The only answer anyone in the press room could come up with was: “Well, he’s French, isn’t he.”
The question being: Why did Japan manager Philippe Troussier take Kashima Antlers midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara off the field after just 25 minutes in Wednesday’s 1-1 draw against Costa Rica?
It was Ogasawara’s second appearance and first start for Japan, and it came just weeks after making an impressive debut as a substitute against Ukraine. Troussier was typically uncompromising in his response.
“He didn’t do what I told him to do,” was the explanation. “And the team didn’t have its shape. Ogasawara played too deep. That may be his natural way, but it was not good for us. The team was not working well. It’s not a question of his quality. It was my fault for picking him.”
Troussier brought on Hiroaki Morishima, a tried and trusted attacking midfielder who presumably did the job he wanted.
Fine. Case proven then.
Well, no, I don’t think so.
The purpose of playing Ogasawara in the middle of midfield was to see if he could occupy the space that Hidetoshi Nakata usually fills. Nakata does the job brilliantly, but he’s had a lot of practice.
Ogasawara has quietly established himself as one of the country’s best midfielders. With Bismarck gone, he has become the key figure for the Kashima Antlers. He only turned 23 this month and shows a lot of maturity in his play.
For Kashima, Ogasawara plays a slightly deeper role, as Masashi Motoyama has been given the task of sparking the attack from midfield.
So, 25 minutes into his first start as a Japan player, Ogasawara still hasn’t carried out Troussier’s plans to the letter. He has gone forward a few times and made a difference, but not enough for the French boss.
So Troussier sends him a message: You’re a piece of s**t, Ogasawara, get off!
How else can you interpret such a radical and humiliating move by the manager?
So Ogasawara hadn’t filled the role perfectly. You take him off?
Ogasawara is known as a sensitive player and Troussier has been bullying him into asserting himself more, both on and off the pitch. He tells Ogasawara he must fight for his place on the team, he must demand it.
Show you’re a man, Ogasawara, show me your balls. Yes, that’s Troussier’s favorite mantra.
One size fits all is the subtext here. You can only be a part of Troussier’s setup if you can show you’re a BIG MAN.
Unfortunately, Ogasawara’s not like that. He’s quiet, sensitive and very effective. He can pass, he can shoot, he can read the game and he can see ahead of the game. He’s a damn good player.
And Troussier knows that. However, if he is going to obsess about Ogasawara’s character, he may never find out just how good he is.
He certainly won’t find out by hauling him off in disgrace after 25 minutes of an inconsequential match.
How much encouragement did he give Ogasawara? Did he even let Ogasawara know how unhappy he was after 15 or 20 minutes? Couldn’t he have given him a roasting at half-time and then see how he fared?
Did it not occur to him that a sensitive player making his debut as a starter for Japan might need a little bit of time to settle into his role? What are these practice games for if not to give such players a chance to get used to Troussier’s methods and the team’s way of playing?
Kashiwa Reysol manager Steve Perryman always says that Ossie Ardiles is the best player motivator he’s ever seen.
“He gives everyone a boost and makes each player feel he’s special,” Perryman says. “So that when they go out onto the pitch they feel they can do anything.”
Today, Ogasawara must feel like he can do nothing. It could be a mortal psychological blow.
In Troussier’s defense, it may be just another of his psychological games (and he loves those). It may be that he’ll give Ogasawara another chance in the Kirin Cup at the end of the month and you can be sure that if he does get that chance, Mr. Sensitive will work his balls off in attack.
But you have to wonder about the wisdom of playing such mind games so close to the World Cup. We don’t need damaged goods in the squad in June.
And if Troussier is going to start humiliating or dumping players, there are far more qualified candidates than Ogasawara.
Tsuneyasu Miyamato, for example. In his book “Passion” (to be published in English by The Japan Times in May), Troussier relates how he has the utmost trust in Miyamoto.
You have to wonder why.
In Troussier’s eyes, Miyamoto is a great reader of the game. The Gamba Osaka player is known as an intelligent guy (he went to university and he speaks English) and he comes across as slightly superior, aloof even.
In other words, he could be French.
Why else would Troussier play him when it’s obvious that he just isn’t good enough at defending? Better stick to reading, if you ask me.
Under Troussier’s zonal system of defense, an ability to read the game is important, particularly for the man in the middle who must organize the back three. Miyamoto can do this (in the continued absence of injured Shimizu S-Pulse star Ryuzo Morioka) and gets the nod over old-school bruisers such as Yutaka Akita of the Kashima Antlers. Troussier told me after the Ukraine game that Akita’s strength is in one-on-one situations, not as a zonal defender (although he hasn’t really bothered to find out if this is really true).
Troussier’s system works fine when the defense isn’t under much direct pressure. The “readers” spot the danger and cut it out in its infancy.
Unfortunately, if the danger isn’t spotted in time, some Costa Rican/Russian/Belgian/Tunisian bulldozer will bear down on you and challenge you to a duel — a one-on-one situation.
Miyamoto and left-sided defender Koji Nakata were both challenged against Costa Rica and both were found wanting. Miyamoto, as he has shown in the past, cannot deliver when confronted by such a situation, while Nakata just panics — hence the crap tackle that earned Costa Rica a penalty.
The same back three (with Naoki Matsuda on the right), despite showing their weaknesses, played the full 90 minutes against Ukraine and Costa Rica. Why weren’t they hauled off?
And what about the wide players: Alex and his Shimizu S-Pulse teammate Daisuke Ichikawa?
How Troussier can pick Ichikawa (who only lasted until half-time on Wednesday) is beyond me. He has never, ever shown that he knows how to control a football. He’s a classic case of a body working overtime and a mind trying to catch up. He does not know what to do with the ball when it’s at his feet.
Unlike Alex, whose offensive skills are sublime but who put on one of the worst defensive displays ever by a player wearing the blue of Japan. It was embarrassing to watch.
So why didn’t Troussier haul him off — and give Shunsuke Nakamura another chance?
Well, because he’s not a big fan of Nakamura.
If the manager hadn’t taken a two-week vacation after the recent trip to Poland, he could have gone to watch the ever-improving Yokohama F. Marinos and seen Nakamura back at his best. Now out of his yearlong slump, Nakamura is getting sharper and sharper. His vision is getting better, he’s losing the ball less and — surprise, surprise — he’s becoming very useful with his right foot.
Troussier has said in his book “Passion” (to be published in English by The Japan Times next month — a great read, very cheap), how Jubilo Iwata striker Masashi Nakayama creates a huge response from the fans and, in so doing, gives the team a welcome psychological boost.
Nakamura does the same. And there’s one big difference: Nakamura has the ability to change the course of the game, no matter what level he’s playing at. Nakayama has never, ever shown that he is anything better than a very good J. League player. At international level, he sucks and has sucked throughout his career.
To be fair to Troussier, his overall strategy for Japan in the last 3 1/2 years has been very successful, and, to be honest, I don’t want to start second-guessing him now. But the last few games — even if they did produce two wins and a draw — have raised more questions than answers.
With only five practice games left before the World Cup, Troussier needs to come up with the answers.
“Because he’s French” is not the answer we want to hear.
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