Urawa Reds’ rise back to the top of the J. League may not have been achieved with the free-flowing style the club’s supporters demand, but after last season’s histrionics, no one in Saitama is likely to be complaining.
Four 1-0 wins in a row have taken Urawa to the summit for the first time since August — a month when the wheels began to fall off the team’s 2008 title challenge and the guillotine moved into position over then-manager Gert Engels.
The end of that season was marked by total disarray on and off the pitch, and it is to new boss Volker Finke’s credit that his side is playing well-organized, disciplined soccer so early in the new campaign.
The German’s big project upon taking over was to impose a four-man defense on a team that had played for many years with three, but even he has been taken aback by how quickly the pieces have fallen into place.
“I didn’t think it, because there were no players for these (fullback) positions,” he said after Saturday’s win over JEF United Chiba. “These two who play now (converted midfielders Nobuhisa Yamada and Hajime Hosogai) normally have other positions, but they are doing well.”
In truth, Urawa’s early success should not come as much of a surprise. Aside from Yamada and Hosogai, the change in formation has allowed the manager to use his key players in the positions where they are at their most effective.
Marcus Tulio Tanaka is back in central defense after Engels’ experiment of using him further forward last year, while Yuki Abe has returned to the midfield after spending much of his time playing at the back.
A four-man defense is nothing new to Tulio after his experiences with the national team, and the transition has been further aided by the return to form of Keisuke Tsuboi beside him.
Similarly, Abe has been helped by midfield partner Keita Suzuki’s rehabilitation after a season of illness and injury, and if Finke has used his tactical acumen to play the right cards, having a full deck to choose from has certainly done him no harm.
Urawa now has a formidable defensive spine that looks well equipped to protect its miserly start to the season, but the manager is also right to insist that his team starts scoring more goals.
The responsibility for creating chances rests chiefly with playmaker Robson Ponte, and the signs are that he is ready to cast off the dismal memory of injury, poor form and a questionable attitude that limited his input last term.
The zest of teenagers Naoki Yamada and Genki Haraguchi has also given Urawa a shot in the arm, but without the Brazilian’s flashes of inspiration the team will struggle to turn its defensive superiority into something more substantial.
If Reds can continue to improve and grow in confidence, a more expressive style of play will eventually follow. For the time being, however, preventing opponents from doing likewise seems a good place to start.
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