Training Ground Guru | Should more teams buy into the J-League after Celtic’s success?

Ange Postecoglou (left) and Neo Hatate (right) arrived at Parkhead from the J-League last summer

WHEN Ange Postecoglou was appointed manager of Celtic last June, Alan Brazil was in disbelief.

“Is this a liquidation? Where do they come with these people?

The former Ipswich Town, Manchester United and Scotland striker – himself a former Celtic youth product – was not alone either. Many have questioned Postecoglou’s credentials for one of the biggest jobs in British football.

Apart from a nine-month stint in charge of Greek third division side Panachaiki in 2009, the Greek-Australian had never been successful in Europe before. Yes, he had led Yokohama Marinos to their first J-League title in 15 years in his most recent role, but the implication of the naysayers was clear: we don’t rate that achievement.

Perhaps Celtic were uncertain too, as they only gave Postecoglou – at best their second choice for the managerial job – a rolling 12-month deal.

Fast forward eight months and all doubts have evaporated. Celtic lead the SPL, having amassed 54 points from a possible 60 since last losing in the league, a 1-0 reverse at Livingstone on September 19.

They are a dynamic and well-trained team and Postecoglou has proven to be a charismatic and thoughtful leader. Additionally, Japanese players have played a key role in the revival of the club.

Kyogo Furuhashi, a £4.6m signing from Vissel Kobe in July 2021, tops the SPL in goals by 90 (eight in 14 games with a 0.76 ratio), while Neo Hatate, one of the three Japanese players brought in during the January transfer window, was man of the match in a 3-0 victory over rivals Rangers in a boisterous Parkhead in early February.

So is it time to give the J-League more respect – and for more UK teams to sign and recruit there?

POSTECOGLOU’S INSIDE KNOWLEDGE OF JAPAN

In a special J-League ebook, published in late 2020, Hudl reported that more than 30 Japanese players were registered with professional clubs in European leagues. Celtic are the only professional club in Scotland to have Japanese players and only two in England – Arsenal, with Takehiro Tomiyasu, and Liverpool, with Takumi Minamino.

Unlike Arsenal and Liverpool, Celtic signed their quartet directly from the J-League. In January, striker Daizen Maeda arrived from Yokohama Marinos, attacking midfielder Hatate from Kawasaki Frontale and holding midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi from Gamba Osaka, joining striker Furuhashi, who was signed in July 2021.

The combined fee for the January trio was £3.5m, which seemed astonishing when Hatate, 24, scored twice in the Old Firm game earlier this month despite not had only been with the club for a few weeks.

High Performance Insights with Ange Postecoglou from Hudl on Vimeo.

Postecoglou’s knowledge of the J-League was of course key to signing the quartet from Celtic.

“The reason I went this route is, one, I have a great knowledge of this market because that’s where I worked, and two, it’s ideal for the January market because their season ends in December,” the 56-year-old said. old explained.

“I signed four quality players, players who I think can add to what I do here. You just have to get to know these guys.

He had managed Maeda in Yokohama and had seen the other three up close in games against their teams. The important thing, he explainedwas knowing exactly how he wanted his team to play, what qualities he needed from his players, and then recruiting accordingly.

It might sound simple, but you’d be surprised how many clubs still don’t.

“The players I brought have started off with a bang”, Postecoglou noted. “People ask, ‘Why so fast?’ It’s because I already know they have the attributes I’m looking for and the rest is just figuring out the game plan.

“One of the main ones was Kyogo Furuhashi, who I knew from Japan. My team played against his and I watched him closely. I knew he had the ingredients to succeed here. As a player individual but also because of the talent he had for integrating into the team.

Celtic’s pattern of play is all about high pressing and high possession. They lead the SPL in completed passes per game and average possession, and are the lowest in passes per defensive action (PPDA – opposing passes per defensive action in their final 60% of the field).

Along with the technical, tactical, and physical attributes, there was also the issue of cultural fit and the ability of Japanese players to adapt successfully to their new country and language. Again, this was not a major concern for Postecoglou.

“They can speak Japanese, but if they were only interested in continuing to speak Japanese, they would have stayed in Japan,” the official said. “They don’t need the comforts of home and if they did, they would struggle wherever they go.”

