WUGC 2016 (Allianz Park – London) Men’s – USA v Japan
Prior to the 2016 World Championships, the USA had always been represented by a club team at World Championship events. The idea was that the country’s best team would have the chemistry and practice that a true national team – with players from across the country – could never achieve.
But coming into WUGC 2016, USA had won just 6 of the previous 15 gold medals across Men’s, Women’s and Mixed (with Canada achieving an impressive 8). The most competitive tryouts in the history of the game were held, led by coach Alex Ghesiquiere (San Fransisco Reovler, Washington Scandal).
Team USA’s preparation suggested vulnerability, they looked rusty in a pre-season friendly with Revolver and played tight games with Colombia (12-10) and Canada (13-13) at TEP Medellin 2016. However their performances in Europe were impressive. They demolished a tired Colombia side 15-2 in their quarter final, and then defeated Canada 15-8 in their semi-final.
The Japanese Men’s had entered the 2012 World Championships with home field advantage and high expectations. They defeated defending champions Canada in an infamous pool play game to earn the number 1 seed heading into quarter finals. However, their opponents, Sweden exploited their size advantage and a windy day by playing a brutal, ultra pragmatic style of Ultimate to achieve a shocking upset.
At the World Club Championships in 2014, Buzz Bullets (#1 Japan Men’s Club Team) would again be upset, this time by Ottawa Phoenix. They recovered to the quarter-final thanks to a stunning sudden death victory over Boston Ironside before struggling against Denver Johnny Bravo and Clapham Ultimate.
With key offensive players aging and the teams adjusting to their style of play, it seemed that the golden age of Japanese Men’s Ultimate may have faded. But their performances at WUGC 2016 emphatically refuted the suggestion as they reached the final with victories over Canada 15-13, Belgium 15-10 and Australia 15-9.
#19 Jimmy Mickle – Mickle has matured into arguably the best player in the world. His large frame and physicality makes him a dangerous deep threat, but his ability to dominate with inventive throws and movement in small spaces makes him an unusual ‘dual threat’.
#0 Everyone Else – This truly was an all-star team, compromised of players who were used to playing essential roles on their club teams. As a result, their fate did not depend on individual star players but rather how effectively they could form team chemistry and understanding.
#10 Masahiro Matsuno – The other player worthy of the best player in the world consideration, 33-year old Matsuno is the talismanic figure and risk taker for this Japan team. He possesses unparalleled agility and quickness, has excellent throwing skills and offensive awareness.
#24 Taiyo Arakawa – Burst onto the international scene with a blistering performance at the Under 23 World Championships in 2013, Arakawa has added composure and throwing skill to his blistering pace.
00:00 – Whilst Japan play a similar offensive style to 2012-2014, the change that made them much more dangerous this year was a willingness to throw the deep shot.
For a short team like Japan, the deep shot is a dangerous option because any error is likely to result in a turnover, however, an offence that can’t threaten all areas of the field is easy to defend against.
Immediately this willingness to attack deep result in a 3 pass goal.
4:00 – Japan (and particularly Kurono and Matsuno) are excellent at catching and turning around with the intention of throwing immediately. This allows them to complete a break throw before the defender has time to set up a good force, such as the two consecutive throws at 4:00.
This Japan team are most adept at maximising break side opportunities. When they catch the disc in the break side, they immediately attack the break side with big pivots and quick throwing releases before the defenders can adjust.
4:15 – USA use a side stack to create a large amount of space for one or at most two players to attack. You can see the rest of the downfield cutters ‘resting’ on the near sideline initially, but as the possession evolves they lose this shape, resulting in a lack of offensive rhythm and flow. They regain the structure around 4:52 resulting in an easy goal.
5:40 – Japan would have been pleased with this defensive point. They play a defensive tactic that is a fluid mix of man and zone, and break USA’s offensive rhythm. However Japan’s defensive style is passive, they disrupt, try and make the other team uncomfortable and hope to create mistakes and at this stage USA are playing well against it. They are staying patient but still taking risks (like the assist on this point) when the opportunities arise.
9:58 – Really intelligent defence from Alan Kolick creates a turnover here. Watch how he identifies that his offensive player is inactive and “poaches” – that is he looks for an opportunity to help a teammate whose offensive player is active.
The fault for this turnover lies with #88 Kichikawa. He should be immediately aware of Kolick’s movement and shouting ‘POACH!’ to communicate to the thrower that there is a floating defender to watch out for.
Half-Time Analysis – With just two turnovers in the first half, Japan have played very well on offensive but USA have played even better. The difficulty for Japan is that they don’t really have the defensive quality to clamp down on the US and exert more pressure, so they’re relying on maintaining the offensive execution and hoping the US lose some rhythm or get nervous towards the end of the game.
24:15 – The first scrappy point of the match comes on Japan’s offence, but they hold and sure enough on the next point USA play some sloppy offence, moving the disc slowly, not throwing to unmarked players and finally throwing a high risk deep shot that the are luck to complete.
Offence is all about rhythm and when both offences are playing well, they score regularly every 2-3 minutes, they don’t play defence, they attack in the same direction each time etc. it is very rthymic. So a scrappy point can often break the rhythm of both teams, even the offence that wasn’t on the field (USA in this case).
26:35 – Because of the height disadvantage Japan’s defensively know that the more space the USA have to attack, the harder it is to play defence (because they have to worry so much about the deep throw). So Japan have no concern with giving up yardage to condense the pitch.
There may also be some gamesmanship involved here, Japan want to disrupt rhythm and I can see how this tactic would bring the USA players out of that focused mindset and remind them where they are and what they’re playing for.
28:10 – I have heard arguments about whether sport can also be art, with the tiki-taka of Barcelona, golfing style of Bubba Watson, cricketers like Virat Kohli cited as examples.
I think the Japan Men’s team offence are the best example of artistry in Ultimate. The quick movement of the disc and the way the offence skewers defences by always attacking the most vulnerable area of the pitch – these combine to create a style of movement and opportunities for invention.
At this stage at least the USA are doing exactly what they need to do. They are playing disciplined, structured and functional offence, but for a spectator it isn’t quite as satisfying as watching Japan move the disc.
33:45 – Unlike most sports the interesting action often takes place away from the thrower. This can be very obvious when the camera misses this action as is the case at the beginning of the USA possession, but serves as a reminder that when everything is in shot, we are going to understand more if we learn to look at the most active cutters and isolated space as well as the thrower.
34:05 – The Japan defence finally create a turnover. At this point they need to convert a break and hope for a sudden collapse from the US. However, this is the first time in the entire game that the defensive line has touched the disc and so understandably there isn’t any rhythm and they turn over on a miscommunication.
35:20 – Matsuno was already having a very good game but it was great to see him do something spectacular on the biggest stage. His defender on this play is 5 inches taller than him.
In fact Matsuno and Arakawa challenge European preconceptions about what physical attributes are required to be a deep receiver. With the US we see this too with Rasmussen and Schlacet regularly attacking the deep space.
This is the highest quality offensive game I can think of. The USA offence was methodical, disciplined and retained the disc extremely well. The Japan offence was more expressive but also riskier which led to a couple more mistakes. But ultimately when both offences play so well the game comes down to which defence can create turnovers, and that is what the US did with two layout blocks, 1 by Freechild, 1 by Gibson and with a poach interception by Kolick.