The former Australia manager is attempting to implement a sea change at F. Marinos. But will it be a successful voyage?
Date: Wednesday, May 16th, 2018 Location: Yokohama, Kanagawa prefecture Stadium: Nippatsu Mitsuzawa Stadium Match: Yokohama F.Marinos versus Albirex Niigata (Levain Cup)
Over the course of 54 years, the training ship Nippon Maru sailed around the world 45 times. During its life, 11,500 cadets learnt the ropes beneath the majestic sails. Today it takes pride of place on the scenic waterfront of Minatomirai, the heart of modern day Yokohama.
This is a city that’s always been at the forefront of change. Its port was one of the first in Japan to open up to international trade in the 19th century at the end of the period of isolation. It grew quickly from a sleepy fishing village into a thriving metropolis on the sea, with bustling neighbourhoods heavily influenced by different cultures. It’s a city that has adapted and welcomed changed.
Football in the city, too, has experienced its fair share of upheaval. Especially at Yokohama F. Marinos. And this season has been no exception. The City Football Group – owners of Manchester City – have bought a 20 percent stake in the club. There’s also a new man at the helm.
Ange Postecoglou, fresh from guiding Australia to the World Cup, is the manager tasked with navigating Marinos through the tricky seas of Japanese football. And the waters have been choppy enough so far.
It seems fitting to start the day in Yokohama aboard Nippon Maru. The ship’s soaring masts can be seen almost as soon as you exit Sakuragicho Station in Minatomirai. And while the highest points of the boat stretch bravely towards the clouds, they’re dwarfed by Landmark Tower, a 296-metre-high symbol of modern Japan.
Nippon Maru was built in 1930 and stayed in service until 1984. Its only purpose was to train sailors. The young cadets would rush down the narrow corridors, nimbly climb the steep staircases and toil away up on deck. They’d sleep in claustrophobic cabins, eight to a tiny room on bunk beds. Dinner would be served at communal benches, usually a hot meal, unless the seas were rough, in which case it would be biscuits and tinned food.
Captains and officers lived up on the higher decks. They had their own rooms with mahogany furniture, brass fittings, model ship ornaments and collections of books. But they also had responsibility. An assemblage of inexperienced cadets needed moulding into a well-drilled crew capable of carrying out orders and showing the initiative required to ensure smooth sailing.
When Postecoglou arrived in Yokohama, he found himself with a young squad. A fresh-faced team that he aims to drill into an attractive footballing outfit. And much like the captains of the Nippon Maru, he has the heavy burden of expectation weighing down on his shoulders.
Investment from City Football Group has boosted the club’s coaching, training and medical set-up, while the main backer remains car giant Nissan. Yet while the City Football Group ownership is at the moment only 20 percent, there comes an understanding that Marinos will adopt the same football philosophy as stablemates Manchester City, New York City, Melbourne City et al. And not just aping the tactics for style’s sake, but in a bid to win and to dominate Japanese and Asian football.
There are already signs of the free-flowing attacking part of the vision becoming reality. The 23 league goals recorded at the time of writing make Marinos the joint-highest scorers with Vissel Kobe.
It’s at the other end, though, where the problem lies. The 24 goals conceded is only better than two teams: fourth from bottom V-Varen Nagasaki (26) and the doomed-looking basement dwellers Nagoya Grampus (30).
Postecoglou’s next task will be to whip his defence into shape. And history tells us that he won’t be daunted by the prospect.
As you wander around Yokohama, further signs of foreign influence jump out. None more so than at the Red Brick Warehouses. These European-style buildings were opened in 1905 as customs houses. Today they act as tourist traps, home to gift shops and restaurants.
Take a walk up in the hills of Yamate and you’ll find the old Western homes of ambassadors, generals and traders. And then there’s Yamashita Park, a seaside paradise of flowers that would put an English rose garden to shame.
Peel yourself away from the geraniums, cross the busy road, cut between the gleaming office blocks and you’ll see yet another side to Yokohama.
Steam drifts from small shops selling dumplings, crowds gather under colourful gates as they tuck into authentic street food, and narrow side streets lined with red lanterns beckon with the promise of the unknown. This is Chinatown, one of Yokohama’s most vibrant districts.
In a city that has embraced outside influences so completely, it seems fitting that Marinos are equally open to new ides. And their manager won’t be shy in exposing the team to different ways of thinking.
After cutting his teeth with South Melbourne in the National Soccer League, Postecoglou took the plunge to experience a new footballing culture in Greece. It turned out to be only a nine-month sojourn, but it preceded something truly special.
