F.Marinos fans were in for a bit of a treat last week as popular Japanese newsstand, Weekly Soccer Magazine, not only featured a candid discussion with young strikers Manabu Saito and Yuji Ono, but also had an interesting interview with F.Marinos’ newly appointed coach, Yasuhiro Higuchi!
Upon seeing this, I immediately wanted to translate it and share it with F.Marinos supporters worldwide and, with a HUGE helping hand from Football journalist, Sean Carroll, we managed to wangle a green-light from the Magazine itself to feature their interview right here on Tricolore Pride!
So without further ado, grab a coffee and listen to what Coach Higuchi has to say on the current situation at the club and what he aims to achieve throughout the forthcoming season! VAMOS!!
WSM: Please share with us your thoughts regarding your new position as the Coach of the Yokokama F.Marinos.
Higuchi: This club has taught me so much and really enabled me to further grow and develop myself as a football coach so when I decided to take the position of first team coach, I soon became keenly aware of how big a responsibility it is to take the helm of a club with as much history and tradition as the F.Marinos. I feel that this is going to be an extremely worthwhile job.
WSM: Were you unsure at all when you were offered the position?
Higuchi: To be totally honest with you, I didn’t have time to be hesitant of taking the job or not. The end of the year was fast approaching and the club needed a definite “Yes” or “No” decision as soon as possible. Though I didn’t have the luxury of time to consider the offer, I still thought hard about the position and strongly felt it was my duty to take the role. The position of team coach is a job that’s largely reliant on offers like these and without them it’s very hard to stay in the game. This was something I also kept in mind when I agreed to take the position as it felt like my big chance had come.
WSM: It’s been roughly 3 weeks now since the team has been back in training, how are things shaping up?
Higuchi: When the team restarted it’s training, it was made clear to the players that qualifying for the ACL is one of our priorities this season but I had one other goal that I wanted to convey to the squad, and that was my desire for the team to create it’s own unique style. Since telling them this, I have been seeing more and more players willing to take chances during our training games and a general “Let’s give it a try” type of mentality throughout the squad. This general atmosphere among the squad still remains strong since returning from our training camp in Miyazaki. That said however, there are still many things that we need to work on so naturally it’s going to take some time before we accomplish this goal.
WSM: At the club’s new kit and players unveiling ceremony earlier this year, you stated you wanted to create a team that could “Seize the initiative and have high ball possession”. This is the type of “style” that you are aiming for in training isn’t it?
Higuchi: In order to increase our ball possession, we need to push from the start to steal the ball, defend the ball, make it ours. From there we’ll learn how to increase our time in possession of the ball. I feel that this is one of the key points in seizing the initiative in footballing terms.
WSM: We hear that you have been conveying many new concepts and ideas to the players in order to realize the style of football you have in mind. What kind of ideas have you been imparting to the squad?
Higuchi: One of the things we’ve been focusing on is effectively switching back and forth between attacking and defending, particularly when it comes to preempting what our opponents will do. One other thing that I’ve tried to nurture among the squad regarding attacking and defending, is how to keep a good sense of distance on and off the ball during play. These are two crucial principles that I want to achieve but, as I keep reminding the players, it’s gonna take a lot of hard work.
WSM: Surely it’s going to take some time before the team is able to grasp such a concept?
Higuchi: I think the J-League is still lacking in teams that have a definite style of play unique to themselves. Looking back over last season, the teams that really stood out like Kashiwa, Hiroshima, Gamba, Cerezo, and Nagoya, were all able to play their own brand of football regardless of who their opponents were. Such teams have a style of play that has been built up and developed over period of about 4, 5 years or so. It’s developing like this over time that has really enabled those teams to establish their own style of football.
Looking back over the years, the F.Marinos have long been considered as a team with a strong defense but, that aside, the team has not really been hailed for having any particular style of it’s own. This is one of the things that I want to address which is why I want to make this season that all important first step towards creating something unique.
WSM: Though a coach is responsible for implementing new styles and ideas, results on the pitch are also important. What kind of team are you building ahead of the opening game next month?
