Football: Albirex turn to ex-coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga to regain winning mentality

Albirex Niigata FC head coach Yoshinaga Kazuaki (right) observes the team during training at Jurong East Stadium on Feb 15, 2022. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - Kazuaki Yoshinaga is clear on what he demands from his Albirex Niigata players this season: aggression and aspiration.

Those two attributes, said the 53-year-old coach, will be the key to toppling champions Lion City Sailors and regaining the Singapore Premier League (SPL) title which Albirex won four times between 2016 and 2020.

The silver-haired Yoshinaga was responsible for two of those triumphs (2017 and 2018) during his first stint in charge of the all-conquering White Swans. They dominated Singapore football, collecting two league titles, two Singapore Cups, two Community Shields and the 2017 League Cup.

The Japanese is back in charge but finds himself in an unfamiliar underdog role this term, with many considering the star-studded Sailors, who beat Albirex 2-1 last weekend to clinch the Community Shield, a shoo-in to retain their title.

That was only the third time Yoshinaga had experienced defeat in 64 games as Albirex coach. But he is not rattled.

"I think we were able to express (a little bit) of what we prepared during a short pre-season," he said ahead of their SPL opener against Tanjong Pagar United on Friday (Feb 25). "We just have to keep doing that for 90 minutes."

His team enjoyed plenty of possession in the Community Shield, and showcased some of the slick, incisive passing they have come to be known for.

In fact, if not for the woodwork and two fine stops by Sailors' goalkeeper Hassan Sunny, they could have enjoyed a comfortable win.

But Yoshinaga is focused only on the future, not the past.

"Losing a match," he said, "gives us a challenge. A chance to change."

He demands his players "play aggressively in all aspects, defending and attacking".

"To be the kind of team I want," he added, "which is a team that does the right things on and off the pitch, takes time.

"The players who have come here, have good potential. I believe our team will be good but they need time."

Kazuaki Yoshinaga (left) is back in charge but finds himself in an unfamiliar underdog role this term. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

It does not help that Albirex, who lost just once in 21 games last year but finished runners-up and two points behind the Sailors, have made sweeping changes. No fewer than 17 of 27 first-team members are new faces.

The fresh recruits all have similar traits, noted Yoshinaga.

"Players who thought, 'I want to become a better player by playing in Singapore,'" he explained. "I think players with such high aspirations came."

The embodiment of such ambition and desire is former Southampton and Japan striker Tanadari Lee.

Albirex Niigata FC forward Tanadari Lee (centre) trains at Jurong East Stadium on Feb 15, 2022. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

The striker turned 36 in December but showed he still has plenty to offer in the Community Shield, by putting in a lively display and winning a penalty which he duly converted.

Lee said the game provided a "benchmark" for the new-look squad.

"If each individual and the team continues to improve, we can get a good result at the end (of the season)," he said. "If we unite, we can win the league and the Singapore Cup."

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