Kashima Antlers picked up the J1 trophy last season, but their points totals over the past few seasons suggest they will have to up their game this year if they want to be doing so again in 2017… (日本語版はこちらです)
The 2017 J.League season started in much the same way as the 2016 one ended, with Kashima Antlers just about edging out Urawa Reds to pick up another piece of silverware.
The manner of Antlers’ 3-2 win in last weekend’s Super Cup was also similar to that in which they snatched the J1 title last year, with Yuma Suzuki capitalising on a late mistake by a Reds defender to decide the game – Wataru Endo his victim this time after Tomoaki Makino was caught snoozing in December.
The reigning J1 champions emerging victorious from the season curtain-raiser is far from a surprise – the last nine have now been claimed by the previous year’s league winner – and while the match is always an enjoyable way to shake off the cobwebs and get the ball rolling on a new season, everyone knows not to read too much into the result.
What comes next is what matters, and while winning one-off games against title rivals is not a bad habit to get into, of equal importance is the ability to deal with the rest of the division as well.
While the temptation is to tip Antlers as favourites to retain their title, then, a closer look at the stats suggests they have plenty of improvement to make if they want to be picking up a ninth J1 shield come December.
Last year, as received much coverage, Masatada Ishii’s side finished 15 points adrift of overall league leaders Urawa before sealing the league in dramatic fashion on away goals in the Championship final. This year the one-stage format is back though, meaning there are no shortcuts to glory available and all that matters is who is standing tallest after 34 rounds of games.
That should provide plenty of encouragement for Reds and the other sides targeting the title, with Antlers not only having struggled on that front last season but having done so for the past few years.
The Ibaraki side’s league form in 2016 read 18 wins, five draws, and 11 defeats, leaving them with 59 points. In 2015 they also picked up 18 wins, five draws, and 11 defeats. The year before that they managed 18 wins, six draws, and 10 defeats, while, incredibly, 2013 also produced a record of 18-5-11.
While such numbers display scarcely believable consistency, these are not the kind of figures usually associated with winning the league. Indeed, 60 points is the lowest total accrued by a champion since J1 expanded to 18 teams, and that was in the famous 2005 season when five teams were in with a chance of winning the title on the final day of the season.
With that in mind, the Antlers players know they need to deliver a steadier pace over the course of the 2017 campaign.
“The coach hasn’t really given any new instructions, but we all know we have to maintain a high level for the whole season,” Daigo Nishi said after the Super Cup.
“For that we will need the strength of more players then before, and we have a very good group. It is up to the coach and the senior players to make sure we are able to achieve and maintain that feeling.”
Suzuki, perhaps mindful of having won last weekend’s match after coming off the bench, agreed that standards have to improve throughout the entire squad.
“We have a heavy schedule and so need the strength of every player,” the 20-year-old observed.
“I think it’s impossible with just 11 players; we need to have everyone on board. My job is to keep scoring the goals and I want to score lots,” he added, declining to provide any specific target and merely reiterating, “Lots”.
Reds, meanwhile, picked up a league-record 74 points last year after winning 23 games, drawing five, and losing six. That followed an impressive 21 wins, nine draws and just four defeats in 2015, which was preceded by a tally of 18-8-8 in 2014, and while the Saitama giant does still need to shake of its nearly-men tag, the team is clearly improving each season.
However, while the players have undoubtedly grown in confidence as a result of their table-topping exploits last year they still don’t have any league medals to show for their efforts, and Yuki Muto is determined to put that right this time out.
“We want to show that we are the best team and we have the same motivation as always,” he said.
“Of course, there is still a lingering sense of regret that we were pulled back in despite having 15 points more [than Kashima in 2016], but this year the team at the top of the table becomes champion and so we have to pick up points over the whole season to make sure that come the end of the year it is Reds that are smiling.”
There is a lot of football to be played, but if Mihailo Petrovic’s side can match their recent figures then it will take an impressive effort for somebody else to beat them to the finish line in 2017.