Higuchi: As I mentioned, the team is beginning to try new things in training and starting to show some real initiative so I would say that we’re roughly half-way to where I want us to be come next month. Though we couldn’t get the kind of results we hoped for from our pre-season games at the Miyazaki training camp, we at least saw some success in regards to trying out new things during play. I’m hoping to build upon these successful experiments during the build up to the opening game and aim to have the squad at least 80% of the way to where I want them to be.
WSM: Last season I felt there were many cases where the defence didn’t win the ball back until it was already quite deep into the area. Do you think making the transition from such a defence set-up, to one that pushes forward more and can intercept the ball much sooner, can be done smoothly?
Higuchi: Having a defence that can work effectively further up-field is hugely beneficial from an attacking standpoint. This is something that we need to be clear about and the players are all very much onboard concerning whats needs to be done. Of course, such style of play demands a very high level of stamina from the players to make it work. We need to keep pushing forward and not be afraid of taking risks or getting in behind our opponents backline. It’s all about taking chances and not being afraid to try.
WSM: What kind of method do you plan on using to enable the team to work further up-field and win the ball sooner?
Higuchi: Firstly, it’s very important that the players don’t retreat from their positions the moment the flow of play is reversed. The instant we lose the ball, the team needs to push forward as an entire unit one step at a time. Naturally, the player closest to the man with the ball needs to immediately apply the pressure on him to win the ball back. The second the ball is won back, the surrounding players need to immediately resume a defensive mentality whilst pushing foward. If we can’t manage to do this, then we’ll always be fighting to win the ball back further down the field.
WSM: Why are you placing such an emphasis on creating a style of play that focuses on pushing so far forward?
Higuchi: I’m sure there are countless answers to the question; “What’s the appeal with Football?” but to me, the attraction of the game lies within it’s individuality. It’s a sport where each individual player has to decide for themselves at each moment what the best plan of attack is. If we can’t seize the initiative and keep possession of the ball, then we can’t play in a way that fosters these individual qualities in a player. When players start to think for themselves it in turn helps create a team that can think independently. This is what I’m aiming to achieve. In order to realize this goal we need to remain in possession of the ball, and in order to do that, we must push forward and steal the ball as soon as possible.
WSM: There aren’t many clubs in the J-League that place such an emphasis on the idea of an “Attacking defence” are there?
Higuchi: I think it’s far more common for teams to pull back and try to block their opponent’s advances once they’ve lost the ball. Though that is certainly a style of defending in and of itself, it’s not the kind of play that I’m aiming for. If, for example, we find ourselves in a similar situation a total of 10 times but have to pull back on 5 or 6 of those occasions, then the “concept” is out of the window entirely.
WSM: So, you are saying that you intend to stick to such a vigorous playing style even in say, the middle of a hot summer?
Higuchi: Basically we intend to implement the same concept regardless of who we play or when. If we don’t, then we can’t build upon the groundwork we have laid up to that point. In that respect, straying from the plan cannot be an option. Looking at this year’s schedule, we can see that we have some weeks with as many as 3 back to back games. It may sound tough but this kind of schedule is routine for clubs in Europe. We need to toughen up in the same way too.
WSM: Thanks for the insight regarding your thoughts on defence. Last season saw the team net a total of 46 goals. What steps are you taking to improve your offence?
Higuchi: This is my biggest concern. We must score at least 20 goals more than last season. First we need to improve the quality of our ball possession. According to last season’s data, our advances on goal were markedly low when we were in possession of the ball. In fact, when we look at the data and see whereabouts on the pitch we spent the majority of our time whilst in possession, it soon becomes apparent that the “quality” of our time on the ball wasn’t high at all. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the F.Marinos are a team that do a lot of back-passing. Though of course that isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se, we still need to ask ourselves why this is happening and what we can do to combat such a habit.
This season, I want to push the main area of play at least 10-15 metres further upfield than last season. Last season we spent a lot of time moving the ball around in front of our own area so this season we need to start breaking away from the backline and focus on building up play from midfield. This is absolutely vital. Failure to do so will result in considerably less chances going forward and, in turn, less goals.
WSM: In other words, the more chances you can create, the more goals you can expect to score.
Higuchi: That and we need to ensure our players up front are capable of feeding the ball effectively to each other. This too is one of the keys to improving our ball possession.
