East Asian Cup – Day 1 Observations

Day 1 of this year’s East Asian Cup is behind us and here is Tom Danicek with his own takeaways from both games.

The first game offered a shocking result on the surface, but not a really surprising one underneath. After all, North Korea are yet to lose to Japan in East Asian Cup history (it’s 2-1-0 in their favor now) and continue to be the favourites’ bogey opponents of sorts. Moreover, yesterday’s 2:1 triumph wasn’t exactly undeserved as Samurai Blue spent almost the entire 2nd half on the back foot.

The result of the second game, on the other hand, could hardly stun anyone (but Stielike?). China were lacklustre in offence and visibly struggling without most of their starting defenders at the other end. As a result of that, South Korea bagged an easy, albeit hard fought 2:0 win.

Don’t listen to Stielike, his South Korea arrived to China well drilled

A couple of days ago, South Korea manager Uli Stielike played down the importance of the tournament and publicly called his team ‘unprepared’ and limited due to high number of unavailable legionaries.

That, I felt, was pretty harsh towards the called-up players, but also not so true; as seen against China. Even though South Korea obviously miss some of the mainstays, in some respects those absences actually helped them yesterday.

The defensive line – for a change – managed to stand firm and was organised expertly by the focused Kim Young-gwon, thriving as the new captain with added responsibility. In these circumstances, he kept it simple and his brilliant technique combined with some resolute defending provided the whole squad with some much needed confidence.

The midfield was combative, held together by the experienced Jang Hyun-soo and sparked by some inspiring vertical runs from the 21-year-old debutant Kwon Chang-hoon. His execution left a bit to be desired, but Kwon’s movement alone proved to be extremely vital to the team that usually – with insipid Koo Ja-cheol and the overly defensive minded Ki Sung-yueng in place – tends to lack an adequate support from deep.

The offence was all about teamwork. With Son Heung-min nowhere near to be found selfishly trying his luck from distance and overshadowing everyone by default, this felt like a whole new experience. Some fine dynamic moves pinned together by Lee Jong-ho, Kim Seung-dae and Lee Jae-sung were as refreshing as it gets.

The latter played a key role in both goals and continues to impress in 2015. The Jeonbuk star has barely had a chance to catch breath during this calendar year, going from one difficult game to another at the age of 22, but it doesn’t show. Incisive passing remains a standard feature of his game, hence providing South Korea with the sort of intelligent cutting edge Nam Tae-hee wasn’t able to deliver at the Asian Cup.

I have to say bluntly I absolutely adore Lee Jae-sung; still failing to find a single flaw that could stop him from developing into a national team regular. His gritty nature may scare some, but it at least shows you he’s willing to get stuck in, which will come in especially handy in the near future when opponents actually start taking a good care of him.

Lee Jae-sung has already played deeper for Jeonbuk, even as the last central midfielder at times, and that should help him in the long run strength-wise. As of now, with his wavy runs through the midfield lines, with a great love for a first time pass and somewhat reckless sliding tackles, he comes as close to the Korean version of Arsenal’s Tomáš Rosický as he possibly could.

And as long as he stays away from the treatment room, that’s most definitely a good thing…

Japan couldn’t control a thing

East Asian Cup history tells us that when you lose a single match, your dream about gold medals suddenly turns into a thing of past. There have so far been no champions who overcame such a hiccup and we have no good reason to reckon this pattern will change now, since Japan don’t seem to be here to dominate and, as a matter of fact, prevail in any meaningful way.

During our conversation on Twitter, distinguished Japanese football expert Dan Orlowitz expressed his doubts over whether this team is mature enough to succeed here in China. And as we’re beginning to see now, he spoke wisdom.

There’s no apparent lack of talent, not at all. Holding midfielder Hotaru Yamaguchi, for instance, once again showed that his tackling ability and covering pace are something Japan could seriously use in the future in order to back up the high number of usually fielded attacking players.

However, what was quite obvious at the same time was the inexperience of some of the other Japanese.

Forwards Kengo Kawamata and Kensuke Nagai produced some disappointingly tame efforts in front of the North Korean goal, central midfielder Shogo Taniguchi kept turning the ball over for fun and even 28-year-old centre back Tomoaki Makino (with just over 10 caps to his name, though) had quite a shocker; resembling Bambi on ice for the majority of the match.

Overall, yesterday’s Japan had simply too many weak spots. And while their complete inability to hold on to the ball was rather unfamiliar, plenty of overthought finishing touches in the opponent’s 18-yard box and poor performance in the air both represent long-term concerns for Japan’s NT coaches.

The current incumbent, Vahid Halilhodžić, and particularly his ineffective substitutions, needs to be questioned as well, along with some alarming signs of indiscipline, namely the numerous fouls conceded by the Samurai Blue in dangerous  areas around their own penalty box.

This all, supplemented by the waterlogged pitch (which caused too much trouble to Usami in particular), contributed pretty equally to the whole miserable Japanese experience, on which I could find only one pure positive:

Halilhodžić has one more capable Muto in stock, watch out

Those who haven’t read Martin’s pre-tournament preview were probably wondering how on earth Yoshinori Muto has been allowed to take part in this East Asian Cup right before the Bundesliga season starts. Well, he indeed hasn’t been. Instead, it was his namesake Yuki who most certainly caught your eye, if you watched carefully.

Yuki Muto is considered to be one of the main revelations of this J-League season, hence many spectators wondered whether he could replicate his impressive club form on the international scene. And if a one-game sample is enough for you, an overwhelming “yes!” has to be the right answer.

The 26-year-old was involved in almost every good opportunity Japan created in yesterday’s match vs North Korea and make no mistake – it wasn’t an insignificant number.

What Yuki Muto brings to the table above all is great anticipation and some fantastic vision. He’s not very keen on navigating his way through tight spaces, instead he usually chooses to pass the ball unexpectedly and catch as many opponents off guard as possible.

There’s indeed something intriguingly unselfish about Yuki Muto and where others hesitated, the Urawa Red Diamonds star was making gutsy, well executed decisions.

In the end, his efficiency was breathtaking: he scored the first goal thanks to a perfectly timed run into the penalty area, before helping to create as many as three promising chances, all before the half-time, and he remained the most dangerous Japanese even after the break, producing one sporadic shot on target.

Although it was just one game against an inferior team, it’s already quite clear that Yuki Muto sees things earlier than others at this level normally do, and so it’s hard to not get excited about the option of him taking this precious attribute to a higher A-team level.

That would be one truly astonishing rise of a player who hadn’t come close even to being a regular J-League starter before his 25th birthday…

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