「東京都リーグ第1節 成京高校戦」 (Toukyouto riigu dai 1-setsu narikyou koukou-sen)
“Tokyo Metropolis League Section 1 Seikyo High School Match”
I tell you, after the mental and emotional beatdown of trying to process that Danseur finale, Ao Ashi was like a B-12 shot. I needed this episode – straightforward even as it was complex in terms of tactics, expertly laid out, entertainment with no qualifiers. This is why I love sports anime, though certainly not only why. The world would be a better place if Production I.G. animated all of them, they’re so perfectly suited to it. I could wistfully muse on what it would have been like to have Baby Steps produced there, but it’s more rewarding to just be glad that’s where Ao Ashi ended up.
You can almost see the smoke pouring from poor Ashito’s ears as he’s trying to process things this week. That bit where he spoke to Hana on Fukuda’s phone (was that a confession?) was adorable, especially when he called it a “receiver” – seriously, I know he’s from Ehime but they do have smartphones there. The reality is that you can’t be constantly thinking when you’re playing soccer – the game doesn’t work that way. You have time to react, and that’s it – because you have to process the location of 20 different field players and their movements are all interconnected. To the casual observer soccer may appear “slow” compared to, say, basketball or hockey. But there’s more going on at every moment than with any major team sport.
In Ashi’s defense, he’s trying to do the right thing and accomplish the task Date-san has laid out for him. Unfortunately the dustup between Asari and Eisaku has inevitably become a general rift between the promoted players and the “outsiders”, which is having an extremely detrimental effect on the cohesion of the side. In a match against a local high school Esperion Youth is expected to win handily, even the B-team – that’s just how it us. So for them to be down 3-0 after the first half is a testament to just how out of synch the group is.
Taira is the captain of the B-team, and even his thus-far limitless patience has seemingly run out at last. He begs Date to sub out the three first-years on the left side for more experienced players, but instead the coach inserts another first-year, Togashi, on the back line. He starts another row between the promotes and the selection players, but this time Ashito steps up to defuse it – something Kanpei definitely takes notice of. It’s an offhand comment about the “useless line” the three are creating on the left that finally connects the dots for Ashito. There’s an obvious thing he, Asari, and Kanpei share that no one else on the side does.
One could go deep into the weeds on this – soccer theory can get almost as intricate as string theory. But in no uncertain terms, three is the most important number in soccer, and the triangle the most important shape. When Ashito says he, Asari, and Kanpei are in a line, it’s not literally true in practical terms because the actual shape they form (ideally) is a triangle. Asari is the fullback, Kanpei the midfielder, Ashi the forward. This can vary a lot by formation but triangles are always formed to create passing angles and progress the ball, especially in formations that employ some of Cruyff’s “total football” elements. Overlapping occurs all the time in attack, and the best fullbacks (like Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, for example) and wingbacks are some of the most vital attacking weapons for their teams.
Unfortunately, the opposition’s tactics bring another important element of soccer into focus – parking the bus. With a 3-0 lead and a potential giant killing in sight, the opposition basically plays 8 men behind the ball and forces Esperion to try and “unlock” them. This is a brutally difficult thing to do if the defense is disciplined (though Manchester City, facing it basically every match, can make it look easy). But the light clicking on for Ashito has unleashed the power in Esperion’s superior eleven, and he starts thinking about where his linemates need him to be. What they wanted from him wasn’t “unselfish” play – he’s a forward after all. They wanted the spatial awareness that’s the very essence of soccer.
Date, to his credit, resists the entreaties to pull the rookies and gives them the chance to show whether they’re capable of learning anything. This is a developmental organization, after all, so it makes sense to think long-term. In the end Aoi is unselfish in the buildup to Esperion’s two goals – assisting on the first, by Asari – but that was the result, not the cause. Whether they score the equalizer in the closing minutes or not I have to think Date has seen what he needed to see, especially from Ashito – another step forward and elemental though it may be, a totally necessary one.