It is of course goals that win games, but Kashima Antlers’ solid defence was vital to the club’s J1 first stage title success… (日本語版はこちらです)
Kawasaki Frontale and Urawa Reds may have been jostling for top spot in J1 from Round 3 onwards, alternating at the summit until Kawasaki lost their nerve away to Avispa Fukuoka on the penultimate weekend of the season, but it was ultimately Kashima Antlers who surged through to seal the first stage title.
While Frontale’s stumble in Kyushu and Reds’ catastrophic run of five games without a win between mid-May and mid-June ultimately cost the pair, nothing should be taken away from Masatada Ishii’s side, who claimed the first spot in this year’s Championship on the back of a six-game winning streak, completed on Saturday with the minimum of fuss against the same Avispa side Kawasaki could only draw with the previous week.
That string of victories closed out a nine-game unbeaten run, during which time Antlers conceded just five times. Indeed, the Ibaraki side ended the first stage with the best defensive record in J1, only letting in 10 goals and keeping nine clean sheets in their 17 games.
That solidity was built on a consistency in the backline, with the same back five of Hitoshi Sogahata, Daigo Nishi, Gen Shoji, Naomichi Ueda, and Shuto Yamamoto starting every game they were available for. Only two other players featured when one of the regulars was injured or suspended, with Yukitoshi Ito filling in at full-back for four games and Bueno slotting into the centre for three.
One of those was the 2-0 win over Avispa on Saturday, when the Brazilian looked alert and confident covering for Shoji, sweeping up well in the early stages when Antlers looked a little shaky and dealing with his physical compatriot Wellington throughout.
“We weren’t nervous but we knew that they were going to come at us from the start and that we couldn’t just sit back and accept that but also had to press from the front,” Yamamoto said post-match.
“That was how it turned out and it was a slightly difficult start to the game for us, but bit by bit we started to control the flow of the game and after we scored the first goal we were really able to play at our pace, I think.”
The full-back’s 27th-minute header certainly settled things down for the home side and took the wind out of Avispa’s sails, and Gaku Shibasaki provided a further insight into Kashima’s staying power.
“There are spells in games when things are going well and those when they aren’t, but during those difficult periods we have a style we can return to and we all know what we have to do,” the Japan midfielder said. “I think because we are all aware of that fact we have been able to put together this run of results.
“In particular we have conceded very few goals, and the team as a whole has had an increased awareness of defending together. There is no doubt that from a good defence you can build good attacks. We’re doing well in that respect at the moment, but from now on we want to improve our accuracy even more and I think we are capable of continuing this run of consecutive wins into the second stage.”
One way in which the team could improve is to have the defenders finding the net more often. Yamamoto’s opener against Avispa was just the second time one of them had registered this season, after Nishi’s winner against his former side Albirex Niigata in May, and with Shoji and Ueda both imposing players they should be contributing more from set pieces especially.
That’s not to say they aren’t trying, however, and Ueda’s all-round play has been particularly impressive this season. The Olympic centre-back looks increasingly assured in possession and resembled John Terry at his peak at one point against Avispa, snatching possession in his own half before surging out of defence with the ball, playing it out wide, and continuing his driving run into the opposition penalty area where he almost latched onto the final ball into the box to convert what would have been a wonderful goal.
“We were really focused on picking up the title,” the 21-year-old said when asked about the cut-throat way in which Antlers wrapped up the first stage. “We didn’t lose any of our last games and there was an even stronger feeling than usual within the team that we were absolutely going to win each one.
“We’ve also conceded fewer and fewer goals, and the forward players have contributed a lot in that respect. It wasn’t just down to the strength of the defence, it’s truly been a case of the team coming together and fighting as one.”
They will have to exhibit that even more in the second half of the season with Ueda set to miss several games while he is in Rio with Teguramori’s Under 23 side. While his absence is sure to be a blow, however, Bueno demonstrated the strength in depth Antlers have at centre-back, where they also have another fine player in reserve with Hwang Seok-ho yet to feature in 2016 on account of injury and the fine form of Shoji and Ueda.
Building from the back has worked for Antlers so far, and it is hard to see those foundations failing as the season progresses.