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Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Finke's vision slowly taking root at Urawa
Volker Finke knew his job was not going to be easy when he took over as manager of Urawa Reds last season, and so it proved.
After years of success and silverware, Japan's best-supported and most demanding club had lost its winning formula. The team that won the J. League in 2006 and the Asian Champions League a year later had grown bloated and listless, and Finke faced a daunting task trying to instill a new competitive edge.
The German got off to a promising start as Urawa reached the top of the table for the first time in eight months, but things quickly went downhill from there. A run of seven straight losses over the summer ended any hopes of winning the title, and a sixth-place finish was the best Reds could muster.
But the season was not a complete write-off for Finke. The former Freiburg manager knows it will take time for his ideas to bed in, and he is now satisfied that the fruits of his labor are beginning to emerge ahead of Saturday's season-opening visit to Kashima Antlers.
"It's not a big change this year," he said. "It's a continuation of the new formation and the new style of play. Last year we started at zero. We were playing like this for the first time, and this year we are taking it to the next level. The tactical behavior of the players now is much better.
"Now we have to go for the next mountain. Last season it was very difficult because the team reached a certain point. In 2006 the team was at its best level and then it went down, and then we changed things and gave the team a different style. Now we have to go up."
Finke's efforts to inject fresh life into Urawa last year were helped by Genki Haraguchi and Naoki Yamada, youth-team products who fully justified their manager's decision to make them an integral part of his plans. Yamada's season was badly interrupted by injury, however, and Finke is frustrated that a bone broken on international duty in January means the 19-year-old will not be ready to start the new campaign either.
"I'm not so happy with two or three injuries, and Naoki is a very important player," he said. "But I think most of the players are in good condition, some are playing well and I'm looking forward to getting started. I think it's possible to have a good season."
That Finke is still in the job despite last summer's barren stretch suggests a new wind is blowing through a club not known for its patience. And with Marcus Tulio Tanaka — perhaps the ultimate symbol of Urawa's big, brash glory days — leaving for Nagoya Grampus, and Matthew Spiranovic and Wilfried Sanou arriving from Germany, the manager appears to be making his mark.
"It's the first time I have influenced the transfer activity but it's not possible to say just what I want," he said. "It's a question of money, so it's not only my decision. Normally you need two or three transfer windows before you can say it is 'your' team. It's not like that yet, but this is the first time I have had any influence."
Finke will have the perfect opportunity to see how far his team has come in Saturday's visit to Kashima Stadium. The champions gave Urawa a demonstration of their class in a 2-0 win in last season's opening weekend, before clinching a third straight title in the return fixture on the final day.
"I think it's interesting," Finke said. "I'm quite happy to have this game again. I'm sure that there were some mistakes in the game last year that we will never repeat. They scored two goals from counterattacks and our tactical behavior now is much better. It was the last game and now it is the first game, so it's a nice challenge."