Before today my exposure to Japanese football consisted of late-night J-League highlights shows and watching the national team at the World Cup every four years. So, with a free Saturday morning stretching out before me, I thought I’d indulge my occasional and yet perennially unfulfilled curiosity for Asian football by watching Yokohama Marinos take on Gamba Osaka in round 14 of the J-League season.
Having begun my viewing prejudicially expecting relatively little of the game, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself immersed in what turned out to be a tremendous encounter between two of Japanese football’s most prestigious clubs. The game may have only produced a solitary goal, but the match at the Nissan Stadium was anything but a stale and defensive spectacle.
From the very first minute both teams demonstrated a great enthusiasm and attacking endeavour, looking to get in behind the opposition full-backs and get the ball in to their forwards at every possible opportunity. Gamba, despite losing the game at the last to a Takashi Amano strike, were undoubtedly the more impressive side throughout, particularly in the attacking phase. Japan international Yasuhito Endo pulled the strings in midfield, the creative spark in Akira Nishino’s team and clearly the most talented technician on display.
On the home side Yuji Ono, Yokohama’s gifted 17 year-old striker, impressed with an intelligent and energetic performance that marked the player out as a potential future star in.
He may be of a slight frame and unable to out-muscle defences, but the youngster continually cropped up in the right positions and troubled Gamba with his constant fidgety, unpredictable movement and directness when presented with opportunities. Definitely one to watch.
Having been brought up on a diet of European football, the most noticeable stylistic difference I picked out was the lack of pressing. Neither team attempted to pressure the other or push high up the field without the ball, both sides happy to sit back and wait for their opponents to give possession away or run down a blind alley. This absence of intensive pressing, though perhaps not the soundest of defensive tactics, conserved the players’ energies and afforded them greater pace on the counter-attack, moves that were invariably electric in their speed and often resulted in relatively clear-cut chances.
This continual end-to-end action made for a dramatic game, both teams playing fluid interpretations of 4-4-2 with full-back pairings motoring forward as much as positional discipline allowed. The sheer fitness levels of both sets of players was astounding, far higher than the average Premier League game and the key factor behind the unyielding, dizzying pace of the encounter.
There was an occasional lapse in concentration and a paucity of technique was apparent every now and again during the 90 minutes, but such things are to be expected from what were, on the whole, two young and fairly inexperienced groups of players. In general the game was an enthralling advertisement for the J-League, a competition that perhaps doesn’t get the recognition it deserves in other regions of the globe.
Asian football has certainly grown in stature over the last decade and, with the vibrant J-League representing the catalyst behind the AFC’s recent development, there is no reason why teams from the area cannot expand their influence yet further and continue to strengthen their challenge on the international stage.