This is a letter written by Lee-Ah to his father, Arsene, on December 3 2019
Father/Arsene – I still don’t really know what I should be calling you, or whether you will ever even read this letter.
Is this it? At the age of 24 years old, I have won the J-League title at the first attempt (which is more than you achieved in Japan). And the feeling I have is somewhat empty.
Winning the title was the aim, the challenge. Overcoming all the doubts that the players, the media and the fans had about me. But let us be honest, those doubts had disappeared by the summer break after we came back against Frontale – 2-0 down against the champions and winning 4-2, who could doubt our project after that?
But what feeling does achieving your aim leave you with when it feels like it was all a bit too easy?
For me, a rookie head coach, to take a club that has been closer to relegation than titles for the last nine seasons and lead them to victory at the first attempt – adding just one player on loan – can only tell me that the J-League is not a very good league. And as a proud Japanese coach, this worries me greatly.
Do I think my coaching ideas are revolutionary? Not at all, I have not reinvented the wheel by asking my players to be fit, to be able to run to their maximum for 100 minutes, to win the ball back early and to get it into dangerous areas where we can be at our most effective. These are the basics of football, and these basics saw us win the title by 12 points.
Our opposition should be embarrassed.
How could they find no answer to how we played? How could an 18-year-old kid from Europe come in and dominate defences alongside an old Brazilian who cannot run any more? How could two kids playing at centre-back keep strikers paid £50k and more a week at bay week in week out?
People close to me have already said, “Lee-Ah, you need to leave Japan. It will not be enough for you. Go to Europe, and go soon”. But I am not so sure.
I am a proud person of Japan. I think I can make a difference here. I am already making a difference here. I cannot be the change if I am thousands of miles away, I will be like the others who left and nothing will change here.
I look at Kashima, who won the AFC Champions League last season – well, if they can win it so can we and that will be the aim for the 2020 season, continental glory.
But will that be enough? No, not if it is only Nagoya flying the flag from here.
I have to help the league be better, but to do that I have to build Nagoya into something self-sufficient and sustainable quickly.
No all-Japanese team has ever won the J-League. I want us to achieve this within the next five seasons. And, of course, no all-Japanese team has ever won the AFC Champions League, I will make that happen within seven seasons.
But even that doesn’t feel too challenging. We’ve already let Jo go – he wanted £75k a week and there was no point in paying him when I could bring in Suzuki for £500k and £3k a week – he will fly for us in that deep-lying role.
Eduardo will leave soon as well, lots of Arab teams are chasing him. When that happens, I will unleash Maeda in the roaming role, his transition from being a winger will be complete.
Langerak ended up renewing for another two seasons and by then our U18 keeper will be ready for the first-team. And in the meantime, when we thought he was going to refuse a new contract, we paid £250k for the best keeper in J2 last season.
That would only leave Joao Schmidt was the non-Japanese player with us on contract, and the way he is playing there will be big offers for him at some point this season – and we signed Rei Hirawaka from FC Tokyo over the summer to be his long-term replacement.
So winning with a Japanese-only side will happen and it won’t take forever.
Does that help the J-League as a whole? At this stage, you could argue not. But what I am working on behind the scenes will do.
We’ve invested so much already into the Academy programme at Nagoya, Arsene. And my new dream is that the players that do not make it here will be good enough for other J-League clubs and will generally improve the standard of Japanese players in the league.
Then, of course, our very best youth products will attract the attention of European clubs and head off there – which should, in theory, improve our national team.
None of this is rocket science, but if we can make Nagoya Grampus the Amsterdam Ajax of Japan then we are on the right path. Within ten seasons, a team made up purely of Academy graduates will win the AFC Champions League and Nagoya will be the club that has produced the most professional footballers playing in Japan at any level.
You’d have loved a player like Troy Parrott at Arsenal – for me, he is better than Anelka at that age, maybe even Henry.
And the kid we have on-loan from Real Madrid, Kubo, is special as well. Getting them both back on loan for the 2020 season was important, they will help us to glory again this season.
I have to say, I was execting management to be more difficult than this.