My main preview for the 2015 J.League season, for which the division has gone back to its roots with a 2-stage format – albeit one with a unique, and puzzling, twist…
This year, the top flight of the J.League will return to a split-season format for the first time since 2004, and opinion on the rejig is as divided as the system itself.
When the idea to reintroduce two stages was first brought up back in 2013, large numbers of supporters voiced their opposition, but the division opted to proceeded regardless. Consequently, the J1 champion this year will be decided after a postseason playoff involving up to five clubs — those with the first, second, and third most points over the two stages combined, plus the two winners of each stage.
Kenta Hasegawa, coach of last year’s champion Gamba Osaka, isn’t a fan of the new format, but knows that complaining about it isn’t going to help his team defend its crown.
“Personally, I think that one stage is better, but that’s the regulation and so we can only compete following what has been decided,” the 49-year-old told The Japan News ahead of the new campaign.
“The team that wins at the end is the champion. Last year we were the champion over the course of the whole year. That was good, but this year we have these rules and so we have to try and compete within these regulations to become the champion.”
Yuki Abe, captain of 2014 runner-up Urawa Reds, however, doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.
“Frankly speaking, I don’t know why everyone is saying so many negative things,” the midfielder, who competed in split seasons with JEF United between 1998 and 2004, said. “We have to go this way, it’s the route the J.League has taken.
“I have the experience of playing a two-stage season and rather than thinking of it as something new, I only really have the feeling of returning to how it was before.
“The final stage [playoff] is a new thing, and I’m kind of excited to see how that turns out. I think we have to be excited to play. People are saying many different things, but the final target is to win. That hasn’t changed.”
An attitude of keep-calm-and-carry-on also appeals to Kashima Antlers boss Toninho Cerezo.
“Of course the approach of other teams, and how we play depending on other teams, might change, but fundamentally I think the things we have to do will be exactly the same as these past two years,” said the Brazilian, whose side finished third in 2014.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s Toshihiro Aoyama, who won consecutive J1 titles in 2012 and 2013, agrees.
“For us, the players haven’t changed all that much, so I think we have a chance [to become champion],” the midfielder said.
“If we can get off to a quick start, then we have a big chance in the first stage. I haven’t thought at all about the second stage yet.”
While a playoff berth can be assured with success in just one-half of the season, the team with the highest aggregate points will progress directly to the two-leg final.
It remains to be seen whether bypassing the potential quarterfinal and semifinal fixtures, which await the stage champions and overall second- and third-placed teams, is enough of a motivation to keep teams going at full throttle over both halves.
Of course, for some sides the sole focus will be gathering enough points throughout the season to preserve their top-flight status — with the three teams with the lowest points totals relegated.
“For us, it seems more likely than not that we will have to be thinking about our aggregate points,” said Yasuharu Sorimachi, coach of J1 debutant Matsumoto Yamaga.
“[The target] is survival, but saying ‘survival’ is pretty depressing so I prefer to phrase it as the ‘top 15,’” the Japan coach at the 2008 Beijing Olympics explained.
For plenty of other clubs not accustomed to picking up silverware, the incentive of being involved in the end-of-season bunfight is a tempting one.
“The possibilities have widened,” new Vissel Kobe coach Nelsinho said. “With one season, if you stumble at some point then you may not be able to achieve success at the end. With this system, if you don’t do so well in the first stage, you still have an opportunity in the second stage to become the champion.”
His captain, Jung Woo Young, is trying not to get too bogged down with the ins and outs of the format.
“The way of approaching games is exactly the same, if it’s one stage or two stages,” the South Korean midfielder said.
“The way of arranging the competition is not something that I came up with, and I think it’s best not to think too much about the structure of the season.”
Hitoshi Morishita, who has taken over the reins at Sagan Tosu — another club which could benefit from the new structure — thinks that teams will ultimately struggle to achieve success by focusing energy on just one stage.
“If you do that, it is likely that the playoffs will become very difficult,” the 42-year-old explained. “The team’s growth will stop, so you have to aim for consistency. You always have to be aiming for progress and evolution within the team.
“It’s important to concentrate on the team’s style. The teams that play consistently will remain.”
There is a high probability that the five available playoff spots will be filled by some of the same clubs — there are eight different permutations overall — and Morishita admitted he is still unsure of how the allocations will be decided if a team finishes in the top three overall and wins either or both stages.
“It’s absolutely difficult to understand. Even now I can’t fully comprehend [how it will work],” he said, before adding that he, like Jung, is trying to avoid getting too analytical.
“If we just try to win one game at a time, that’s the simplest way. Instead of thinking about the specifics too much, simple is best.”
Whether the J.League itself should also have followed that advice will become clear over the next nine months.