The Japanese media have unanimously celebrated the weekend’s J-League Nabisco Cup final as a great match, and it was indeed an intriguing game. However, just like many other “entertaining” games we have seen this season, the high number of goals was mostly due to poor defending, something rarely discussed in Japan.
In football, goals are scored not only because of the skill of the offensive players, but also because the lack of skill in defensive players.
But in Japan, a football culture in which many still consider comic book attacking midfielder Captain Tsubasa as the ideal player, defence is rarely discussed.
How often do we hear a commentator praising a good defensive play? How often do we see a replay of a good tackle? How often do we hear any in-depth discussion on defensive tactics?
Most importantly, in a league where media almost never criticise players or coaches, how often do we hear a Japanese journalist elaborate on a defensive mistake?
Japan’s still hasn’t built a football culture that includes serious discussion and analysis of defence, and the results of that were quite clear in the 2013 Confederation Cup and the 2014 World Cup.
Alberto Zaccheroni thought Japan’s offensive players were good enough to take on the best in the World by overwhelming the opposition with their attacks. But as we know now, those tactics went horribly wrong. Out of the six games in those two competitions, the only result not ending in a loss was a 0-0 draw against Greece, who played for an hour with just 10 men.
While Japan managed to score three goals against Italy in 2013, they still conceded four. That’s as many as they conceded to Colombia a year later in the final World Cup group stage game in Brazil.
Speaking of Brazil, the World Cup semifinalists scored four against the Samurai Blue in a 2012 friendly in Poland, and again just a few weeks ago in Singapore. Japan allowed four goals against Uruguay in an August 2013 friendly in Miyagi.
I’ll stop the list of goals conceded here. It is quite clear that Japanese football has defensive problems; in fact Javier Aguirre was frequently shown on camera shaking his head during a J-League encounter between FC Tokyo and Urawa Reds which ended in a 4-4 draw. It was another “great game” where poor defending allowed fans to “enjoy” eight goals.
The Mexican manager, who is no fool, immediately tried to fix the problem for the Samurai Blue by putting a third centerback (Masato Morishige) as anchor in front of the defense, as Takeshi Okada did at the 2010 World Cup with Yuki Abe.
But again, this is only a patch; I don’t believe Japan will ever succeed internationally unless they are lucky enough find another pair of centrebacks such as 2010’s Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Yuji Nakazawa.
This is a very simple truth in football, though in Japan most people seem to ignore it: you can’t win tournaments without an outstanding defense.
Italy were not the best team in Germany 2006, but they had the best defence. In seven games, they conceded two goals: an own goal and a penalty. And they won the World Cup.
As a reverse example, look at what is happening to Manchester United after they failed to replace Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
And for a final example closer to home, refer to what happened to Gamba Osaka in 2012. They scored the most goals in the league, but their second-worst defence resulted in a club-first relegation.
The Nabisco Cup final once again revealed the fragility of Japanese defenders (particularly those of Sanfrecce Hiroshima on this occasion) when it comes to shut off big, physically strong strikers, in particular foreign ones.
Patric scored two goals, but he could have easily scored three or four. Throughout the match, he did what he wanted in Sanfrecce’s penalty area. Every cross to the Brazilian resulted in a chance or a goal.
Remember Urawa Reds’ Washington? Of course he scored a lot of goals too, he was a world class player! But in recent J-League seasons any foreign striker with a certain physicality can score at will. Patric is a perfect example, but there are quite a few over-30s who did great in the J-League such as Frode Johnsen, Josh Kennedy, Milivoje Novakovic, and current Yokohama F. Marinos starter Marquinhos.
If such players are enough to score against Japanese defenders, one can very well imagine what happens when the opposite team boasts a James Rodriguez, a Luis Suarez, or a Neymar.
Additionally, why are Japanese centrebacks so short by International standards? There are plenty of very tall Japanese athletes, that much is evident from the country’s basketball and volleyball leagues. Why aren’t they lured into football in their teenage years?
After more than 20 years of professional football, Japan really need to put more emphasis into improving defensive skills. The first step, as seen in Europe and South America, is to recruit bigger players in their teenage players and teach them how to use their body as one of their defensive tools.
Clubs, coaches, media and supporters must modify their philosophy in order to understand that a great defensive play is just as good as a golazo. Indeed, if Sanfrecce had one defender who could have neutralised Patric, they would have lifted the Nabisco Cup.
Failure to understand that football has two phases, and that one of those is about defending, may result in several more “entertaining” games, but the only international trophies that Japan will win will be those written within the pages of Captain Tsubasa.