Thursday, 29 March 2012

Agent Orange: One Year On

I have an admittedly conflicted relationship with Vegalta Sendai. In 2006 I was both entranced and repulsed as their fans threw a collective tantrum over a series of dubious calls in a game against Tokyo Verdy. I was less impressed with their performance against us in an Emperor's Cup game in 2009. 2010 had them up there for me as the least likeable team in the J-League. They played a rough, cynical game and their fans were kind of jerks.

2011 hit and everything changed. The team responded and came together under incredible circumstances, the fans showed a lot of grace in a horrible situation and everybody kind of took Vegalta as their (to regurgitate the cliche) Second Favorite Team. It's impossible not to admire them for that.

Four days after our third visit to Sendai and I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about the club. During the pre-match moment of silence, I honestly wasn't thinking about the people of Sendai. I was thinking about the kids at my school who were preparing for graduation. Last year, they were under their desks (or running terrorised around the hallways in tinfoil earthquake hats). I don't really know people from Sendai save the ones I see at Vegalta games. I'm sad about what happened, but it's become like Afghanistan or Haiti or someplace faraway where tragedy has occurred. I'm not sure exactly what I can do now. It was a touching moment to hear silence in a crowd of thousands. I was far less impressed with the people patting themselves on the back for starting the "Nippon" cheer first.

Saturday's game was not enjoyable on many levels, mainly because it's hard to tell how to react appropriately. Or how to judge the Vegalta fans appropriately. At about the 70th minute, Keigo Higashi went down for the second time in the game with Omiya trailing 2-1. One of the gentlemen on the Sendai side used the ambulance sound on his bullhorn and then shouted a mocking, "Are you OK?" which got a hearty chuckle out of the home faithful.

Never mind that this was the second Japanese Olympian to go down to injury in two Sendai games, or that it's fairly unlikely that someone might be milking an injury late in a game in which they are trailing, it just seemed like a dickish thing to do. At the time I was appalled. "How dare you, Sendai fan, mock an injured person after everyone was so nice to you?"  Then I felt guilty about it. Who am I to criticize somebody who went through watery hell?

Now that I think about it, doesn't he have the right to act like a dick? And don't I have the right to react to him being a dick? Or to dislike Vegalta in general? I guess I wish I could hate Vegalta without looking like I hate Sendai, or not like their fans while being glad they're around to... well, not be liked. 
Is it possible to love Sendai and hate Vegalta?
Four Games In And What Do We Know?
After 450 minutes of watching Omiya 2012 - including the Hangzhou Greentown pre-season game - two wins, two losses and a fluke tie tell me that we are fairly mediocre. Vegalta really showed our strengths and limitations. Early on we were successful in getting the ball out wide and crossing into the middle. We looked dangerous on the break and on corner kicks. Sendai managed to break down the defense with an offsides goal and a shot that hit the bar. That's when the game was lost.
There is a strain of cautiousness in the Ardija team DNA that has been around since promotion in 2005. After the early score you could see the team slowly sinking back. There were a lot of risky backpasses. Cho Young Cheol had an isolation on the wing on numerous occasions but Rafael, Daigo Watanabe or Takuya Aoki would choose to pass the ball around the defense rather than springing the speedy Korean for the attack.  

The difference between Ardija and Vegalta isn't really a matter of talent as much as it is a matter of style. Vegalta runs a hybrid of the Kashima Antlers style of play. They press hard on defense, daring officials to call fouls on them and clogging the passing lanes and getting out on the break. Their goals aren't really things of beauty, but a group of players push forward and put themselves in good positions to get rebounds. It's Bash and Dash. In 2010, it was very hard to watch because there was really no subtlety to it and it seemed as though some players were not on the same page. 2011 saw the team come together and really buy into the Makoto Teguramori system. Year three looks like being when we will see the finished product on display.
Their success lies in the pressing attack. During the game, many Omiya players were lifting their legs up like they had just stepped in dog crap. About 45 minutes of constant pressure cut the offensive players off from the back line and isolated the less effective ball handlers on the squad, forcing them to do something they are not well equipped to do: make decisions quickly.
Every Sendai player looks invested in Teguramori's way of doing things and their team looked like a complete unit on the field. It's not attractive but it's something that I kind of admire. Getting guys to buy into a dour system is difficult. Sendai seems all in.  
The two teams that beat Omiya this year have both been physical and quick on defense. I think that's going to be a problem all year long. Jun Suzuki wants to play a ball control style. That means long lulls in attack, lots of back passing and side passing, and lots of caution. The right side triumvirate of Kazuhiro Murakami, Aoki and Watanabe have offered little in the attack and give too much room on defense. The back line and offense have shown little chemistry but I'm less concerned with that, considering Rafael is rounding into form and Cho Young Cheol is still trying to fit in.
Losing to the top two teams in the division isn't that bad considering how other teams have fared. The problem seems to be that Suzuki has no Plan B and can't adapt to teams that play more physical styles. That's really what is going to be the difference between Omiya being a midtable team pushing towards challenging for the ACL and pushing towards a spot on the bus to Toyama next year.
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I'm not crazy about a right side of Murakami and Watanabe but I can see the logic of having veterans out there with a relatively young XI. What concerns me more is the fact that Hayato Hashimoto and Yosuke Kataoka keep popping up on the bench. It happens every year that the anti-intellectual, reactionary and utterly negative stylings of these two tend to get their services called upon after shattering defeats - and Sendai should be considered shattering. I'm nervous that Hashimoto will get the call next week for Higashi and am absolutely petrified that Kataoka will come in soon after for one of our centerbacks. The earlier it happens, the less hope our team has of doing anything except surviving.
Too early to be this negative, but I've seen this show before.
Orange! Scared shitless about the next 31 games!! Football!!!
Rafael, where have you gone?



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