Nichols vs Arnold: Perceptions of Japanese football

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    Australian U-23 Mitchell Nichols, right, fights for the ball with U-23 Japan's Yusuke Higa during their friendly soccer match in Niigata, Japan, Wednesday, June 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

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    As I gaze over my regular football information repositories that include blogs, social media and more formal online media I see a glaring double standard in people’s opinions on the J.League.

    Firstly let’s take Graham Arnold’s appointment as the new Vegalta Sendai manager.

    As a manager who had a rough trot as Australian manager and was generally lambasted and derided by everyone, Arnold made a successful transition into club football with the Central Coast managers going on to win titles and generally keeping his side at the pointy end of the table.

    Arnold has now gone international and has received praise not only for his forward thinking vision but also encouragement that it will put a spot light on Australian managers and (pending on his success) will enable more coaches to travel overseas to test their mettle in league’s across the world. Well done Graham, I’m with you and cheering for you all the way!

    Now let’s look at another Australian who’s looking to make a transition.

    Mitch Nichols, a Brisbane Roar centurion and now (what I would regard as) Melbourne Victory’s star 2013/14 signing is looking to make a home in the Land of the rising sun.

    Cerezo Osaka have made it public they are chasing the experienced midfielder for their upcoming 2014 J.League and Asian Champions League tilt.

    Cerezo, the ‘smaller’ of the two Osaka clubs, have finished an incredibly respectable fourth in the 2013 J.League and have secured their ACL spot through virtue of Hiroshima and Yokohama, teams that have already secured their spot through league qualification being the two Emperors Cup finalists.

    Cerezo is also bringing in new personnel on the management side of the game with Ranko Popovic signing from FC Tokyo to the Cherries.

    Popovic has seen Nichols ply his trade in two Asian Champions League matches when Brisbane played FC Tokyo, both at Suncorp and the National Stadium.

    However if you’re like me you will be quite surprised to find that the public reception of Nichols potential transfer away from Melbourne has been met with mixed reactions something generally not seen when Arnold made his announcement.

    Among the concerns, some of which are valid, some of which are not, relate to the standard of the J.League, the fee that will be paid, the potential advantage/disadvantage to Nichols career and his standing in the Australian national team by moving to a distant land.

    Firstly the J.League is Asia’s (both East and West) premier domestic club competition. It is not at all like China or Korea. I draw this distinction because there have been a few players who have not had the greatest of experiences in those locations.

    Chinese teams tend to jettison any and all foreign players if their league finishing position is not as high as they would have hoped, and continued corruption and match fixing issues plague the league.

    K-League is a bit of a football quagmire, with very strange attendance fluctuations, no promotion/relegation (In a geographically small country with incredible transport links with a proud, long and competitive football pedigree) and extremely limited English language coverage.

    My two case studies for this would be ex-Brisbane Roar footballer’s Luke De Vere (See also: Matt Simon) who, to the best of my knowledge, played nine K-league games in 2013 and Chinese experiment Matt McKay who bounced from Korea to China playing for Changchun Yatai before his contract being mutually terminated.

    What Japan has done in around 25 years to domestic football in their country is nothing short of remarkable.

    They have created a stable, quality club competition who consistently produces stars for both the Samurai Blue and foreigners (former Tokyo Verdy striker Hulk, anyone?).

    Japan has no less than 52 professional clubs with the establishment of ‘J3’ next season plus many others in the transition from semi-pro to professional.

    The fee that will be paid to Melbourne Victory is a valid concern. I, like many Australians, am sick of seeing players taken for peanuts (by world standards) and being forced to find replacements from local leagues care of insufficient transfer fees.

    Melbourne has rejected Cerezo’s initial bid and are awaiting a secondary offer (with Popovic reportedly very keen to secure Nichols signing).

    So what are the potential pros and cons to Nichols career by moving to the J.League? Firstly, let’s rip this off like a band-aid and just face facts, as I eluded to before, the gulf between the A-League and J.League is vast.

    Whilst Nichols career may improve by facing stiffer competition week in, week out he will also have to deal with much greater scrutiny and play against a higher standard of opponent that will be less forgiving.

    Nichols time in Brisbane was oft mired in debate between fans and also coaching staff with the 24-year-old dropped to the bench on occasion for what could best be described as ‘interest levels’.

    To be brutal; sometimes he showed up, sometimes he didn’t. If Nichols had a blinder he was (and is, at Victory) one of the best players in the league.

    If he dropped his head, his laziness could be infuriating for supporters and staff alike. I however believe Mitch is the real deal.

    A potential permanent Socceroo whose pace and vision will serve him well. If he drops his head in Japan however, his pants will be well and truly pulled down.

    Which leads me to his standing in the national team. My thoughts on the subject can be succinctly described that if Lucas Neill could play for Omiya and captain Australia, then there should be no issue for Nichols to manage this feat.

    English language coverage of the J.League is good and a medium-haul flight through the A-League off-season gives Ange Postecoglou and/or his staff no excuse not to view his stocks in the flesh.

    The league is of a good standard and facing the rigours of such a competition as well as the maturity gained from moving to a foreign country will serve his plight well.

    I think Mitch would do well to test himself in the J.League, I regard it as a stepping stone in his career and very beneficial if he intends on making a future move to Europe.

    The double standards that exist for Nichols when compared to Graham Arnold are perplexing, one way to look at it is that the Victory posses more supporters than the Mariners so the outcry is larger.

    I would however like to see Melbourne get a fair fee for his services. His potential move, along with Graham Arnold’s highlights the increasing standard of Australian products both on and off the pitch.

