Stojkovic doing things the Wenger way
Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal 14 years ago directly from Nagoya Grampus. In his 18 months in Japan, the Frenchman took the team from bottom of the league to second but never actually won the title. In fact, Japan's fourth-largest city has never been home to the J-League trophy at all but that is set to change. Dragan Stojkovic has taken the perennial underachievers to within touching distance of the championship and if it eventually leads Wenger's protégé to North London one day then the Serbian is not going to complain.
The former Red Star Belgrade and Yugoslavia maestro is in his third season in Japan and at the Red Whales. With six matches left, Nagoya are eleven points clear of their opponents. A win and it's all over bar the shouting.
A draw would certainly not be bad but Nagoya don't do draws. "My philosophy is that we always try to play offensive and attacking football," Stojkovic told ESPNsoccernet. "We never change based on the identity of our opponents. We are going to play against Kashima, the champions, with the same spirit and the same idea. We are going there to play good football and beautiful football and of course, we will try to win. If you see our results this year, we have only drawn three games. This is the answer to the question of how we play and how we want to play."
"The most important thing is that the team has showed an incredible improvement over the past three years. We have worked hard and the players have showed a lot of solidarity on the pitch and in the dressing room. It is a big chance to make a historical result this year and become champions for the first time in the history of the club."
Even defeat would leave Nagoya eight points clear with five games remaining but the J-League has a habit of dramatic title chases and no team knows that better than Kashima. With five games left to play in 2007, the Antlers were ten points behind Urawa Reds but still claimed the title on the final day of the season.
"We are taking nothing for granted as we are not there yet," Stojkovic insists. "I know one thing and that is the fact that the J-League is very unpredictable. Every Saturday we can see unusual results. For me, it is important that we focus only on our own game. Maybe this is our power. For me, it is the most important thing that the players understand this and game-by-game we are doing our very best to play good football and to win."
It has been a great season for a team that finished ninth in 2009. Stojkovic, coming to the end of his third season in his first coaching job, got busy last winter and signed international centre-back Marcos Tulio Tanaka to add steel at the back and inspiration everywhere on the pitch. The highly-rated Mu Kanazaki was another recruit and has linked up well in attack with Josh Kennedy - the Australian is the league's leading goalscorer with 16 - and the talented Keiji Tamada (just imagine if Keisuke Honda hadn't left in 2008). Defeats, when they come, are often heavy ones but Nagoya bounce back quickly from such setbacks, and, in contrast to previous seasons, have shown an impressive ability to get the points even when they are not playing well.
"We use all our weapons: craft from the side, determination in the box and long-distance shots. As a team we show that we can score all kinds of goals from all areas of the pitch. This is incredibly important and makes me very proud. We have a well-balanced team. Tulio has been a great addition and he also scores goals. We have Kennedy as a striker with Tamada and Kanazaki on the right side. But also we have Magnum and (Naoshi) Nakamura behind so we have created a team with very offensive characteristics. Our players create lots of space to make problems for the opponents."
The money spent brought with it pressure to succeed. A repeat of last season's mid-table finish - though the team was distracted last season with a run to the last four of the Asian Champions League - would not have been acceptable for a club tired of missing out. The target was always the title and Stojkovic has handled the situation perfectly.
Given the nature of "Piksi" as a player, intelligent, oh-so-skilful with an ability to make the unexpected happen, you could have guessed what kind of football he wants his team to play though if he can eventually make Nagoya half as good to watch as he was during his playing days, that really would be a Wenger-worthy achievement. One suspects that he was the kind of player that, if he was 25 rather than 45, would now be wearing an Arsenal shirt (though even today he still may get a game if this clip from 2009 is anything to go by). Stojkovic has worked with Wenger however, perhaps their paths were destined to cross, starting his seven-year long playing sojourn with Nagoya in 1994, a year before the Frenchman joined him in the industrial city. He has nothing but good memories about the season and a half that they spent together.
"It was a really enjoyable time for me to have Arsene Wenger as a manager. In 1995 I was the league's MVP and he was the best coach. We worked very well together. What I understood from him and what I learnt from him was what modern football is. My work today is very similar. I can't say the same but very similar. I want to ensure that my players always enjoy their football whether it is the game itself or training.
"Every year, I go to London for a few days to spend with him to have lunch and talk about football as he is a person who lives the game 24 hours a day so it is very easy and enjoyable to talk about football with him. My wish one day is to work in England. Arsenal would be perfect after Arsene. Wishing is one thing but reality is another. One day, one of my dreams is, if Arsene agrees, I could become a special advisor and sit on the bench. I like their style, I like how they play. It doesn't matter about titles or if they win or lose but the style of this football and beauty they produce every week is amazing, absolutely amazing and everyone in the world should agree that Arsenal is one of the best teams and play the most beautiful football."
The youngest of Arsenal's fans may not realize that Wenger used to deliver titles too and he is giving the benefit of his experience to his former player.
"We talked on the phone a few weeks ago and he knows the situation in the J-League exactly. The first thing he said was 'congratulations' and then told me to continue and focus always on your own team and focus always on your own play. And this is exactly what I am doing. We are working well and want to continue to do so. The race is not finished but we are in a good car with a good strong engine and we don't want to stop."