Tuesday, 30 August 2011

GGOA Special Feature: What Would WE Do?

Thinking about Omiya's poor form prior to the win over Jubilo Iwata, a couple of things I read stuck in my mind. The first was Agent Orange's Crap Sundae polemic on this very site, as angry and frustrated a piece as he's contributed to GGOA and one that points clearly in the direction of coach Jun Suzuki when it comes to responsibility for the recent Ardija slump. A misguided approach to player selection and deployment are at the heart of the problem, argues AO, citing examples from throughout the team.

Whether or not you agree with the overall theme of that article, it's more or less unarguable that Omiya were one of only a handful of J1 clubs to make significant investment in the squad over the close season. As such, and in the light of the club's target of fifty points in the league this year, it's reasonable to expect some improvement on previous seasons - which Suzuki has not delivered.

So where might the Squirrels' coach be going wrong? Well, another piece I read was this interview in the UK's Sunday Telegraph with new Chelsea coach Andre Villas-Boas, in which he discusses aspects of his tactical ideas. There are a few quotes from Villas-Boas that strike a chord when thinking about this Omiya team, so in this special GGOA feature Agent Orange and I will take a look at three of them and consider how they apply not to the upper reaches of the EPL, but to a club that can't seem to break out of its habitual position near the bottom of J1.

Andre Villas-Boas "Match control always has to have a purpose, a main goal."

Furtho In other words, possession on its own is not enough. Keeping the ball is all very well but if teams do nothing with it they will never create chances, or score goals, or win games. Ardija 2011 do actually keep the ball better than previous vintages were able to, but the Goals For column of the J1 table demonstrates that however much more Omiya have possession, the team don't make chances that the forwards can put away.

Of course that may be due to a lack of quality in front of goal, but it's my perception that the Squirrels don't have a clear idea about what Suzuki's system is, or how they're supposed to construct attacks. What do you think about that?

Agent Orange I almost think an argument could be made that this is exactly what Suzuki's system is designed to do. It seems like he realizes that the back line is awful and he's telling wide players like Lee Chun Soo and Chikara Fujimoto to hold up possession on the wings. There's a lot of passing, but as far as forward movement goes the ball seems to die when it gets out to the side.

I've seen time and time again that quick shots are discouraged in favor of lower-percentage long-range shots. You don't see too many assaults on the opposition net until the last twenty minutes or so, when it seems like the team pushes up in numbers. In a way the style that Suzuki has adopted might be just as defensive as coaches past.

AV-B "As a coach you have to know exactly what kind of players you have and analyse the squad to decide how you want to organise your team."

F So do you feel that Jun Suzuki fails to make the most of the assets he has available to him?

AO Yes, I do. If you look at it in terms of formation, following a flirtation with a 4-2-3-1 system at the start of the year we've reverted to a 4-4-2 with personnel who magnify the weaknesses more than they accentuate the strengths of our team. I think a 4-3-3 in the style of current champions Nagoya Grampus would probably be the best formation for our needs.

F What are the problems with 4-4-2 for Omiya's current squad?

AO Fans of Avispa Fukuoka and Ventforet Kofu might disagree but we can make a credible argument that our sideback play this year has been the worst in the division. All combinations of the limited Kazuhiro Murakami, the inexperienced Daisuke Watabe and the woeful Arata Sugiyama have failed.

The problem gets magnified with the downturn in form of last year's solid central pair, Shusuke Tsubouchi and Yuki Fukaya. Neither have been able to gel with promising Korean defender Kim Young Gwon, while the fourth centerback, Yosuke Kataoka, shouldn't have been an option in the first place and honestly shouldn't play for Omiya again.

And the fragility of the back line is made worse by Suzuki's selection of ageing captain Fujimoto and selfish wing Lee. Fujimoto to his credit has been willing to dig in and get back on defense, but the speed isn't there. When he's combined with the below-average pace of Murakami, the left side is very open to counter-attacking.

The right has enough physical capability but the poor decision-making of Sugiyama and Kataoka, coupled with Chun Soo's less than exuberant displays on defense, leaves keeper Takashi Kitano exposed from that side on a constant basis.

Another problem we have is a lack of size. In order to play the 4-4-2 system as he sees it, Suzuki selects players like Chun Soo, Fujimoto, Sugiyama, Watabe and Kota Ueda, who happen to be very small. We have at least four guys on the field who are between 167cm and 174cm, and a side-effect of that is that we're vulnerable at free kicks and corners.

F OK, that's an interesting one. Villas-Boas actually talks about the role of smaller central midfielders - guys like Ueda, in fact - so we'll come back to that later. But how can 4-3-3 help us to get better results by maximising our assets?

AO We actually ran a 4-3-3 in 2008 for a couple games and had some success with Kataoka in the role of defensive midfielder. However, I think we can do much better with the lineup. Let's make some changes.

