I can’t recall another anime about youth sports so willing to be politically incorrect.
The aftermath of Masaru-san-chan’s visit to his old coach confirms that he’s quite unlike any other youth coach in sports anime. Indeed, the verdict is in – and if it isn’t “win at any costs” it’s certainly “to thine own self be true”. When Masaru asks Shou-kun what the strength of Murayama Predators is, the answer is quite simple – the Furuyas. There are certainly nods to each Predator finding their own strength and without question, everyone is important to the team – but the essence of Hanashima’s message is to play to the team’s strength, and that means concentrating the entire attack around the Furuyas. That’s an almost treasonous position to take in the PC world of youth sports anime, but the degree to which Masaru is willing to back up his ideas will only come into full focus later in the episode.
The first match of the episode doesn’t bring in much drama – it’s a 15-2 win over an overmatched opponent in the district semifinals. There’s never much advancement in the soccer side of the story when the Predators aren’t tested on the field, which is why the close matches are always of much more interest. With overmatched opponents Shou and Reika are allowed to stay in soccer purgatory, neither of them getting involved much in the play, and the Furuyas basically run rings around the opposition with Erika and the 3-U occasionally getting a sniff at goal. The championship match is a much bigger test, and as such far more revealing about the work the team still has to do.
Reika’s mother continues to be the most annoying parent in the story, worrying excessively about her daughter and putting ridiculous demands on Shou to keep her safe. We finally meet her father, and he seems somewhat less histrionic, though incapable of standing up to his wife. This family element is one of the more clichéd in the series and thus not a strength, but their massive overreaction to Reika’s bruised knee does take the story in an interesting direction. With Reika pulled for an unnecessary medical checkup the Predators are down to 10 players, and Masaru makes a quite logical alignment shift at halftime – placing the clever and gifted Ouzou as the center-back and moving Shou to right back.
The problem comes from the fact that Shou’s confidence is still fragile. He blames himself for Reika’s injury, he feels uncomfortable playing out of position, and loses his command of the team. What’s revealing here is that Shou’s leadership really is critical, because without it the Predators lose all cohesion. Nothing seems to bring Shou around until a slap from Kouta does the trick, and he manages to get his head into the game just in time to rally the troops to squeak out a 4-3 win. And how do they do that? On an own goal set up by own goal master Ryuuji of course – and all this in front of Hanashima’s disapproving old coach. This seems to be a defining statement once and for all – both for Masaru and Ginga e Kickoff – that PC is out the window and that as long as the Predators follow the rules of football, they’ll feel no guilt if they do so by their own rules too.
The reality, of course, is that talking of Shou’s strengths as being his booming voice and field vision is fine – but until he proves himself with his feet (or his head, and not what’s inside it either) Shou’s confidence will always be susceptible to being swept away by a wave of unexpected events. He’s aware of it, his family is aware of it, but so far both Masaru and the team seem content to let things go along as is as long as the Predators are winning. But at some point, Shou is going to have to impact the game with his physical ability to truly earn the respect of his team and to nurture a confidence that’s not made of sand, but of solid rock.