Monday, 17 October 2011

Agent Orange: Reds Dead? Redemption?

Immediately after a vital derby victory might be a strange time to say it, but this has to be my least favorite Omiya Ardija season ever. Of the 32 games played this year, I've managed to get to 25. My personal record is a dismal 4-9-12.

I was there to see Omiya get blown out by an increasingly unimpressive Kawasaki Frontale squad. I was present for not one but two losses to a cynical Shimizu S-Pulse side. I watched as the team failed to score against bunkering Kashiwa Reysol, Cerezo Osaka and Sanfrecce Hiroshima teams. I was in attendance as Yosuke Kataoka and Kim Young Gwon conspired to let Avispa Fukuoka get easy goals and pick up their lone away win this season. I even headed to Kumagaya to see Kataoka lamely attempt a heading clearance that was picked up by an awaiting Fukuoka University attacker for their goal, setting the stage for Chikara Fujimoto to choke on a PK.

I missed the victories against Kashiwa, Jubilo Iwata, Cerezo and Urawa Reds. Omiya - is it something I said?

I'm happy about the win over Urawa, in what many are saying was a dismal game. I'm overjoyed that my misgivings about starting Hayato Hashimoto turned out to be grossly incorrect. I don't even mind missing the game to spend nine hours having elementary school mothers give me the stink eye while I perform my daily routine as the talking English monkey, in a tie, on a Saturday.

But none of what happened at NACK5 on Saturday masks the fact that this team is fundamentally fucked. Even if Omiya is able to stave off relegation, as looks increasingly likely, it still doesn't cover the fact that this season has been a waste, mostly of my time and money. Trying in this article to identify reasons for Ardija's poor results this year, Daily Yomiuri and Weekly Soccer Magazine writer (and avid Reds supporter) Sean Carroll puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of coach Jun Suzuki and his player selection and strategy. I'm not completely sure why Carroll goes to so many Omiya games - hell, I don't understand why I go half the time - although as one of the few members of the Japanese media who pays attention to the squad I appreciate the columns.

And I for one can't argue with his point that Suzuki is responsible for Omiya's failings, given that GGOA has consistently criticized Suzuki for mismanagement. However, that doesn't mean that I agree with the article, in which Carroll argues that the team is not attacking enough and advocates incorporating substitute striker Naoki Ishihara along with Rafael, Keigo Higashi and either Lee Chun Soo or Rodrigo Pimpao in an attacking 4-4-2. 

I think that would be suicide. First, I don't completely buy the premise that we aren't an attacking team. In fact, the limited stats available - that is, on crossing, passing, dribbling and shots - actually have the Squirrels ranked in the top half of the league. For instance, the Weekly Soccer Digest dated 25 Oct places Omiya fifth in shots, trailing only Kawasaki, Cerezo, Vissel Kobe and Kashima Antlers. 

The problem isn't that the team doesn't attack... it's that they don't attack well. Carroll uses current league leader Kashiwa as an example of a team that has a strong offense. However, the Sun Kings rank lower in every one of the aforementioned attacking stats than Omiya. Of their nineteen victories, Reysol managed ten or more shots on only nine occasions - and two of their victories came in games when they mustered only four shots. The real difference between the two squads is efficiency. Kashiwa is very good at completing chances, doing so at nearly a 17% clip, whereas Omiya ranks at the bottom of shot efficiency with a paltry 7.8% success rate.   

I'm not sure how Naoki Ishihara helps alleviate this problem. Carroll thinks that coach Suzuki is making a mistake by not starting the mercurial striker, an opinion that seems to be popular among many members of the Squirrel Nation. He states, "So, essentially, it seems that Ishihara doesn’t start because he’s good, whereas a less adaptable player, Pimpao, gets a starting shirt because he’s a crap sub. Hmmm."

I think that's a pretty simplistic take based on the obviously reasonable idea that coaches need to use their players in ways that will get the best output from them. In 2009 Ishihara was starting and not getting much traction in the offense, instead getting walloped by opposing defenders. Last year, he went through similar struggles before he was moved to the bench and used as a super-sub. 

Few people have the ability to succeed in the role - Cerezo's Ryuji Bando is one that comes to mind and Ishihara is another, a guy with speed and touch off the bench who can be mentally ready to affect the game the minute he comes in. He's a hard-working player who does the little things and is good when matched up against tired opponents. But in the few starts he's had this year, Ishihara has managed to get off only four shots, or about one a game. What happens is that Ishihara defers to players who are more aggressive personalities - and so the spectacularly inefficient Chun Soo (shooting at a 7% success rate) and Rafael (9%) still take the lion's share of shots. 

Two of the candidates for a wide midfield slot in Carroll's scheme, Chun Soo and Pimpao, seem to me to be players who need a lot of the ball to have an impact on the game. Both like to isolate on the wing and try to dribble into the box instead of getting more teammates involved in the offense. This usually has the effect of stagnating the rest of the attack and dragging players over to their side of the field. Neither player seems to be interested in helping out on defense - so Carroll's Omiya plan effectively leaves the wing vulnerable to attack, with either an undersized Arata Sugiyama or a slow Kazuhiro Murakami forced to handle counterattackers and causing poor decision-makers Kim Young Gwon and Yosuke Kataoka to have to choose either to sit back in the middle or come out and help against wing attackers. Numerous times this has spelled disaster for the squad.

One aspect of Carroll's argument that I do agree with is that Suzuki always seems to wait until the situation is dire to make his move. Pimpao and Chun Soo will be ineffective in games and last for sixty or seventy minutes, even though it's clear that they should be subbed at half time. This corresponds with the overall risk-aversion and fragility of the squad, which rarely possesses the mental strength to bounce back in adverse situations: Omiya has only managed one come-from-behind win in 2011, although they've managed to blow leads on eight occasions. By contrast Kashiwa hasn't lost a game they were leading all season. 

That's the real Ardija problem that Suzuki hasn't addressed. And it's not surprising considering the team's DNA comes from the J1 catastrophe clubs that were 2009 Oita Trinita (Higashi, Yuki Fukaya and Shusuke Tsubouchi), 2010 Kyoto Sanga (Kataoka and Daigo Watanabe) and 2010 FC Tokyo (Kim).

The bad news is that while presumably very few Omiya supporters are enamored with the product on the field (I overheard a boy talking to his father after the Avispa game and calling the team boring), Ardija club president Shigeru Suzuki is evidently satisfied with the direction of the squad. So we're probably in for more of the same next year, or worse if some of the bigger squads come sniffing around for Kota Ueda, Higashi and Rafael. As for 2011, five more games to go. It's not over yet. 



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