I'll start by going with a couple of centerbacks that have combined to go 8-7-0 in the fifteen games they have started together. I think that this year communication has been a problem for Kim and whomever he has teamed up with, so I'd rather have a pair who have a history of working well together - and Tsubouchi and Fukaya fit that bill.

I'd also advocate shifting Kim into the holding position ahead of the back four. The big risk associated with this is that communication is still going to be an issue and Kim is inexperienced as a midfield type. However, his size and athleticism are matched by nobody else on the squad and the new spot gives him freedom to roam forward in the offense or slot into the back when the sidebacks push up. It also takes the pressure off being the last man between the opposition and the goal.

F To me the holding position is the deal breaker, because if you introduce a dedicated player whose job it is to sit in front of the back four and move from side to side as the situation requires, it completely changes the balance of the team. It more or less rules out the option of having a line of three behind one main striker, for example, which I'd previously felt might be a solution to Ardija's goalscoring difficulties.

But I think that the current situation underlines the fact that we need to take a wider view of things: it's one thing just to look at the lack of goals and think, "Oh, we have to reorganise the front players," but to my mind shoring up the defence by allowing Kim to play this role would also give the team a stronger foundation for building attacks. Plus I think he's got the ability to do it well and the slightly more solitary nature of the task might make the communications side of things easier for him.

AO Sideback is a tougher nut to crack. Murakami seems like a lock to play and he does offer something offensively. He might be the answer on the right if Norio Suzuki is given a chance to play on the left. The back four of Murakami/Fukaya/Tsubouchi/Suzuki played respectably last year, I'm not sure why the manager has soured on it so quickly.

Sugiyama is fine as a spot starter or a ten-minute change-of-pace substitution, but he lacks so much that he's a real liability: S-Pulse exposed him in about fifteen minutes, Marinos exploited the matchup and even Sendai had dangerous chances against the diminutive sideback. He's not a serious option.

Somebody who should get a look might surprise you. I think Daigo Watanabe should at least be given a game or two to see if he is the answer at right back. He's been a disaster on the wing but maybe a return to a position he played a lot of at Kyoto Sanga might be the answer to getting the most out of him.

F Yeah, if you were out to surprise me then mission accomplished with Watanabe. How about Watabe?

AO He's not a sideback. He can do it for stretches but a full ninety minutes, game in and game out is too much to ask right now. Watabe had his best moments in 2010 and at the start of this year in a more natural attacking wing position.

I'm not exactly sure why Omiya has taken young midfielders and decided that they should spend all of their formative years at the sideback position. Masakazu Kihara and Taisuke Miyasaki are stuck in this same trap at the moment - and you can compare our young talent to what Urawa is doing. Genki Haraguchi and Naoki Yamada are playing their natural positions and are blossoming. If they had come up through the Omiya system and signed on to the big team, chances are at least one of them would now be struggling to cope with the sideback position.

I understand trying to get what you think are your eleven best players on the field, but you also have to put your players in a position to succeed. Let Daisuke be Daisuke.

F Yeah, right back would probably be the position that I'm least sure about. Murakami isn't that good and he's basically left-sided anyway, Sugiyama isn't a J1-standard player and he's not now going to become one, I share your frustration about this constant tinkering with younger players and the sense that Watabe, Kihara and the hapless Miyazaki really ought to be able to play anywhere at the coach's whim and the performances of Watanabe don't inspire any confidence.

Norio Suzuki may not be the most thrilling of players but he's reliable, solid and can pass the ball accurately to a player wearing a shirt the same colour as his own. That to me makes him a good candidate to be a starting choice defender and left-back is the obvious place. Why he hasn't had a look-in this year is a mystery to me.

So anyway, that gives a defensive core of...?

AO That gives a defensive core of:

GK Kitano
RB Murakami (Watanabe)
RCB Fukaya
LCB Tsubouchi
LB Suzuki (Murakami)

F OK, so the next part of the team relates to the other Villas-Boas quote I mentioned. Here's what he had to say:

AV-B "... there are maybe some players more important than others. For instance, many teams play with defensive pivots, small defensive midfielders. And [with a few exceptions] they are players that are limited to the horizontal part of the game: they keep passing the ball from one side to another, left or right, without any kind of vertical penetration. Can’t you use your defensive midfielder to introduce a surprise factor in the match? Let’s say, first he passes horizontally and then, suddenly, vertical penetration?"

F That jumped out at me because since the start of the year I've felt that although Ueda is a really good player, he's stuck in a more defensive, let's-just-retain-possession role when in fact he has the quality to control the team's play much more widely. To use Villas-Boas' terminology, he's spending the vast majority of his time playing horizontally when I think it would be great if he was freer to play more vertical, penetrative passes.

AO Yes, and in my 4-3-3 the offense does start with the pair of Ueda and Takuya Aoki. Pushing them up more is something that I also think will help give them more attacking freedom. They will still be in a position to aid the defense but if they go forward, Kim is covering their backs.

