst of the most unlikely of comebacks and that they had almost managed to pull it off made it all the more agonising. But what better indication of how far Japan had come, than the loss to Brazil in the quarter finals of the World Cup being met with such disappointment.

And they have come far. One win in six in the lead up to the tournament suggested that qualification from a group consisting of France, Argentina and Jamaica was unlikely. But not only did they qualify, they won the group; beating Jamaica and Argentina and arguably deserving a win in a draw against France, before a faultless 6-0 win over New Zealand in the last 16.

Japan had earned plaudits for not only their results, but the tactically mature manner of their performances. Coach Hirofumi Yoshitake had organised his team to focus on possession and collective effort all over the pitch, switching between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-1-3-1 formation to achieve this. An average of 60% possession, 11 goals scored and 2 conceded across 4 games meant that Japan would enter their quarter final with confidence riding high throughout the squad.

Furthermore, unlike many other countries where the tournament was going unnoticed, the performance of this U17 team was making news here in Japan and for a country still so in awe of Brazil's football heritage, a win against them at any level would be seen as a significant step in Japan's ever-growing football reputation.

Hirofumi Yoshitake
Coach Yoshitake had a hard job in balancing the confidence in his side and being wary of the threat of Brazil. But he was clever with his tactics: bold with the use of 4-1-3-1-1 formation that produced six goals against New Zealand, but conservative with his personnel; as he deployed the defensive minded Kida in the middle of the attacking midfield three and left the offensive minded Matsumoto on the bench.

But with so much of Japan's success this tournament stemming from their possession game, Japanese hearts sank upon seeing the state of the pitch. The heavy rain - that had already led to a game being abandoned this World Cup - had taken its toll and despite the attempts from the Japanese to stick to their passing game, it was clear from early on that the conditions wouldn't allow it.

As I have mentioned in my previous article, these tournaments are all about broadening these young players' footballing education and for the Japanese, their encounter with Brazil would prove to be a ruthless demonstration of the increased level of opposition that comes with the transition from youth to professional football.

In Adryan and Ademilson Brazil possess two scintillating talents; along with Germany's Samed Yesil and Ivory Coast's Souleymane Coulibaly they have been the most exciting players at the tournament and the pair would ultimately prove to be the architects of Japan's defeat.

After a scrappy start it wasn't long before Brazil got the opening goal. Adryan showcased his ability from set pieces with a perfect corner for Leo to head past Nakamura. The level of defensive organisation we had to come to expect from Japan was non-existent and the young team were perhaps slightly overawed by the occasion.

With a 1-0 lead, Brazil were happy to sit back and hit on the counter. Japan had experienced a similar scenario before; as France adopted a similar tactic having gone ahead in their group game. Although Japan were able to open them up with prolonged spells of possession on that occasion, this time the insistence to stick to their passing game was admirable yet naïve given the conditions and Japan struggled to create much before the interval.

It wasn't long after half time that Brazil struck again through a moment of sheer quality. Guilherme burst down the left wing, whipped an early ball into the box and despite Iwanami doing his best, the ball couldn't be cut out. Ademilson then showed exactly why he is deserving of his burgeoning reputation, as in one fluid movement he cushioned the ball and hit a precise shot in the far bottom corner with his left foot.

Japan found themselves two goals down for the first time this tournament. Desperation began to creep into their game and with it the assurance and discipline we had come to come expect began to disappear. Long and hopeful balls became the means of attack and previously reliant figures such as the captain Iwanami were making errors that Japan were lucky not to concede from.

Japan needed a moment of inspiration and Ishige almost provided it. Collecting the ball on the edge of the area, Japan's top scorer cut in on his left and hit a rasping shot that struck the bar. It was a moment that would ultimately prove pivotal. Had that gone in, with a one goal defecit and plenty of time left the momentum may well have swung in favour of Japan. But soon after Adryan produced a moment of brilliance to all but end the tie.

After Nakamura saved well from a Misael shot across goal, the stocky number 10 picked up the ball on the corner of the penalty area with not much danger in sight. Executing a Cruyff turn that the man himself would have been proud of, Adryan left Kawaguchi for dead and hit a thunderous strike with his left foot that beat Nakamura at his near post.

The goal seemed to settle Japan, with nothing to lose they looked relaxed and with around 15 minutes to go they pegged one back. Ishige lifted a ball over the top and for one of the first times in the match Japan got in behind the Brazilian back four. The two substitutes combined as Takagi crossed for the late arriving Nakajima to finish calmly.

Japan were giving all they had to get the necessary two goals, but it wasn’t until the 88th minute that they got a goal back. A deep corner by Ishige was cushioned back across goal and after it clipped the cross bar, Hayakawa was on hand to nod into the empty net.

You had the feeling that Japan would get one more chance and they did. Ishige burst into the area and somewhat erratically fired across goal. Reminiscent of Paul Gascoigne against Germany in Euro 96, Nakajima came so close to getting on the end of the cross-cum-shot to tap home the equaliser but failed to make contact.