WSM: What do you think it will take to effectively break down your opponents defences?
Higuchi: When playing in a typical 4-4-2 formation, the back four and midfield can work together any number of ways to move the ball forward but, in the end, it’s breaking through the opponents backline that ultimately determines the final outcome of play. In order to successfully do this, we need to pass the ball around their defence and aim to draw them out with a view to create a gap beyond their defence line that we can immediately exploit. This, I feel, is the key to creating more chances on goal.
WSM: In essence, you’re calling for more awareness from the team.
Higuchi: Exactly. Of course, skill is a necessity too but having a sharp awareness of where your teammates are in relation to yourself is also crucial to making each pass count. With each play of the ball, I want to see at least 4 or 5 players actively involved when going forward as that is what it will take to ensure we can create more concrete chances.
WSM: Aren’t you concerned that an increase in players going forward won’t leave your defence thin?
Higuchi: Not only is it necessary in order to break down our opponents defence but, pushing forward to seize possession of the ball in such a manner will also increase the likelihood of catching our opponents off-guard with short counter attacks. It’s also of equal importance that our players can react swiftly the moment we win the ball back in such situations so as to ensure there’s always somebody up front or in space to pass to. In simpler terms, the probability of ending an attack with a goal is all the more higher when our counters are being lead by several players at a time. We have to be thorough in addressing these two principles if we are to increase the amount of goals we score this season. It may sound idealistic but unless we try to make such a style of play work, we’ll never really play exciting football.
WSM: In order to increase the “quality” of your ball possesion, you will undoubtedly need players that can not only hold the ball up well, but also pass effectively too. Last season, Shunsuke Nakamura was often the go-to player that the Coach relied on to provide the spark in midfield needed to instigate the build-up of play, wasn’t he?
Higuchi: There’s no denying that the ball had a tendency to gravitate towards Shunsuke last season. In fact, in all the games that Shunsuke played, no other player made as many successful passes as him. Though that is by no means a bad thing, if you actually look at where he made those passes, you’ll discover that the majority of them came from within our own half. I actually want him to play as far upfield as possible. If the entire team can push their game further upfield then naturally Shunsuke will be in a higher position to work his magic too.
WSM: Now that you mention it, I recall seeing a fair few instances last season where Nakamura was having to drop back to facilitate with the passing…
Higuchi: If the flow of play is smooth, Shunsuke can push further forward. If he looks like he’s beginning to drop back to assist then I have every intention of telling him to go back upfield. From an opponents perspective, he’s a much more frightening player when he’s lurking in front of their area so that’s where we want him to be. That said though, we also need to be able to pass the ball around smoothly without him otherwise we’ll become too reliant on him. Fortunately the squad is really beginning to grasp how to play in his absence so things are looking good…
WSM: What kind of formation are you planning on going with this season?
Higuchi: In terms of defence, 4-4-2 seems to work best for maintaining a good balance. As for going forward, we have several options that seem to work well but there is no one specific formation that I’m willing to stake everything on. At this stage it’s more important to get the defence working smoothly first. The rest will follow accordingly.
WSM: At the recent training camp in Miyazaki, you appeared to be experimenting with lots of irregular player combinations…
Higuchi: Actually, I’m still experimenting with new things even now. I have about 4 or 5 combinations that work well but it’s tough to decide. Marquinhos is a new addition and Manabu Saito has just returned to the fold too. 2 of the 4 strikers in the squad are new to the team so naturally it’s going to take a little longer to fully integrate them into the side.
WSM: Finally, please tell the F.Marinos fans and supporters what they can expect to see this season.
Higuchi: Last season we were one step away from qualifying for the ACL and, though we let you all down, I can assure you that the players and coaching staff were all just as bitterly disappointed. That said however, though we were only one step away, it’s a really big step in terms of level and regardless of how difficult it may seem, we have to rise to the challenge if we want to achieve success. The ACL is a target that we have our sights firmly set upon so you can be rest assured that we will do everything in our power to achieve qualification for the tournament at the same time as establishing our own unique style of football. We all look forward to your continued support throughout the coming season.
Interview by: Ryo Ishii
Photograph by: Toshiaki Yano