I think I may have stumbled upon a very English explanation as to why no J1 side seems able to stamp their authority on this year’s title race…
I’m starting to think that nobody wants to win the J1 title this year.
Before I travelled back to the UK for the Olympics I was a little concerned that my month away from the J.League would see me miss some decisive moments in the race for the championship.
I knew that nothing would be wrapped up so early, of course, but I had a feeling that some clear contenders would have established themselves and the pretenders to the throne would have fallen by the wayside by the time I came back to Tokyo.
How wrong I was.
When I boarded my plane at Narita at the end of July Sanfrecce Hiroshima were leading Vegalta Sendai at the top of the league on goals scored, and were just eight points ahead of 7th placed FC Tokyo.
After the first round of games following my return to the country Sanfrecce were still out in front, but their lead over Sendai had only grown to one point and now the eight-point gap behind them had stretched down to encompass Nagoya Grampus in 8th.
I have an ongoing joke with some fellow English football fans concerning the flawed logic in my home country that whoever “wants it more” will come out on top.
However, while displaying greater desire alone will never decide the outcome of a match or a championship it can still be a factor – especially when nobody is taking the initiative in the hunt for the trophy.
Nagoya Grampus coach Dragan Stojkovic, whose side I would say are just about still in the title race – although they looked far from being champions-elect in their recent unconvincing 1-0 win over Kawasaki Frontale – believes that another element is key.
“In the J.League, the team who plays intelligent football is the winner. That’s it,” he said matter-of-factly after the defeat of Frontale.
“[Today] was a difficult game. We did exactly what we wanted before the game, to bring the three points back to Nagoya. We got the three points and that’s all,” he continued.
“Tactically we prepared for the game very well. We let Kawasaki Frontale play and enjoy the football – and to take zero points.
“The idea of [how to play] football is one thing and the result is another thing.
“We won today because we played intelligent football.”
The guy in charge of the team who are currently in pole position – admittedly, only just – was praising a different characteristic of his side not so long ago: resilience.
“We have to prepare for and compete in one game at a time,” Hajime Moriyasu said of Sanfrecce after they battled back from a goal down to earn a 2-2 draw away to their closest contenders Vegalta Sendai in July.
“The opening exchanges weren’t great and we conceded at a difficult time but this season we have conceded first before and we keep fighting.”
And what about Sendai? Is there a principle they are clinging to in order to take the J.League shield to Tohoku for the first time?
According to Makoto Teguramori after Vegalta beat Omiya 3-1 in Round 23 there is, and it sounds strangely similar to that which an English coach would have.
“I said before today’s game, “Let’s show the strength of Sendai”,” the man who continues to enhance his reputation (in my eyes) as the Japanese Big Sam explained.
“From here on in in the league we have to strengthen our spirit by playing collectively, and we have to continue to control the opponent by seizing the initiative with our attacking style of defence, as we have done this season.”
They all seem to have their approaches, then, but at the moment none of them seem to be bearing any fruit.
The J.League is a notoriously open division, and it could be argued that the reason nobody is able to tear out in front is because there are so many evenly-matched teams.
The flip-side of that perspective, of course, is that none of the teams are good enough.
From the 10 games between Rounds 14 and 23 none of the current top eight collected more than five wins. That means none of them are in championship form.
Perhaps they just don’t want it enough…