Way out in Front

Kawasaki Frontale won J1 with four games to spare this season, setting a new points record and becoming the fastest champions in the process. They have been almost unplayable all year, and the motivation for their triumph may well have come with a defeat at the end of the 2019 campaign… (日本語版)

I’ve been meaning to write about Kawasaki Frontale for a while, but kept delaying because I wasn’t really sure what I could add to the conversation about the newly-crowned champions.

Toru Oniki’s side have been absolutely extraordinary since the first division got back underway at the start of July, losing just three times and racking up a goal difference of 54 to absolutely dominate a league usually characterised by its close-run title races.

Frontale’s achievement would be sensational enough in a normal season, but to have been so emphatically consistent in a year when the schedule has been so brutal is nothing short of astonishing, and as other teams have struggled to manage the workload the Todoroki side has cruised through almost without issue.

Things stalled a little as they approached the finish line – perhaps because their exertions were finally catching up with the players, who, it seems, may only be human after all – and their coronation could have been sealed even earlier were it not for the recent defeats to Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo and Oita Trinita. Even so, these setbacks shouldn’t detract from what has been one of the most phenomenal seasons in J.League history, and Frontale wrapped things up in typically swashbuckling style on Wednesday night when they hammered their closest challengers Gamba Osaka 5-0.

There are more than enough games to look back on as highlights from this year – Frontale have scored four or more goals seven times (so far), and completed doubles over many of their closest challengers – but it is actually one from the end of the previous season I keep thinking back to as having been key.

It was the penultimate weekend of the campaign and fourth-placed Kawasaki were seven points adrift of champions-elect Yokohama F.Marinos when the two met on a crisp November afternoon at a sold-out Todoroki Stadium. Frontale had lost any mathematical chance of winning a third consecutive title the previous weekend when Marinos edged past Matsumoto Yamaga with a narrow 1-0 victory, and there was a feeling at the time of a baton being passed as Ange Postecoglou’s high-pressing, risk-taking, all-energy side swept to a comprehensive 4-1 win.

Instead of marking the end of an era, however, that humbling seems to have served as motivation for Kawasaki to come back even stronger this year, inspiring them to take the first flight by storm in a way that has rarely, if ever, been seen in the J.League.

On 18 November they had the chance to fully exorcise those demons when they again welcomed Marinos to their patch, and although it took a couple of very late goals they managed to do just that, with a 3-1 win leaving them 17 points clear at the summit and with one-and-a-half hands on the trophy.

The difference-maker in that game, as has been the case so often this year, was Kaoru Mitoma, who was close to unplayable after his introduction at the start of the second half and scored one, set up another, and also won the penalty missed by Yu Kobayashi. The 23-year-old has taken to the J.League stage without a hint of nerves, marking his first year as a professional with 12 goals and eight assists (again, so far), as well as leaving a whole host of opposition defenders with red faces and twisted blood as a result of his mazy, powerful, and controlled dribbling.

Mitoma’s confidence and effectiveness is reminiscent of that of Yoshinori Muto in his breakout season at FC Tokyo, and while different types of players – Mitoma is more about intricate touches and subtle strokes of the ball, while Muto was an irrepressible bundle of power and aggression – it is just as thrilling seeing the Kawasaki No. 18 in full flight as it was to experience the raw and unfiltered Muto back in 2014.

Of course, as good as Mitoma is he hasn’t won the title on his own, and Kawasaki’s success owes much to their strength in depth and the work of Toru Oniki, who has sculpted and coached his squad to something very close to perfection.

Whoever makes their way onto the pitch in the blue and black is capable of achieving results because they know exactly what is expected of them, and such clarity of purpose means the players seem to truly enjoy playing together – which, in turn, makes them such a joy to watch.

And then, of course, there is Kengo Nakamura.

An undisputed all-time great of the J.League, the one-club man made his way back to fitness after a horrific ACL injury at the end of the 2019 campaign, and after a fairytale winner against cross-river rivals FC Tokyo on his 40th birthday announced he would be calling it a day at the end of the current campaign.

There isn’t anybody in the Japanese game who will begrudge Nakamura another league winner’s medal to bow out on – and things could end even more perfectly if Frontale go all the way in the Emperor’s Cup and enable him to complete his collection of domestic titles.

While 2020 marks the end of the line for Nakamura though, on this season’s showing Kawasaki’s golden age looks set to continue for a few more years yet.

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November 2020

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