One of the major mitigating factors for J-League recruitment is the difficulty of obtaining work permits for these players under the new Board of Directors Approval (GBE) scheme introduced in January 2021 at the J-League. following the UK’s exit from the European Union.

The J-League is classified as a Band 6 league under regulations, which means players automatically only earn two points out of the 15 required to pass the GBE threshold. As Andy Watson explained in this excellent article for Analytics FC, the Scottish FA appear to be interpreting calls to the exceptions panel in a different way to their English counterpart, potentially making it easier for J-League players to enter.

This is one of the main reasons why we have seen Japanese players sign for Premier League clubs from European sides, rather than directly from the J-League.

J-LEAGUE AND YOKOHAMA GAME FEATURES

Of course, not everyone has Postecoglou’s intimate knowledge of the J-League. That’s why Hudl analyzed competition data for all four seasons to the end of 2019 and compared it with other leagues around the world.

The picture that emerged was of a league where there are lower possession levels, lower chances created (xG) and higher PPDA than in other countries (see below).

Average possession for the top three teams in sample competitions between 2016 and 2019.

Average possession for the top three teams in sample competitions between 2016 and 2019.

Average xG in sample leagues.

Average xG in sample leagues.

Average PPDA = opposing passes by defensive action in the last 60% of the opponent's field.  This is considered an indicator of a team's ability to win the ball back quickly.

Average PPDA = opposing passes by defensive action in the last 60% of the opponent’s field. This is considered an indicator of a team’s ability to win the ball back quickly.

However, Postecoglou’s Yokohama were outliers during the sampling period, as they were a high-possession, high-pressure, hard-running team.

They led the J-League in average possession by 90 (65%), total assists, shots and goals (below), and were also the best in average sprints per team, the distance covered and the number of goals conceded (an average of 1.1 per game). They also scored the most goals resulting from pressing (13).

These are all key metrics for Postecoglou’s game style and as that we have described above, those he successfully transferred to Celtic.

During a webinar with Hudl in April 2020, the manager explained these playing principles in more detail.

“For us it wasn’t just ‘we want to have the ball’ – we want to be really strong in our pressing in the first third,” he told Hudl’s Ed Sulley. “I want my goalkeeper and my full-backs to be really brave in the way they play.

“The other side of the coin is that I want our attackers to work hard defensively. If you can sprint and have the goal to win the ball in the first period, that’s going to create chances for you. We want to be really aggressive.

“To play our kind of football, you have to work hard and play at a certain pace and at a certain speed. We train our players to play at that pace all the time. If we reach those parameters, we can play our football. I’d like to think I’m pretty clear in my messages about how we want to train and play.”

These playing principles aligned well with those of City Football Group – which took a minority stake in Yokohama in 2014 – as a whole.

THE FUTURE OF THE J-LEAGUE

It should not be forgotten that the J-League is catching up with European competitions, as it only became fully professional in 1992. In addition, relatively few professional player contracts are awarded each year and it is difficult for young players to have opportunities.

There are no reserve or B teams, with only a small handful of clubs having under-23 teams playing in the J3 League. The university system partly fills the void, much the same way we see it in the United States. Hatate, for example, played for Juntendo University and then the combined team of Japanese universities.

Postecoglou said he preferred to use younger players if he could.

“Experienced players tend to know the pitfalls of football, of life, if something goes wrong,” he told Hudl. “So convincing them to do something a little risky can take a little longer, whereas a young player they tend to be sponges and don’t know the pitfalls, so they might be a little more brave to do so.”

There has been a recent policy of signing big foreign names at the end of their careers, such as Vissel Kobe trio Andres Iniesta (2018-), David Villa (2019/20) and Lukas Podolski (2017-2020), led by broadcaster DAZN, although the more successful imports have sometimes been less glamorous, such as Edigar Junio ​​and Erik Lima, who both played for Yokohama Marinos in 2019/20.

In 2005, the Japan Football Association statement set out a vision to “create world-class national teams to move, inspire and encourage the people of Japan”, with an ambitious commitment to win the World Cup by 2050 .

Selling players to the major leagues overseas is part of that vision – and Celtic’s recent success could speed up the process.

Evelyn C. Tobin