More than Albriex's tactician
That is what coach Naruo tries to be to Albirex, who could sweep all titles
WARRIORS FC v ALBIREX NIIGATA
(Tonight, 7.45pm, Jalan Besar Stadium)
The hard work had been done and the main training session was already over at Jurong East Stadium yesterday morning.
Several of the Albirex Niigata main men were cooling down on their own, while a couple of others were putting in extra set-piece practice.
White Swans coach Naoki Naruo, on the centre circle, remained engrossed in a possession drill with six of his reserves who have hardly tasted first-team action this year.
On the eve of their game against Warriors FC, which could see his side on the brink of their maiden Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League title, Naruo could have been forgiven for focusing solely on the 11 players he will send out at Jalan Besar Stadium tonight.
PLAYING FAIR: Albirex coach Naoki Naruo (in grey) ensures that the reserves get as much of his attention as the starting 11.
But, while his main task remains to lead Albirex to silverware, Naruo reveals his motivation comes not only from being a tactician but also an educator, explaining why he still takes the time to ensure each of his charges receives his fair share of tutelage.
"I've always been interested in teaching, which is why I became a coach," the 41-year-old, who had spells in J.League 1 with Jubilo Iwata and Sanfrecce Hiroshima, told The New Paper.
"I learned many things as a player and I want to impart them to the next generation.
"Obviously, a strong team require the first 11 to be motivated.
"But every player in the squad also contributes in one way or another, which is why I make sure all of them are motivated."
With the TNP League Cup already in the bag and his charges still on course for the S.League title and the RHB Singapore Cup, it is promising to be a memorable first year back for Naruo, following his initial one-season reign back in 2009.
Albirex have the second-best attack in the league (trailing Brunei DPMM by one goal but having played two games fewer) and also the best defence (having conceded 11 fewer than Tampines), although their coach insists there is no real secret to this.
"My philosophy is to choose the best option to win each game," explained the Iwate native, whose wife and three children still reside there.
"I try to let the players show 100 per cent of their ability, as well as the style of Japanese football, but winning is the most important thing.
"If it means playing direct football over something more attractive, I will still choose it if it's best for us.
"After leaving in 2009, I learned many things in Japan… I coached in the J.League (at third-tier Grulla Morioka) and even got my S licence (Japan's equivalent to the AFC Pro-Diploma).
"That is why I decided to come back here as a new challenge to myself."
While he admits being in charge of the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda was once a dream of his, Naruo reveals that his experiences in the past year have now made his goals more open-ended.
"When I first started coaching, of course, I was hoping to one day be with the Japan national team," said the former striker.
"Now, I feel like I really enjoy it when a team really need me and I do my best for them, so right now I don't have any concrete dreams."
And the one piece of advice he gives every player?
"The possibilities are endless for every player," Naruo added, sounding every bit like the teacher he once aspired to be.
"Making mistakes isn't a bad thing and what I always tell the young players is to learn and improve from that."
One player who has enjoyed a far greater output under Naruo is striker Atsushi Kawata, who netted 11 times in all competitions last year but already has 18 goals this season.
When asked about the impact his coach has had on him, Kawata said: "There are many differences between last year and this year, like the fact that I have different teammates and our home stadium is also now artificial grass.
"However, one thing coach Naruo has done is giving me more freedom in attack, which makes me feel more comfortable.
"I was also previously not good at holding up play, but he has shown me how I can use my physical attributes to keep possession for the team."
Making mistakes isn’t a bad thing and what I always tell the young players is to learn and improve from that.
— White Swans coach Naoki Naruo, on the advice he gives to players
WHAT OTHER COACHES SAY ABOUT NARUO
Albirex are one of the better teams in the league. Tactically, he’s good, and he’s also done very well making use of the players at his disposal by playing around with them, like when he used (Atsushi) Kawata as a wing back. From the start of the season, not once have Albirex really performed below expectations and their consistency says a lot about him as a coach. He deserves whatever success comes his way.
— Geylang International’s Hasrin Jailani (above)
They’re the only team who played almost the whole season with a back three and it’s really worked for them. He’s got his team to be very disciplined and tactically very good and I believe they will be deserving champions. They’re a good team with a good coach and have done a great job this year.
— Balestier Khalsa’s Marko Kraljevic (above)
He is a no-nonsense coach who is also very good tactically. When he was first in charge of Albirex years ago, they did not do as well. But he made the necessary adjustments and changed the players because he knows what type of players are needed to be champions.
— Home United’s Aidil Sharin (above)