Last month Nagoya Grampus won the J.League for the first time, ending Kashima Antlers’ recent dominance over the division. I considered the key reasons behind this success in my column for the Daily Yomiuri, ‘The Back Post’.
Nagoya Grampus sealed its first ever J.League championship at the weekend, and head coach Dragan “Pixie” Stojkovic should be congratulated on a job very well done.
It is easy to dismiss the Red Whales’ achievement as a direct result of the club’s financial clout, but winning a domestic title is no mean feat, regardless of the budget you are operating on.
There are a host of teams around the world who have tried and failed to buy success, and while many clubs get carried away with the funds available to them often overloading on attacking players Nagoya has taken a slightly more measured approach.
In short, Stojkovic has opted to build a team rather than a bloated collection of individuals. After finishing in ninth place in 2009, sixteen points behind champions Kashima Antlers, seasoned Urawa Reds centerback Marcus Tulio Tanaka, 21-year-old Mu Kanazaki from relegated Oita Trinita and Consadole Sapporo’s Guatemalan enforcer Danilson were all brought in to boost the squad, with Stojkovic suggesting at the start of the season that such acquisitions were vital if the side were to triumph in the league.
The Serb, speaking at the J.League’s “Kick-off Conference” in January, was adamant that success not only comes from having the best players, but also by virtue of having the most options.
“Football is now about the squad and that is why I feel that the team this year is better equipped for success,” he said. “Now we have much more strength-in-depth.”
The wealth of backups available has been invaluable throughout the season, and as their title rivals slowly fell away Nagoya was able to use the full extent of its resources and keep ploughing on.
The first elevens of Shimizu S-Pulse and Gamba Osaka, for example, are both capable of matching Grampus’ first choice lineup, but once injuries and suspensions came into play and these teams lost key players they did not have others of the same calibre to bring in and replace them.
Clubs who would have benefited from experienced squad players such as Igor Burzanovic and Alessandro Santos have not only been handicapped by injuries this season, but the increasing number of J.League players earning moves abroad has also proved a hindrance, with important players moving on and not being replaced.
Kashima lost half of their back four when Atsuto Uchida and Lee Jung Soo departed for pastures new, while perennial runnersup Kawasaki Frontale had the spine ripped from their team when Eiji Kawashima and Chong Tae Se headed to Europe on the back of their impressive World Cup campaigns.
Nagoya, on the other hand, remained intact, and when they did have to deal with injuries they coped with a minimum of fuss. Both Tulio and Kanazaki have been unavailable for selection in recent weeks, for instance, but Mitsuru Chiyotanda and Yoshizumi Ogawa have slotted into the team effortlessly in their absence.
Nagoya’s talismanic front-man and top-scorer Josh Kennedy is well aware of the importance of having top players in reserve, and after a hard-fought win over Jubilo Iwata in March he was effusive in his praise of the squad.
“I think this year that the one thing we do have, we have a really good bench and we should benefit from that. The guys who come on should also be starting; theyd probably start in any other J.League team, so it’s a a big plus for us to have those options.”
Also, while initially appearing to be a disappointment, Kennedy suggested the team’s failure to qualify for the 2010 Asian Champions League may actually have been a blessing in disguise.
“We’ve got a little bit more depth, whereas last season we were stretched with the Champions League and Emperor’s Cup, which took a lot out of us. We didn’t really have the players to back up the starting eleven players and replace people.”
That depth has proved invaluable this time around and, as their closest contenders stumbled along the way, Stojkovic’s careful planning ensured Nagoya was able to stay fresh and focused all the way to the finish line.