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    The Crowd Says (16)

    • December 31st 2013 @ 11:49am
      fadida said | December 31st 2013 @ 11:49am | ! Report

      Good article with some interesting points. I agree completely that the J League is a big step up from the A League. This is just what Nichols needs. He has to this point been a lazy player who fades physically in the second half of games.

      He’s had a mini resurgence at MV. Perhaps he’s seen the error of his ways. Looking at it from a purely physical POV at Roar he looked like the fat kid surrounded by a team of ripped athletes. He just wasn’t working hard enough, and to fulfills his potential needs to be challenged.

      On the other hand MV want a big fat transfer fee to allow then to recruit a better option. We shouldn’t be a selling league unless the the fee is appopriate.

    • December 31st 2013 @ 12:30pm
      SlickAs said | December 31st 2013 @ 12:30pm | ! Report

      The difference between the reception of the news of Arnolds move, and that of Nichols is that Australian coaches have never gone on to big clubs in Europe. Sure they go on to Singapore and Malaysia and that sort of thing, but Japan is a step up, and as a foreign coach in Japan when they can recruit from essentially anywhere in the world (and Graham Arnold speaks Japanese no better than an Argentinian or Brazilian or Spaniard or German) it is a compliment that he should have been scouted and signed. Given that Arsene Wenger started his career in Japan, it is also seen as a clear pathway.

      You can however be sure that the noise would have been louder had Arnold been recruited by a Dutch club or German club or to Club Brugge or any of the other clubs that Australian players are routinely signed to. You will also note that there are 11 players on the field for each coach, with more on the bench and more squad players any of which can step up to the first team or be demoted to squad players if the pressure overwhelms. So in simple demand terms it is easier to get into a playing squad in a respectable team that to get THE coaching gig. So that answers your question about the applause for Arnold and the yawns for Nichols.

      with regards to whether it would be a step up for Nichols. Yes. But to compare his situation to Lucas Neill is a bit facile. Neill was signed to Blackburn for a million pounds from Millwall before he had ever kicked a premier league ball. He played in the premier league under Souness, Mark Hughes, Alan Curbishley and David Moyes in a distinguished career before Galatasaray’s Frank Rijkaard bought out the 8 months left on his Everton contract for a million pounds in 2010. This is a lot of votes of confidence from some of footballs most respected minds. It was only once in Turkey that he disappeared from our televisions and it was not that long ago, but people quickly forget. And Neill struggled to maintain the captaincy from Japan, and Kennedy is far from an automatic selection.

      Anyway, it is still probably an ok move as long as the Japanese club cough up the doe.

    • December 31st 2013 @ 2:25pm
      nordster said | December 31st 2013 @ 2:25pm | ! Report

      Good read, i think u nailed it at the end there….the stature of MV means their fans expect more these days for a player in form. Nichols ambitions are somewhat secondary to the club feeling adequately compensated.

      Just hope he keeps the form up so as to impress Cerezo enough to bump up the fee….only way to approach it for him. No petulance that is for sure…..

    • December 31st 2013 @ 6:21pm
      Evan Askew said | December 31st 2013 @ 6:21pm | ! Report

      I think it is great that Mitch Nichols might be signed by a Japanese club. Ned Zelic, Aurelio Vidmar and Graham Arnold played in that league when it was probably not as good as it is now. If it is good enough for them it is definitely good enough for Nichols. I do think Victory should get a decent transfer fee. The 200k amount is a bit of an insult. He should be at least 400 to 500k. Just pissed that we won’t be getting the transfer fee.

    • December 31st 2013 @ 7:48pm
      Matsu said | December 31st 2013 @ 7:48pm | ! Report

      Only one correction to an otherwise fine article:

      Lucas Neill did NOT play for Omiya….. At least not sufficient minutes to be considered a real squad member. He simply didnt have the talent to play at that level (to say nothing of the fitness level), and was dropped to the bench after just a handful of appearances. Videos of Manabu Saito dribbling past him three times on the same play are still making the rounds on Youtube. When he bailed on the club a week before the season was even over, a few people asked whether it should be viewed as an insult to the fans and team, who were still PAYING him for taking a jet off to Oz to “….deal with family matters”. However the consensus response from Omiya fans was that he actually did the team a favour, as they would not feel obliged to let him take the pitch for a last time.

      FWIW I do not think Nichols would have as much trouble breaking into the lineup as Neill did, and I certainly agree that it would be a valuable experience for a still-fairly-young player like him. His calibre of player should indeed view the J.League (and Korea as well, for that matter) as a very useful test of whether or not he is ready for Europe. I think he probably would succeed, but its a sure thing that he would have to stay focused and motivated every single second. For a player with a reputation for slacking off, it might be the ideal tonic as you point out.

      But please, dont damn the J.League with the faint praise of calling it “a step up from the A-League”, when the truth is that it is closer to an entire flight of stairs

    • January 1st 2014 @ 1:36am
      Roarsome said | January 1st 2014 @ 1:36am | ! Report

      Although I’m excitited by the possibility of Mitch going to Osaka next year, I’m moving there myself, I think the pace of J1 will pose a huge challenge for him. While Cerezo might be smaller than Gamba who played J2 this year, as mentioned, they’re successful and would have had the opportunity to look at Mitch during his time in Brisbane, the ACL, and at MV. Melbourne might price themselves out of the market if they’re not too careful, I can’t see Cerezo paying overs for a player who has questionable fitness in the A-League.

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