Yokohama F.Marinos have eschewed their safety first approach this season, and it has given them a real chance of challenging for the title…
A couple of years ago I wrote a piece about the Tsumarinos – the Yokohama F.Marinos side led by Kazushi Kimura which looked like it may be involved in the title race, but only by virtue of the fact that it was playing some of the safest, most uninspiring football in the J.League.
That year the team eventually fell away and the more expansive, aggressive Kashiwa Reysol lifted the title, and under Yasuhiro Higuchi last season Marinos had an indifferent year, starting abysmally by not winning any of their first seven games before eventually finishing in a more than respectable 4th place – helped in no small part by a 15-game unbeaten run in mid-season. Even so, they still failed to really go at teams often enough and drew an astonishing 14 games in the league over the course of the year.
Things look a bit more promising this season, and the more positive reincarnation of the side was evident from the very outset as they stormed into an early lead in J1 after winning their first six games, scoring 19 goals in the process.
Former Japan international and Celtic icon Shunsuke Nakamura was the metronome to which the side’s play was set, and he also chipped in with his share of goals and assists. Marquinhos, the 37-year-old Brazilian striker, was the other seasoned performer quick out of the blocks, claiming six goals in his first five games.
Fears about the average age of the side – regularly over the 30 mark – were either dismissed on account of the fact that Marinos regularly fought back to claim points at the death of matches, or cited as a potential obstacle once the summer heat kicked in and ageing limbs struggled to keep pace.
We’re now at that juncture and the signs are that Higuchi has done well to keep his players in the best condition possible. Marinos claimed seven points from the recent spurt of four games in 12 days, with both of their victories coming against sides above them in the table, Omiya Ardija and Urawa Reds.
The victory over Urawa, in particular, was demonstrative of the change that Higuchi has gradually introduced. With things tied at 2-2 it would have been unsurprising if both sides had settled for the draw. The Tsumarinos certainly would have done.
The introduction of striker Yoshihito Fujita in place of defensive midfielder Kosuke Nakamachi with less than 10 minutes to play showed that that’s not how the 2013 Marinos roll though, and Higuchi was instantly rewarded for his proactive substitution as Yuzo Kurihara soared highest at the corner at which Fujita entered play to seal all three points and lift Marinos above Reds into third – just two points off the top.
After the game the head coach was asked if he felt the hectic J1 schedule may eventually take its toll on his more seasoned players.
“I hear that question a lot and I was also a little anxious. But our veteran players were able to prepare well by really paying attention to their condition,” he said. “Maybe that is in part down to experience. I’m thinking that when referring to them it’s better not to use the word veteran.
“We’ve played 17 games and today made it to 34 points. That’s two-thirds of the total points available. If we can continue to accumulate points at that pace then I think we have a chance to challenge for the title.”
Defensive lynchpin Yuji Nakazawa also expressed his contentment at the way things were going but stressed that the side may need to tighten up at the back.
“Now our level and position in the league is good,” he said. “We’ve played everyone once and have to go round one more time. There’s still a long way to go and I’m sure we’ll have many bad games. The important thing is to collect points any way we can, we have to keep going right to the end. We need to concede less goals.”
Higuchi also paid reference to that aspect – saying he wants an average of less than one a game – and for a title-chasing side that is key. I just hope it doesn’t mean the Tsumarinos’ return is imminent.