Japan too good for Australia

Japan too good for Australia

By Nobuyuki Tosey

Seven months on since Japan and Australia fought out the Asian Cup final, last Saturday at U18 level, Japan were once again victorious in a clash between two of Asia’s strongest footballing nations.

Japan and Australia prepare for last week's match

Whilst the Asian Cup saw younger players like Kagawa and Nagatomo really came to the fore for Japan, the Australia team consisted of mostly ageing stars. Many of these players have since moved on from European clubs as they enter the twilight of their careers and so a lot of interest in Australia’s next generation of footballing talent has emerged.

Despite promising displays at both the U20 and U17 World Cups, the inconsistency of these sides has drawn frustrations and added to pre-existing concerns about, not so much the players, but the state of Australia’s Youth system and in particular the position that Dutchman Jan Versleijen holds as coach of the U16′s right through to the U20′s.

On the other hand, Japan’s technical ability has not only been a major factor behind their success, but also their global popularity and cause for optimism. That they now boast talent right across Europe’s biggest clubs and that the performances of the U17′s at this summer’s World Cup earned them rave reviews seems to indicate that the trend is set to continue.

Given the similar levels of the senior teams, the amount of work put into football programmes and money spent on youth development, the gulf between the two in terms of the overall level of technical ability and stage of development that would follow in this match would be slightly concerning for Australia.

The match:

Although similarly set up with variations of 4-3-3, the difference in the use of formations soon became apparent.

Right through the national youth teams, Japan tends to replicate the seniors’ 4-2-3-1. Just as the U17′s at the World Cup did this summer, so did this U18 side and it meant that the promoted pair of goalkeeper Nakamura and centre back Ueda (and later Kawaguchi), slotted in with consummate ease.

Japan immediately looked far more comfortable on the ball; with the back four and keeper confident enough to play the ball amongst themselves until the anchoring pair of Kumagai and Arano made themselves available. Up top, Minami and Takahara were causing problems with neat interchanges in and around the area.

Australia’s use of a similar formation was clearly to stretch the play; wide men Luke O’Dea and Luke Remington kept their width for much of the first half and Anthony Proia was playing right on the shoulder of the last man with exciting prospect Jesse Makarounas playing off of him in the hole. However, the insistence to keep/stick to this system meant the front four, in particular, were often left isolated and consequently right through the team sustained periods of possession were hard to come by.

Indeed Australia’s best opportunities came on the break; tending to materialise from one of the impressive Connor Chapman or Jake Barker-Daish intercepting the ball and carrying it out to find Makarounas. Clearly a talented player, but often a frustrated figure by the lack of service, when Makarounas did find space he often exploited the areas left exposed by the advanced Japanese full backs. Particularly from the left through Remington, delivery from wide areas gave Proia the opportunity to be an aerial threat and caused Japan problems.

The way Australia were set up actually limited some pretty talented individuals for me and with a large proportion of possession Japan were always the more likely to score. Arano and particularly Kumagai were wonderful to watch in the midfield and were managing to feed those further forward despite the compact Australian defensive unit and the narrow shape of their own team.

After Minami gave Australia a scare when he hit the inside of the post, a goal came in unexpected circumstances. From the half way line, left back Ryosuke Yamanaka hit a cross field ball over the head of Australian centre back Jason Geira and that man Minami put away a nice volleyed finish on the stretch.

It wasn’t in keeping with Japan’s performance and not of their usual aesthetically pleasing style of play. But the goal emphasised that Geira and the ball in behind were proving to be a weakness in the Australia defence.

Having watched numerous games across the age groups, this for me is the most common problem for Japan’s National Youth Teams. Some of the football played by Japan was a pleasure to watch, but an important part of these players’ education is the need to adapt outside of their ideal game plan. Both before and particularly during a game, there is a real lack of ability to pinpoint and exploit weaknesses in the opposition - and equally address where they themselves are vulnerable in relation to the oppositions strength.

This is intrinsically linked with the state of coaching in Japan. Coaching technique and movement is something that Japan does well, but the lack of tacticians is an issue and in fairness it is something that the JFA is addressing.

This was even more evident in the second half, when Australia dropped deeper and Japan found them harder to break down. The compacted Australia prevented the front four finding spaces to operate in and Japan found themselves in a position where they were relying on capitalising on errors for chances rather than through their own endeavours.

As is the case with other Japanese Youth teams, they continued to rely too heavily on the full backs to provide the width, congesting the attacking areas and needlessly leaving themselves exposed at the back.

Credit is due to Australian team though, they worked hard defensively and with a good performance from keeper Nick Munroe to keep out the few chances that Japan did have, at 1-0 they were always in a game that on the balance of play they probably shouldn’t have been.

Summary:

Guus Hiddink’s stint as Australia’s National Team Manager at the 2006 World Cup obviously left a great impression and the consequent faith in Dutch tutelage was certainly a major factor in Versleijen’s appointment. But Hiddink’s Australia weren’t your archetypal Dutch style; operating in a 3-6-1 formation, not necessarily out of choice but out of getting the best out of what was available to him.

For the purpose of a more technical approach, trying to employ a 4-3-3 formation (or the like) is admirable. However, implementing these structures from the top down can only really produce the occasional good performance or eye catching result and you wonder to what extent idealist thinking has outweighed logical progression.

The FFA need to concentrate on producing more technically gifted players that naturally suit the desired style of play rather than the reverse of hoping that current crops will adapt to imposed formations if that’s the style they want to go for.

You would have to say Japan has done far better in this department than their Australian counterparts. That the now established J.League clubs have always been required to have academies, that privately run football schools are quite common here and high schools are still producing high level players all contribute to this. The main concern is that if the level of coaching at this level and above doesn’t follow suit, Japanese football could plateau rather than continuing its rise.

The situation for Australia is not a desperate one by any means and the current gap between themselves and Japan in terms of the top talent was minimal. However the telling difference was the technical level of the average players.

A culmination of the A-League still being in its infancy, its clubs’ desire to produce their own players and that the founding of the A-League National Youth League only took place three years ago, would all suggest that rewards are forthcoming and that in a few years Australia could well topple Japan as Asia’s top team.




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