Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Agent Orange: Another Damn Halfway Point Article

God knows everyone else is writing one. I might as well too.

The name of the game in J1 for 2011 is Wide Open. A lot of factors, both natural and artificial, have led to parity this year. Even the most diehard Kashiwa Reysol fan probably wouldn't have predicted that their squad would still be around the top of the league at the halfway point. By the same token, no-one would have imagined that the two giant red monster clubs would be struggling around the bottom, mere fractions away from being in relegation territory.

Every team this year has a flaw. It's not like Nagoya Grampus, who won the title comfortably in 2010, or the Kashima Antlers teams that took care of business three straight years. This year's champion will probably be one of the weakest title-winners and it won't make a bit of difference to that team or to their fans. Championships are like... they all count the same! (Or something like that.) Anyhow, top to bottom from bottom to top, here's a guide to what's wrong with your club.

18. Avispa Fukuoka I don't like dumping on teams when they are down. I didn't like doing it to Shonan Bellmare and I don't want to crap on Avispa, especially because they beat us. They were flawed from the beginning and the club didn't address the talent imbalance between J2 and J1. Maybe five or six of their players would be regulars on other J1 clubs and two or three could start, but Fukuoka are possibly less talented than the awful team we threw out at the start of 2007.

You have to give the manager and players credit - they have not given up and they are making things difficult, especially at home. But fourteen losses in eighteen games is almost impossible to overcome. Maybe they can knock off one or two big clubs along the way and develop young guys like Kosuke Nakamichi and Hideya Okamoto, who both have provided some good moments.

17. Montedio Yamagata To a lesser degree, Montedio are in the same boat as Avispa. They aren't the deepest team to begin with and some bad personnel moves, combined with injuries, have sapped them of any ambition on the field. The big move they made in the off-season was to replace ten-goal scorer Yuzo Tashiro with a player that Avispa deemed not worthy of keeping.

The third J1 year of Yamagata bunkerball has been figured out and with no major scoring threats on the squad, it's not as hard for the opposition to crack. The thing that doomed them, though, was coach Shinji Kobayashi's decision to sit underrated keeper Kenta Shimizu (29) for a less experienced, dependable and younger Yuki Uekusa (wait... 29).

16. Ventforet Kofu Toshiya Miura is a great J2 coach. Wonderful J2 coach. I've always said that if you were a team near promotion trying to get over the hump, Miura is the guy you should hire. On the flip side, he is a very very simple, negative coach in J1. Exhibit A happened Saturday, where Kofu with a man advantage for nearly 80 minutes could not score against Urawa Reds and lost 2-0. I imagine when Miura saw the red card, his first thought was, "Great, we can get out of here with a tie!"

There is talent on Kofu, especially in the scoring department, where they boast up and comer Mike Havenaar along with three strikers - Yoshiro Abe, Paulinho and Davi - who each have posted at least nine goals in a season. Giving Miura prolific strikers is like giving your grandmother a Ferrari so she can go to the grocery store three blocks away. It's a waste. The defense, which is supposedly a Miura speciality, is not very good. Aside from the excellent Brazilian centerback Daniel, there's just not much there. Miura has done better with a worse squad... and that might be the problem. Some guys just can't coach talented players.

15. Vissel Kobe If you take out the Shimizu S-Pulse game (a 5-1 win), the Cerezo Osaka game (a 4-0 win) and the Gamba Osaka game (a 3-2 loss), Vissel is left with having scored six goals in fifteen games. They've failed to find the net on nine occasions, the second-worst record in the league (Montedio's tally is ten). Although the S-Pulse and Cerezo games demonstrated that when Vissel are hot they are very hot, when they go cold - which has been most of the first half of the season - it doesn't look good.

It would be painfully ironic if the 2011 edition dropped to J2 because it's a much more solid, disciplined Kobe squad than the one that barely survived in 2010. You can't expect to be anything more than mid-table, though, when your featured striker is much better as a complementary player. Yoshito Okubo would be great as the third or fourth option on a team. As "the man," however, he lacks the touch to carry a squad.