Moving further upfield, Rodrigo Pimpao is a no-brainer for the leading forward position: he has the size and speed to be effective as the main point of attack. It's the two attacking wings that are the difficult choice in this conversation. Rafael has played on the left wing in the past with mixed results. I'm afraid that if he does that he'll get dragged back into defense and be less effective as an offensive presence.

But the difference between 4-3-3 and another option like 4-2-3-1 is that diminutive players like Chun Soo and Fujimoto wouldn't be in the middle - it would be the bigger Pimpao - and Murakami wouldn't be the only man covering the left side: Kim would be back to assist as well.

The right side, in Jun Suzuki's world, comes down to either Fujimoto or Chun Soo. My choice would be Keigo Higashi because he is a much better two-way player - but Chun Soo and Fujimoto have proven to be better at assisting on the offense. I like Higashi because he provides coverage in defense and is another player with good size and strength. He doesn't have the speed of Chun Soo or the organizing skills of Fujimoto but he does have the most upside of the three.

I'm a little hesitant to have Fujimoto and Chun Soo on the bench because neither have shown the inclination to be successful in the role of bench player and Higashi has the tools to slot in anywhere in attack. I guess it comes down to what the team needs most. I think it's players who can defend.

Chun Soo could be the perfect twenty-minute change-of-pace guy off the bench - if he committed to it. His speed against tired defenses would be a valuable weapon - if he bought into it. Fujimoto would be a good option to hold up the ball and ice opponents on those rare occasions we hold a lead. I think both guys have a role, but featuring them for sixty to eighty minutes isn't it.

F I'm surprised that Pimpao is a "no-brainer" for the main striker. Suzuki's on record as saying that he likes to use Naoki Ishihara as an impact substitute who has the ability to reinvigorate the team in the second half. Do you think he's right about that?

AO It's nothing against Ishihara, who I think is one of the most under-rated talents in the J-League. I say it's a no-brainer (and maybe I should qualify that as a no-brainer... for me) for various reasons. I don't think playing one top works with smaller strikers and Pimpao has the size to deal with bigger centerbacks. Ishihara is deceptively strong but he gets worn down after all the pounding. Ishihara seems to be a more versatile player and better suited to filling a slot where he is needed, Pimpao is a more classic forward.

I think it's good to have Rafael and Pimpao start the game because it seems like they already have good chemistry going. Ishihara has a mentality where he could succeed in any role you put him in and he stays focused even after sitting on the bench for eighty minutes. His ability last year to change the game moments after coming on was remarkable and a very rare commodity in the J-League. I also like having a speed guy as plan B.

F Your point about Rafael on the left is a good one. In some senses we're lucky to have a decent-quality foreign player who doesn't mind getting his hands dirty to help out the team. But when he spends too much time tracking back to support the likes of Murakami, he's doing stuff that other players are better at and he isn't doing the stuff that only he can do. It's a total killer of his effectiveness.

Of course the whole point of this exercise is that we try to work out who ought to be doing what, which is achieved by having a good balance in the way that the team is organised. If Rafael is going back to defend a lot, the balance is wrong. But in the system you've described here, Kim can do that or if he's busy, Aoki or maybe Ueda can instead. That's a much better deployment of resources.

Where I actually think Rafael would be best used is in a central position just behind a lead striker. He's good at connecting up the midfield with the front line and not being out on either flank would mean he could use his vision, technique and occasional explosive shooting to best effect. There are going to be compromises in setting out a team and to me the biggest is that if we have a holding midfielder, we can't have Rafael playing in the middle unless he's the main striker - which other squad members are better at.

So where does that leave us with the attack?

AO The offense looks like this:

RM Aoki
LM Ueda
RW Higashi
LW Rafael
FW Pimpao

F We've been frustrated in the past at the way Suzuki uses his substitutes. As you said, things worked out amazingly well with Ishihara for a period last year but as a rule some of the changes made by the coach have been pretty hard to understand.

AO I think a 4-3-3 like this gives Suzuki more options in terms of substitutions:

* he always has the option of reverting to a 4-4-2 or the 4-2-3-1 by removing one of the centerbacks or sidebacks and pushing Kim into the back line
* he can retain the 4-3-3 shape by pushing Kim back and replacing him with Shin Kanazawa off the bench, or by pushing Aoki back and slotting a sub into the middle
* it frees up Higashi to play in one of five attacking positions, or Ishihara to play in one of three
* it wouldn't change things much for a player like Watabe, but Jun Kanakubo could get more looks

There are flaws to this and implementing a new system this late in the season is a risk, but recycling guys in positions where they have previously failed or playing players out of position and expecting good results has so far failed us. So I think it's worth a look. Then again I thought that the J-League was conspiring with FC Tokyo to relegate Omiya and push NTT over as a sponsor.

F Christ, yes, I'd forgotten about that.



Tiago Bontempo 13 September 2011 at 07:10  

Good options. I wonder if coach Suzuki is aware of what he is doing...

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