Saturday, 4 December 2010

Puno Hvala, Mato!

There's been so much going on with the Squirrels lately, what with the large number of fixtures in November and the J-League's punishment over Crowdgate, that we haven't had the opportunity to give some attention to what would at any other time have been a major story: the fact that, after two seasons at the club, Mato Neretljak will be leaving Omiya following this weekend's final J1 fixture against Yokohama F Marinos. In many respects the announcement of Mato's departure was not very surprising, given that in the latter half of the 2010 campaign he has completed only five full J1 games, evidently no longer a first choice central defender under coach Jun Suzuki.

A much bigger surprise, though, is the fact that he managed to fall quite that far out of favour, especially considering how significant a figure Mato was for Omiya last year. Coming to Ardija after three and a half successful years in the K-League with Suwon Samsung Bluewings, the Croatian international was clearly a significant investment on a significant salary, signed to replace Leandro as the dominant figure in the middle of the Squirrels defence. In doing so Mato formed a major part of the Squirrels' Korean Invasion of the winter of 2008/09, alongside midfielder Park Won Jae and of course coach Jang Wae Ryong, who was on record as saying how keen he had been to bring Mato to Omiya with him.

Furtho So that's a very brief bit of background. Let's get the views of Agent Orange on the player and his time at NACK5 - what did you think about Mato in 2009 specifically? What kind of impact did he have on Ardija, and what were your Mato highlights during that year?

Agent Orange I remember watching Mato for the first time in a scrimmage against Tochigi SC and thinking, "Oh, he's OK, but I hope he doesn't take any free kicks." Not the first time I was woefully wrong about something. The positive and negative aspect of his play was the same: he was so good and so confident that he put himself in positions to make plays all the time. Sometimes it didn't work out too well and it looked like he erred. I remember writing something about him making one big mistake a game... that might be true, but he also got himself into positions to make a ton of plays.

Arguably Mato is one of the top five most talented Ardija players of all time, just based on last year's performance. I think if he had produced the same type of season for Urawa Reds or Gamba Osaka or any of the other bigger clubs, he would have been a Best XI player, hands down. Between the coaching inadequacies, the lack of real talent depth on the Ardija squad and the fact that Omiya is not a popular club by any stretch of the imagination, Mato was under-rated in a wider J-League context.

When you think that he shared a back line with Yosuke Kataoka, Yusuke Murayama and Kohei Tokita at various times during the year and still managed to help the team avoid relegation, that should tell you something about how good he truly was in 2009. And as for thoughts on highlights from Mato, I guess it would have to be that 3-2 win at the beginning of 2009 against Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Nobody was really sure how good he was going to be, but that day he managed to score a penalty and then get the winner. I also loved his interviews - I was always hoping he would do something good so they would pick him to do the interview.

F At the start of 2010, how did you anticipate that the season would go for Mato?

AO He was one of two guys that I thought you could write on the line-up card in ink and not worry about what would happen. I was optimistic after the pre-season friendly against Suwon and I was downright confident after the first match of the season against Cerezo Osaka that we finally had a back four which could compete with the rest of the league. I worried that if the incoming Shusuke Tsubouchi saw extended time in the team we would be doomed. It's funny how that pretty much is the opposite of what has happened.

F So how do you feel about how things have turned out for Mato in 2010?

AO Not so great. Mato had some highlights this year, but the way he fell out of the line-up was shocking. Probably it was a bad sign for him when Jun Suzuki opted to go with Tsubouchi and Shunsuke Fukuda in the May Nabisco Cup games, but I thought that was just experimentation on the new coach's part. I don't think it helped matters that Yuki Fukaya also wasn't in very good condition for most of the year but Mato just looked a step slow this season.

The impression I got with Mato was that he fit in Jang Wae Ryong's system in 2009 because Jang didn't really have much of a system; Mato could pretty much roam free and dictate where people went. Now, Suzuki seems to have a more disciplined formation, and communication and trust are I think imperative for this to work - and it never seemed like Mato totally was comfortable with the guys he was paired with. I'm totally looking at this from an outsider's perspective, but it seems like Tsubouchi and Fukaya are a more natural pairing. Tsubouchi has no major inclination to go forward and score while Mato and Fukaya are both pretty good at it.

The end result of all this is that Suzuki decided he could make do without Mato and use the coveted foreign allocation spot on something different. Of course he might know something that we don't as well. But hey Furtho, I have a couple of questions for you as well. The first is this. Weekly Soccer Digest rated Jorge Valdes, Bare and Rafael as the top three foreign players in Ardija history. Do you agree and where would you put Mato in the list?

F It's a little bit hard for me to comment on the detail of those three players because I've only been following Ardija closely since the end of 2004 and Valdes had obviously left the club by that time. Omiya have always had more of a defensive focus and so it is difficult to compare Mato directly with someone like Rafael who clearly is crucial to Ardija this year. But what I would say is that 2009-era Mato comes out pretty close to the top of a list of players that were important to the squad. I can't really think of any other players who were so obviously as key to the Squirrels team as he was last season.

And was the Mato of 2009 better than previous foreign defenders like Leandro and Toninho? I think he was. It would be easy to concentrate on his physical power as an important characteristic and of course no-one would suggest that that wasn't a significant part of what Mato brought to the club. He was dynamic and inspiring in his leadership and commitment, aggressive without being over the top - his disciplinary record was good, the recent sending-off against Gamba notwithstanding - his touch and timing in the tackle were of quality and the goals he scored from set plays were vital for a struggling side. Maybe Mato even kept Omiya in J1 a year ago.

AO Why do you think that Mato is on his way out and what do you think caused it?

F As you commented, the way that this year has turned out for Mato has from the supporters' perspective been quite shocking. Everyone who saw his reaction to scoring the equaliser against Vissel Kobe could see how much it meant to him, but the truth is that although we all went in to 2010 thinking that Mato with Fukaya and Takashi Kitano was going to be a great combination, in fact you could make a case for saying that Tsubouchi was the most important defender and the most important signing of last winter. If Mato is leaving for footballing reasons then that has to be a big part of it - maybe a downturn in form, or an injury he couldn't properly shake off and which affected his mobility and confidence, or a combination of those things.

He must be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, earners at Omiya and under those circumstances it is reasonable enough for the club to pursue other options as regards squad development. I mean, you have to assume that they will bring someone else in and I would have thought that there was room for someone with a bit of pace, which none of the central defenders have much in the way of. If it's nothing to do with the football, well - fans rarely get the chance to learn exactly why a player leaves a club until a while later and of course there can be a whole bunch of reasons, especially for a European guy with a young family.

AO Where will Mato go after Omiya? Do you think he stays in Japan or is next week the last we'll see of him?

F Mato has been pretty clear and upfront that he ended up going to Korea because Suwon were the club who would pay him what he thought he was worth - if I remember correctly it was Hamburg who were interested in signing him from Hajduk Split, but they wouldn't come up with the cash - so unless there are family reasons for heading back to Europe and staying there, there's no reason to think he won't adopt the same sort of policy. If other J-League clubs are nervous about taking a chance on him after this season, a possible destination might be one of the Middle Eastern leagues, where obviously money is not that much of a problem. Wherever Mato goes, though, I hope he's a success and that he keeps an interest in the Squirrels. Puno hvala, Mato!



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