Brazil held on for the win but the final whistle was met with relief rather than ecstasy in the knowledge that this Japan team had pushed them all the way.  

Overall Review 
With the group of players playing far beyond the level most had expected, in terms of performance there is little to criticise, neither is there much point in doing so given the age group. What should be looked at is the state of youth development, the consequent players it’s producing and what can be improved.

As I mentioned earlier, the influence of Brazil on Japanese football should not be underestimated. Brazilian players continue to play a significant role in the J.League today, but the influence dates back a number of footballing generations.

Fellow Asian Football Feast contributor Matthew Kenny wrote on the subject: “The likes of Zico, Dunga and Leonardo had a hugely positive impact on Japanese football, teaching their hard-working teammates the value of technique and good attitude”.

Indeed one of the best qualities that the Japanese possess is that they work so hard for each other and are so disciplined in their roles. This was apparent with this young team as the levels of physical fitness displayed by the players were incredibly high and allowed them to compensate for having lesser height and physique than their opposition.

But what has come on a lot in recent years in the Japanese game is the tactical nous shown by the coaches and players and this was by far the most encouraging sign given by this group. Yoshitake was one of the few coaches to use the entirety of his squad and the ease at which players came into the side and adapted to the changing formations was phenomenal. Having such a high level of tactical maturity and the fitness needed to put Yoshitake’s plans into practice meant that Japan were probably the most impressive 'team' at the tournament. 

However, it seems that the 'value of technique' appears to have been lost along the way a little. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Japan have compromised technical ability over other attributes, as at the higher end of Japanese football the technique exhibited regularly by players such as Yasuhito Endo, Keisuke Honda and young prospects Takashi Usami and Ryo Miyaichi would suggest otherwise.

But the gulf between this U17 team's technical ability and their opposition was often telling. If you look at the goals Japan conceded this tournament, they were all examples of technically superior players undoing Japan's collective containment effort. Compare this to Japan's goals and even in the rout of New Zealand Japan had to work much harder for their goals to compensate for the lack of technique.

To paraphrase what Dutch coach Raymond Verheijen recently noted on twitter: developing football countries should focus on technical and tactical development to catch up with the top nations and not rely on fitness.

It’s something that is being addressed; Nobuyuki Uenoyama, head of the J.League's technical committee recently said: "Most of the people who trained the Samurai Blue into who they are today are high school teachers". Although increased numbers of pro-licensed coaches in recent years have improved the situation for this group of youngsters, its still evident that level of technique is not yet up to the standards of the leading nations.

Finally and perhaps this point is a little harsh, it appears that Japan suffers from the age old problem of pigeonholing players due to their physical attributes. Of course, the demographic of Japan plays a part in the type of players Japan produces and so to expect a Drogba-esque striker is pointless.

However, as the tallest players were the three goalkeepers and the two centre backs Ueda and Iwanami it seems to suggest that it’s true to an extent. Japan’s national team currently have a problem with a lack of a natural striker and this was very much the case for this U17 team. If Japan are to compete at a higher level they need to be producing a wider variety of attacking players, not just small industrious types that make intelligent runs.

Notable Individuals 

Naomichi Ueda - The tall, ball-playing centre back was the only ever present player for Japan and outshone his centre-back partner, the captain Iwanami. Weak on the back foot, but strong in the air and a good reader of the game, he was often seen stepping up to dispossess deep lying forwards on a number of occasions. Furthermore, just as Ryo Miyaichi had done in the previous U17 World Cup, both Ueda and Muroya showed that the high school system can still produce high level players and it’s not surprising to see a number of J.League Clubs chasing his signature.


Naoki Kawaguchi - Although the full back didn't start in the first game against Jamaica, he took his chance against France and went on to be the most improved player during the team's time in Mexico. His ability to get forward gave the team the needed width to stretch their opposition and create gaps for the trio of attacking midfielders to exploit. Defensively he has the intensity in terms of closing down that is so often lacking in full backs of the attacking mould and positionally it all seems to come very naturally to him. I would say that he is the most likely to push on from this group.

Fumiya Hayakawa - The full back/winger was my player of the tournament for Japan. A good mix of industriousness complimented by end product, he finished the tournament with an impressive 3 goals and 2 assists. Would like to see more work done on his defensive qualities and see him develop as a full back as he doesn't have the ability to be a midfielder at the top level. If he does concentrate on that part of his game he and Kawaguchi could well be the left and right back pairing for Albirex Niigata in a couple of years.

The Coach 
Hirofumi Yoshitake’s contribution to the team’s success at this tournament should not be underestimated. Getting such a young team to stick to such a patient approach is admirable enough, that he was able to get results with the system is quite outstanding. He is already looking ahead, stating that he “would like to work hard to narrow those gaps [between Japan and the top teams] and bring another team to the world championship with those who were born in 1996.” With Yoshitake in charge, the next generation will certainly be in good hands.


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