Thursday, 11 August 2011

Agent Orange: House Of Pain

A very sad and eventful week just passed us by. I'll get to Sunday's Vegalta Sendai game in a moment but first I have to say a little bit about Naoki Matsuda. I originally wasn't going to write anything about the passing of the former National team defender because, frankly, I didn't really remember too much about him. The first game I saw in Japan was on TV, coincidentally it was the Yokohama F Marinos - Urawa Reds stage winners' match in 2004. I'm guessing that Matsuda played but I don't honestly remember. The only real memory that I have of him was the last game of 2010 between Marinos and Ardija.

The man was known as Mr Marinos after all, so it makes sense that the photos and videos that most of the media outlets chose to show were of his times in Yokohama. That's why I kind of found it (happily) odd that the two weekly soccer magazines used the pictures that they did. Weekly Soccer Digest opted to go with Matsuda's farewell photo at the end of last year, the giant defender smiling with the crowd in the background.

I liked the image but thought there was no context given to it. It was pretty much a meaningless game in terms of standings, a 2-0 win to Omiya in a fairly low-quality performance for both sides and a not too fond sayonara to putrid referee Masayoshi "Justice" Okada. The real excitement was going to happen later, when the faithful Tricolore fans let the Nissan board and manager Kazunari Kimura know how they felt about the decision not to renew the contracts of Matsuda and other popular Marinos players.

Naoki Matsuda (in what I learned was totally in character) did not go quietly, first by threatening a boycott of the last game and then giving a good snub to management in his farewell speech. It was the perfect way for him to go out, defiant and triumphant. In some ways, I wish that Ardija's own Masato Saito could have had a moment like that; at least a last game to say goodbye, instead of a slide show in January surrounded by guys he never played with.

Weekly Soccer Magazine meanwhile went with Matsuda in a Matsumoto Yamaga jersey. I don't know why, but it made me kind of happy that they did it. I guess it's because I feel that Yamaga deserve this moment as much as Yokohama (not the grief, of course, just the recognition that they were a part of the Matsuda story). Literally, he was a Matsumoto player and the last thing he did was in a Matsumoto uniform.

In a strange way, that cover recognizes that Matsumoto exists. Half the J1 teams won't be featured on the cover of one of those magazines, most of J2 won't see one either. For a little JFL club to get a cover, even in terrible circumstances, is a really big deal. For one week, people in convenience stores and bookstores and boarding trains will see that cover and know there is a team called Matsumoto Yamaga.

I'm a little sorry now I didn't pay more attention to Naoki Matsuda. And I will always kind of wonder why we didn't try and sign him when he was released by Marinos. A big, intense centerback who has years of playing in high pressure seems kind of like it would have filled a need, doesn't it? Instead of saying goodbye or offering condolences, I guess I'll just say thanks for being the catalyst for one of the most genuine moments I've seen at a sporting event.

Bitter Thoughts About Our Last Game

I wish I had a better answer to why we can't win at home, or at least a less bitter one. At the start of the season, if you had told me that we would tie Sendai 2-2, I would have been overjoyed, considering how dire we were against them last year. The game on Sunday started out bright enough, with our Brazilian duo combining for both goals. We were exposed a couple of times on defense, but came out of the first half unscathed.

The second half was really the disaster that you would expect with two very non-defensive wings combining with a non-athletic left back, a left center back who is young, foreign and has his mind on National Team duty, a right back who wasn't good enough to hold a spot in J2 and Yosuke Kataoka... yeah, that Yosuke Kataoka. Omiya lost the midfield in the second half and instead of changing things around, Jun Suzuki opted to take out Rodrigo Pimpao and allow Vegalta to key on Rafael, essentially killing off the offense.

After what had been a balanced first period, ball possession was dominated by the right-sided pairing of Arata Sugiyama and Lee Chun Soo. The duo managed not only to kill offensive flow, they also caused the left-sided midfielders to drift over to the right, causing a huge gap that Sendai eagerly attacked. When Vegalta wasn't attacking Kazuhiro Murakami and Kim Young Gwon, they were exploiting the lacking skills of Kataoka, burning the bumbling centerback on at least four occasions.

I guess the lesson in all of this is, bad players eventually play bad. And we had a line-up filled with bad players.

That's not what concerns me though. What concerns me is that one of our more talented players doesn't seem like he's fitting into Suzuki's scheme. We saw glimpses of a chasm between U22 midfielder Keigo Higashi and the Omiya coach early in the second half of the Yokohama game. Higashi clearly showed his unhappiness about being pulled from what was then a 1-1 contest. Things magnified on Sunday when it was announced that he would start from the bench. In warm-ups, you could tell that the player wasn't all that happy about his demotion and the usual smile was replaced by a very dour frown.

During the match Higashi was vocal in his frustration about not being involved in the offense, screaming for the ball while standing in a wide open position. I'm worried about this development and the lack of playing time for young wings Daisuke Watabe and Jun Kanakubo. It seems like we are in a bit of panic mode, especially considering that our line-up is trending older. I wish I could dissect the moves and tactics right now, but honestly I think it's just panicky decisions by a coach who I'm starting to lose faith in.


Wouldn't you credit it, after my GGOA half-season review articles several of the teams I abused would show exactly how much I know. Vissel Kobe put up four and three goals in their last two games, Gamba Osaka put up a shutout after eighteen tries, Kashiwa Reysol vaulted back up to first place and Marinos got a rare win against us. I think whipping boys Mitsuo Ogasawara, Sota Nakazawa, and Yoshito Okubo all managed to contribute goals in winning performances. So hey... you're welcome.

Ten games without a win at home... House Of Pain!



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