14. Kashima Antlers When good teams get old, it's never pretty and we're seeing that with Kashima. It's not really a surprise considering that over the past four years they have been regulars in the ACL. Antlers had a handful of foreign and domestic players flee for jobs in Europe, the Middle East and Brazil. They had their stadium and training ground destroyed by the earthquake. The physical and emotional toll has caught up with them.

For his part, Oswaldo de Oliveira is trying to fast track younger talent in to replace guys like Masahiko Inoha and Takeshi Aoki but it's been painful. The heart of the team, Mitsuo Ogasawara, has been distracted since the earthquake hit and has not been himself. It's going to get worse before it gets better but the front office in Ibaraki won't let it last too long.

13. Albirex Niigata The Niigata squad is a weird mix of young and old. Bruno Lopes is another wonderful signing by Albirex, who of all the clubs in the J-League seem to have the best sources in Brazil. Unfortunately, he'll probably be wearing a Reds uniform in a year or two. Injuries to Cho Yong Cheul and the loss to Urawa of Marcio Richardes have really stunted what was in 2010 a decent offensive squad. For a team with all that support, it seems like they are content to do things on the cheap and not challenge for a title. Ambition is the real problem in Niigata right now.

12. Urawa Reds If you caught last week's Weekly Soccer Digest, you would have seen the little stamp in the corner for each team giving their anticipated ceiling for the year. Teams like Fukuoka, Yamagata and of course Omiya were touted for the relegation line, i.e. surviving is the best they can possibly hope for. Kashiwa and Yokohama F Marinos got the championship stamp because they are up near the top. Teams from Vegalta Sendai down to Niigata received the money tag - top five is the best they can do.

And then there was Urawa, with an ACL stamp. At the midpoint in the season, four wins (all at home... two to relegation candidates Kofu and Fukuoka, one after a full week of rest against a Kawasaki Frontale squad who had played three days before, one after two months' preparation for a banged-up Nagoya side in the middle of the ACL group stage) and a ton of mismanagement later, people still tout Urawa as top four material.

To be fair, they are a talented squad and have a rising superstar in Genki Haraguchi. They just don't seem to fit together. Marcio Richardes should have never left Niigata, he's wasted in the Reds system. Yosuke Kashiwagi shows flashes but he has never really fit in after leaving Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

Coach Zeljko Petrovic is torn between doing a rebuilding campaign and appeasing guys like Keita Suzuki, Nobuhisa Yamada and Tatsuya Tanaka who are well past it. Reds don't know what they want to do. Either rebuild or don't, because another year of half-assing both isn't going to appease anybody. Koichi Hashiratani and the front office are to blame. They brought in a coach who really didn't have any say in who his players are and it shows.

11. Cerezo Osaka Cerezo has a ton of guys capable of getting goals but not one guy who is capable of doing it consistently. Rodrigo Pimpao was supposed to replace the scoring of Adriano but never completely fit the role and after a disappointing half-year finds himself plying his trade in Brazil again. The defense for Cerezo has been exposed on more than one occasion but really in this case, the best defense is a good offense... or a more consistent one, at least.

10. Omiya Ardija I've seen every game this year so the warts are obviously more evident with our squad than others. The finishing hasn't been great and the set pieces are distressing but the real issue - and it's been discussed ad nauseum on this site - is the play of the wings. The side back positions have been the single biggest problem we've had this year. Arata Sugiyama was not the answer. Kazuhiro Murakami doesn't have the legs to be a top flight defender. Daisuke Watabe should be in midfield and Norio Suzuki is appearing in practice games as a centerback.

The midfield wings haven't helped matters much. Keigo Higashi has been up and down, Chikara Fujimoto is allright when he cares, Takuya Aoki struggled when shifted out from a central role, Jun Kanakubo is not even considered and I wrote a whole column about Daigo Watanabe and his shortcomings. Two good sidebacks would help immensely. Even one would be an improvement. Right side. Brazilian. Good athlete who can cover and cross and occasionally score. What's so hard about that?

Part Two coming tomorrow.



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