Vissel on choppy waters

Vissel Kobe – they of Andres Iniesta and Lukas Podolski – are floundering dangerously close to the J1 relegation zone, showing once again that signing big names is never enough to guarantee success on its own… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Wednesday 26th September, 2018

The last time Urawa Reds sold out Saitama Stadium they were winning the AFC Champions League, and on Sunday they put in a performance worthy of the reigning kings of Asia as they swept Vissel Kobe aside 4-0.

As impressive as Oswaldo Oliveira’s side were, however, they weren’t presented with much of a challenge by a disheveled and disorganised Vissel, who crumpled defensively and offered next to nothing going forwards.

Indeed, the visiting players looked just as concerned that Andres Iniesta wasn’t playing as the thousands of fans who’d bought their tickets to see the No.8 up close, and his absence was unsurprisingly a key talking point among fans and media alike.

For all the on- and off-the-pitch positives that come with the acquisition of global stars – the 34-year-old’s first couple of goals, for instance, and the undoubted boon it has had with regards to exposure for the J.League – Kobe’s recent travails show that there are also issues to overcome when signing such players.

Chief among these problems is the manner in which teams fall into a sense of over-reliance on the star name, rather than incorporating the new player as a high-quality component to fine-tune the side. Iniesta is certainly capable of creating moments of class to win games almost single-handedly, but not as often as the marketing around him suggests, and certainly not all of the time.

Football is not an individual sport but a team game, and when your teammates are defending as poorly as Kobe did against Reds then the presence of one of the game’s greats further forward doesn’t make much difference.

Even if Iniesta had been on the pitch, he wouldn’t have been able to do anything to prevent Shinzo Koroki doubling Reds’ lead after evading Hirofumi Watanabe with such ease in the 42nd minute, nor would he have been able to save Shunki Takahashi’s blushes after the 28-year-old gifted possession to Yuki Muto for the hosts’ third.

If you have the chance to sign Andres Iniesta you obviously snatch it with both hands, but it is always disappointing that J.League teams don’t also try to acquire defensive midfielders or centre-backs when it comes to picking up big names, rather than always opting for attacking players.

Those who make and score the goals are of course far sexier acquisitions, but the ones who stop them going in at the other end are just as important if the ultimate aim really is to win titles and not just improve interaction rates on social media.

Another difficulty with bringing in players of truly top pedigree is that it can be hard to know how to manage them, and just four months after signing Iniesta Kobe have made a change in the dugout, replacing Takayuki Yoshida with Juan Manuel Lillo.

Football Channel, Friday 28th September 2018

The hope must be that the new man can introduce a more solid, coherent structure to get the best out of Iniesta and Lukas Podolski, who did manage 90 minutes in Saitama but struggled to make an impact on the game.

In fairness he didn’t have much to work with, and with Iniesta unavailable the German was lumbered with the ‘make-something-happen’ role, often forced to drop incredibly deep to collect the ball and try to create – a tall order for a player whose career in Europe was always more about finishing chances off than making them.

Only time will tell if Lillo can bring about longer-term improvements, but while the Spaniard has been tasked with overseeing a late push for the ACL he will first have to make sure he can steer his new team away from the relegation scrap.

Vissel are eight points adrift of FC Tokyo in the final ACL spot and only six above Kashiwa Reysol in 16th, and recent form would suggest they’d be better off concentrating on the teams below them rather than those jostling for position above them.

Podolski is of a similar mind.

“If you make mistakes you’ll concede goals, and this result came about because we made lots more mistakes than the opponent,” he said after the humbling by Reds.

“The most important thing is that we accept this result. Until now we have been talking about aiming for the ACL but we are also getting closer to the relegation battle. The gap is tight above and below us. We have to fully take in where we are in the table and work to improve our position.”

Kobe have now lost their last four games and the schedule doesn’t get any easier in the coming weeks.

This Saturday they host Kashima Antlers – who themselves are honing in on third place as well as making a decent fist of succeeding Reds as continental champions – before welcoming bottom-placed-but-winning V-Varen Nagasaki to the Noevir on 6 October. They then travel to Kawasaki Frontale the week after the international break, with the reigning champions embroiled in a two-horse race with Sanfrecce Hiroshima for this year’s title.

If points aren’t picked up by that stage then Kobe will be very much involved in the scrap for survival – not something many foresaw when the club picked up Podolski last summer, and certainly not what Iniesta thought he was signing up for when he joined in May.


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