Back in Australia, Postecoglou took up a position at Brisbane Roar in the A League. He immediately set about rebuilding a squad that wasn’t fit for purpose. A ninth place finish in the ten-team league at the end of his first season didn’t bode well. But the second season? One defeat in 30 league games meant the title was coming to Brisbane for the first time. And he repeated the trick the following season, all while introducing a style of football that earned the team the moniker Roarcelona.
Two seasons at Melbourne Victory followed, where more rebuilding work was required, but this time no titles followed. But his reputation remained intact, and he was the obvious choice for Australia when Holger Osieck was fired.
Not blessed with the deepest pool of talented players, Postecoglou made the best of the situation. The 2014 World Cup, though, wasn’t kind to the Socceroos, where they lined up in Group B against the Netherlands, Chile and Spain. Not surprisingly, Australia finished bottom of the group. But they regrouped to win some silverware just one year later.
As hosts of the 2015 Asian Cup, the pressure was on Australia. But Postecoglou guided the team through a gruelling tournament, finally seeing off South Korea 2-1 after extra time in the final.
Postecoglou’s final act as national team manager was to secure their spot at the 2018 World Cup. He announced his resignation during an emotional press conference just six days after the qualification play-off victory over Honduras.
It was a sad end to his four-year reign, and the 52-year-old looked drained by the experience come the end. His decision to step back into management so soon with Marinos could have been considered a surprise under the circumstances.
But rejuvenated by the challenge on the Kanagawa coast, at a club open to new ideas, with significant backing from serious investors, Postecoglou might just have found the perfect place for a fresh start.
Marinos play most of their home games at the huge Nissan Stadium. It can hold 72,327 fans, which is quite a lot. Especially for a Levain Cup group match against Albirex Niigata from J.League 2.
So it’s a good thing that tonight’s match is taking place at the cosier Nippatsu Mitsuzawa Stadium, which has a much more sensible capacity of just over 15,000.
As well as a different stadium, the Levain Cup often means an all-new starting line up. This is a competition that doesn’t hold much importance for teams, especially during the lengthy group stage.
But you wouldn’t guess that from the enthusiastic home fans. With an hour until kick-off, they’re already in full swing, singing with gusto and flag waving with abandon. It’s a sea of red, white and blue behind the goal, and the atmosphere builds as the sun sets and the floodlights shine.
So while the Levain Cup isn’t the best place to see the first team players in action, it is a great chance to judge the strength of those on the fringe. And to see how deep a club’s philosophy runs.
And at Marinos, it seems to run deeply. The hosts knock the ball around with confidence in the early stages, much like in any game. The passing is intricate, the movement smart, and it doesn’t take long for a goal to arrive.
But it isn’t a result of pretty passing. Kota Yamada swings in a free kick from the left, it’s headed clear as far as Milos Degenek on the edge of the box. And he makes contact like a defender, scuffing the ball goalwards, where it sneaks inside the post.
Albirex Niigata, though, are no pushovers. Relegated last season from J.League 1, they’re a decent outfit in the second tier and prove so just ten minutes after going behind. On the counter, Kenta Hirose breaks down the left, pings a cross towards the penalty area, where Thalles chests the ball down before firing in a shot that almost breaks the net.
It looks like we’re heading in level at half-time, until a moment of magic from the home side’s Takahiro Ogihara. His left-foot free kick from outside the area swerves beautifully in the air, evading goalkeeper Junto Taguchi and nestling in the back of the net.
The second half ebbs and flows, the fans keep jumping and chanting, and Marinos see out a 2-1 win to progress to the next stage.
Full sail ahead
A successful night of football ends with a lap of honour from the victorious players. The vast majority of the fans stay back, serenading their heroes on this balmy night under the floodlights.
A ten-minute cameo at the end of the game from Hugo Viera added sparkle to what was already an impressive performance. Going forward, Marinos oozed confidence with some slick passing and movement. At the back, though, there were lapses, one of which was exploited by Albirex for their goal.
But it’s still early days, of course. And as Postecoglou’s career shows, given time he’s capable of moulding a team that can earn comparisons to the tika-taka brilliance of Barcelona.
So much like those inexperienced cadets that boarded the Nippon Maru to later emerge as weathered sailors, the young Marinos players can expect a steep learning curve as they learn the ropes. It won’t be easy, and they’ll be mistakes along the way, but if history tells us anything, it’s that the future is very bright for Yokohama F. Marinos.