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Keep the ball down: how Ange Postecoglou achieved J-League glory | David Allegretti

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11:30am, Kozukue station. Far-off chanting and beats like war drums fill the morning air, carried over despite the rain, from Yokohama’s Nissan Stadium – almost a kilometre away. Kick-off is not for two and a half hours.

Approaching the stadium, it feels more carnival than football match. Who can blame them for starting the celebrations early? Yokohama’s second-half demolition of prefectural rivals Kawasaki last week ensured total control of the title race heading into the final day of the season. Needing only to avoid defeat by four goals or more against Tokyo FC, the Tricolore essentially had one hand on the trophy.

Nissan Stadium is built for the big occasion. It is here where Cafu lifted the World Cup trophy in 2002 after Ronaldo, El Fenomeno, put two past Oliver Kahn’s Germany. It is here where Siya Kolisi lifted the Rugby World Cup trophy after the Springboks’ triumph over England.

It is here that Ange Postecoglou completed the fairytale. From just narrowly avoiding a relegation play-off due to goal difference last season, to J-League champions. The turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable, the likes of which never before seen in such a short amount of time in Japan’s top flight.

And they did it in style. Postecoglou introduced a new brand of attacking, ambitious football to a notoriously conservative league, and captured the hearts and respect of Japanese football pundits and fans along the way – particularly the Yokohama supporters who now sing his name in the stands.

“It’s wonderful. So wonderful,” says 34-year-old Yuki, holding the hand of his three-year-old son decked out in full Yokohama tracksuit. “At the start, we were not sure. The fans and the media thought ‘who is this guy’ – but the players trusted him. So we did.”

Another fan, 22-year-old Takuya, echoes these initial trepidations. “Last year, we had very bad defence. One guy scored on us from halfway! A halfway goal – I think no no, he [Ange] makes the goalkeeper play too far forward. I think, what is he doing?”

This halfway goal, scored by Taishi Taguchi during Jubilo Iwata’s 3-1 victory over Marinos last year, was an almost replica of the halfway goal conceded by Postecoglou’s Socceroos in a 2-1 defeat to Greece back in 2016. Both goals drew similar criticism by Australian and Japanese media alike, who accused Postecoglou of pushing his keepers too far forward.

But Postecoglou, just like after that Greece game, stood by his keeper, and stood by his high-risk, high-reward philosophy. Statistically, it’s better to play with what is effectively an extra player operating as a sweeper when in possession, than to have him near the goal and out of the action for the bulk of the 90 minutes.

Yokohama, to their credit, kept faith in Postecoglou, who has shown in the past that, when given the time to prioritise sustained development over immediate results, can produce magic. Think 2011-12 Brisbane Roar, who under Postecoglou went on a scintillating 36-game undefeated streak, the longest in top-level Australian sport, earning them the moniker “Roarcelona”.

“I enjoy those bits” said Postecoglou at the post-game press conference, addressing the criticism shown by Japanese media when results weren’t going his way. “I enjoy the bits when maybe there is a little bit of doubt and people do question the way I do things.

“When you go to the movies, you don’t mind a thriller as long as it’s a happy ending. I think all the times I’ve coached, especially at club level, it’s always a happy ending. And I think people have seen that.

“The club’s been very supportive – the supporters have been very supportive, even last year when things weren’t going well, and the players responded to every challenge I made. I’ve never worried if things don’t go well momentarily, because as I said, I know how it will end. It’s always ended this way.”

In a piece published on Players Voice last year, Postecoglou wrote of three words that have shaped his football philosophy from the very beginning. Three words that a young Postecoglou would hear his late father yell at the television screen as he watched grown men on the other side of the planet kick a ball around in the early hours of the morning.

“Κάτω η μπαλα” – roughly translated from Greek, it means keep the ball down; an ethos that was on full display for all to see as a sea of red, white and blue drummed, clapped, and chanted for the full 90, unwavering despite the chilly conditions.

Fast, ferocious, attacking football. Courage, speed, don’t think twice. Ball to feet. Play out from the back. Push. Push. Get the ball moving. Attack. This is Postecoglou’s football. Get the ball back in play as soon as possible, pressure them, don’t hold up. Look for openings, quick play, ball to feet – keep the ball on the ground.

Later in the press conference, Postecoglou spoke of his controversial approach to the game. “The players have never been in any doubt that we would continue to play this football irrespective of what challenges are before us. Whether we’re playing at home or away, whether we’re first on the ladder or chasing … we’ll keep playing this football.

“Every day, we live and breathe this football. So that in situations like today, the players know no other way. They’re not going to be affected by pressure, they’re not going to be affected by conceding a goal or a red card. They only know one way, and that’s what they’ll do.”

Postecoglou’s J-League triumph is one for the artists, the puritans, the lovers of the game. And he did it his way.

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