Tuesday, February 25, 2014

J.League Under 22 Selection - More Questions Than Answers

Ever since the 'Under 22 J.League Selection' team, a collection of young players from J1 & J2 clubs, was confirmed as a participant in the newly formed J3, questions have abounded as to how the side would be put together and run on a week-to-week basis. The idea behind the creation of the team is certainly noble enough: to prepare a group of players for the 2016 Olympics (an Under 23 tournament); but the perception that the J.League is making it all up as they go along, and only releasing information in dribs and drabs, has only added to the confusion.
So what do we know so far?
  • The 'Under 22 J.League Selection' team will play all of their games away.
  • Only players who will not be involved in their parent club's matchday squad will be considered.
  • The squad will be selected on Friday each week, when the players will leave their clubs and travel to the away venue.
  • They'll train together on Saturday, play the game on the Sunday and return to their parent clubs afterwards.
But even with that information, there are numerous unanswered questions: Will all J1 & J2 clubs have to submit a squad list on Fridays so the manager of the Under 22s, Tsutomu Takahata, knows which players he can pick from? Will the clubs that don't have any players in the pool also have to name a squad that early? Where will the squad train the day before games - at the ground where they'll be playing the next day, or the home team's training pitch? What happens to that Friday-to-Sunday pattern in J3 Matchday 8, for example, when all games will be played on the Saturday (April 26), the same day as both J1 & J2 play Matchday 9? The same situation occurs the following Tuesday, the 29th, too, when all three leagues play on a national holiday.

Monday's announcement of the pool of 89 players (53 from J1 clubs, and 36 from J2) who will be considered for selection each week, and the fact that the matchday squad will comprise 16 players, brought a little clarity to the situation, but even then my twitter timeline was full of confused supporters asking questions that we just don't know the answers for yet: Can my team refuse to release a player who is 'called-up'? Can more than one player be chosen from each team each week? Why was 'Player A' (Gakuto Notsuda of Hiroshima, for example) chosen, but 'Player B' (ie. Takumi Minamino of Cerezo Osaka) not?

For the record, my answers to the questions above are: I don't know; I don't know and Stuffed if I know.

Nagoya have the most players in the pool, seven, and Kashima and Hiroshima both have six, as do J2 clubs Sapporo and Kyoto. On the other side of the coin no players from top flight clubs Sendai, Kawasaki and Kofu were named, while seven J2 clubs (FC Gifu, Sanuki, Okayama, Tochigi SC, Yamagata, Nagasaki and Gunma) had no players on the list.

Probably the three most familiar names in the pool to casual J.League observers are the aforementioned Notsuda - the hero of Hiroshima's Super Cup win last Saturday, flying winger Hideki Ishige of Shimizu, and Niigata forward Musashi Suzuki, but here-in lies another inherent problem in this whole idea: Apart from a three game window in June where J3 plays but J1 doesn't, the best of these players will almost certainly never play together over an extended period of time.

All three of them, and to take an example from J2, Matsumoto defender Tomoya Inukai (started the last 21 games of 2013), are so important to their teams that, fitness permitting, they'll always be selected, and apart from the World Cup break will be nowhere near this team.

J1 breaks for the World Cup from the middle of May and the final four Group Stage rounds of the Nabisco Cup run until the first of June, then for the next three J3 matchdays (15 - 17) Mr. Takahata will have full choice of top-flight players before the third tier takes almost a month off from late June to mid-July. There is no World Cup break in J2.

So you have to feel for FC Ryukyu, Zweigen Kanazawa and Grulla Morioka - the Under 22s' opponents in those three matchdays - as they'll have to face a full-strength Selection squad whereas the other eight teams in the league most likely never will. Of course if they're smart they'll use the potential appearances of young stars like Notsuda and Ishige for promotional purposes, but that kind of competitive imbalance is something that the J.League most likely has not considered, or chosen to ignore.

In training and on the pitch Takahata, a veteran coach who spent 16 years at Kawasaki Frontale, faces a fascinating task, taking players from a wide variety of clubs with a range of footballing philosophies and sending them out to play clubs who have spent an entire week - and an entire preseason, of course - working on a specific gameplan, before doing it all again the next week, potentially with a completely different group of 16 players.

I'm not suggesting the J.League dump this proposal, the J3 season starts on March 9, it IS happening, but more transparency in the planning of the Under 22 Selection team, and a prompter release of information to make the situation clearer for all Japanese football supporters, would have been far more preferable to the mess we are still piecing together whenever the league comes up with/decides to release more news.

(Thanks to Stuart Smith for his help on this.)

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