Archive for February, 2021


Full Frontale

Kawasaki Frontale look like the team to beat again in 2021, but do they like it up ’em? (日本語版)

The Fuji Xerox Super Cup usually serves little more than a symbolic purpose, signifying that the wait is finally over and that the new season has begun.

Things were a little different this year on account of the 2020 season being extended so late – technically not finishing until FC Tokyo lifted the YBC Levain Cup on 4 January – and also because the participants, Kawasaki Frontale and Gamba Osaka, had only squared off six weeks previously in the Emperor’s Cup final. This was more ‘deja vu‘ than ‘we’re back!’.

Further to this, the Super Cup often ends up becoming little more than a glorified training match, with managers holding key players back and approaching the game with less than 100 percent motivation as a result of the game being wedged between the combatants’ opening fixtures in the AFC Champions League.

The ongoing issues surrounding the coronavirus pandemic mean continental competition won’t be starting until April this year, however, and so both Frontale and Gamba were able to throw themselves into the clash at Saitama Stadium with a little more relish than usual, resulting in a thoroughly enjoyable game.

Kawasaki, as was the case in the league and Emperor’s Cup last season, ultimately emerged as 3-2 victors to again leave Gamba as runners-up, and the early signs are that Toru Oniki’s side will once again be the team for anyone with title pretensions to beat this year.

Their unity of purpose is extraordinary, on top of which they continue to be set apart by an abundance of truly top-level players capable of deciding matches in their favour. Kaoru Mitoma unsurprisingly dominated the headlines after his two nonchalant finishes inside three first half minutes set his side on the way to glory, for instance, while the embarrassment of riches they boast in reserve was exemplified by Yu Kobayashi coming on with 18 minutes to play and then scoring the winner with the last kick of the game.

Of course there is a lot more to Kawasaki’s success than the possession of some lethal finishers, and the amount of work they put into winning the ball is incredible. This was perhaps best exemplified by Leandro Damiao celebrating as if he had scored a goal after blocking a clearance in the first minute of the second half, while his compatriot Joao Schmidt showed on his debut that he should be more than capable of stepping into Hidemasa Morita’s boots as the team’s enforcer-in-chief in the middle of the park.

In possession, too, the new signing from Nagoya Grampus is efficient and effective – another common theme throughout Kawasaki’s ranks. As with Barcelona during their ‘tiki-taka’ peak, it is almost impossible to get the ball off of Frontale when they are in the mood, and defenders and forwards alike are comfortable on the ball and always happy to play their way out of trouble or into space.

It isn’t all doom and gloom for the rest of J1 though, and as well as Frontale re-confirming their strengths in this game the manner in which Gamba worked their way back into things in the second half served as something of a guide as to how best to keep the reigning champions in check.

The key – and it is admittedly a risky approach, as Gamba learned to their cost in the 96th minute as they pushed for a winner themselves – is to take the game to Frontale. When given time on the ball, they are expert at dominating proceedings and taking the sting out of things or adding a quick injection of pace as they desire. Their success last year was rooted in them bossing possession and being able to push men up in support – especially their attack-minded full-backs.

If you prevent them from doing that and get in amongst them, however, then they are liable to be forced into errors – as was the case after Gamba threw more caution to the wind and came from two goals down to level the score at 2-2 after Frontale failed to clear a cross properly and then gave away a penalty.

If you try and sit tight and wait for a chance to counter you may as well just offer up the three points on a plate. Instead of retreating and ceding the initiative, you stand far more chance of taking something from a game against Frontale by matching their intensity and proactivity and giving them something to think about.

It is no surprise, for instance, that the team’s two defeats towards the end of last season came against a pair of sides renowned for placing a premium on looking after the ball, with Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo and Oita Trinita taking an almost even share of possession (47.2 percent and 50.7 percent, respectively), as well as out-shooting Frontale (12 to 11 and 12 to 10) as they claimed shock wins over the champions-elect in November.

Of course, the argument could be made that they were fatigued by that point and running on fumes at the end of a grueling season (as well as being down to 10 men for 56 minutes against Oita), but such tiredness will surely sneak in this year too as they look to defend their title and do battle in the ACL – all after just a couple of weeks off having played in the Emperor’s Cup final on New Year’s Day. Rumours persist that Mitoma could well be headed to Europe in the summer as well, and while they are far from a one-man team the loss of one of their match-winners could also contribute to a slight tilt of power away from the Kanagawa side.

Taking such a brazen approach would undoubtedly leaves teams vulnerable as well, but if Frontale are pushed week-in week-out then the cracks would surely begin to show. Plenty of teams will still end up on the losing side, but perhaps no more so than if they meekly sat back and hoped for a miracle.

As the cliché goes, the best form of defence is attack, and with Ange Postecoglou’s Yokohama F.Marinos first up on Friday Frontale are sure to receive a stern test in that regard as they get their title defence underway.


Here we go again

The disruption caused by the coronavirus shows no signs of abating, but the J.League is proceeding with caution towards a new season. It looks like being another bumpy ride… (日本語版)

The 2020 J.League season was one of the most chaotic ever, with stresses aplenty on and off the pitch, and while the schedule hopefully won’t be as disrupted this year the early signs are that the going in 2021 is going to be just as bumpy for clubs, players, and fans alike.

The ACL clubs still don’t know where they’ll be playing their group stage games, for example, while tickets only went on sale for the Super Cup less than two weeks before the match and there remains a chance that one or both of Kawasaki Frontale and Gamba Osaka may have to be replaced if either has a coronavirus outbreak in the coming days.

Further to these unavoidable logistical issues, we also have the far from ideal fact that many clubs have been made to wait for their foreign players and staff to join up with the pre-season preparations – or, in the case of new acquisitions, are still waiting.

The success rate of overseas players in Japan is of course hit and miss – for every gem like Jesiel, Everaldo, and Mateus there have been twice as many Brazilian flops, for instance, while not all big name signings deliver performances relative to their eye-watering wages – but the initial adaptation process can be key to helping new arrivals find their feet, and having that set back at least two months must be causing plenty of headaches as Round 1 draws closer.

Add in the ongoing uncertainty about whether fans will be able to attend games – and if so how many, and what will they be allowed to do when they’re there? – and the increasing impact this is having on club budgets, and the longer-term ramifications of the pandemic continue to cast a worrying shadow over the operation and future of many, if not all, J.League clubs.

You have to wonder if the financial strain is behind Urawa Reds’ apparent intent to sell Leonardo to Shandong Taishan as well, with the Saitama giant surely one of those feeling a particular pinch on account of the attendance restrictions. Indeed, these concerns are present around the world, and at the start of February Swindon Town chairman Lee Power described the English League One club as being “on the brink” after they were forced to sell star forward Diallang Jaiyesimi to raise funds.

“I’m surprised we’ve got this far if I’m honest, with no supporters and no income since March,” he told BBC Radio Wiltshire. “It’s getting tougher and tougher and that’s where we are.

“It’s week-by-week, month-by-month. We’re on the rock face, hanging over the edge. To be honest, the last thing we want to do is sell our best players. But like I’ve said and stated since March last year, we’re in a national pandemic, we’ve had no supporters in the stadium, it’s been a fight morning, noon, and night to keep this club afloat.”

Putting long-term issues aside for now and focusing more closely on the football side of things for the upcoming season though, it looks as though continuity could be more important than ever – something that doesn’t bode particularly well for either of J1’s promoted sides.

Last year’s J2 champions Tokushima Vortis have not only had to deal with the departure of manager Ricardo Rodriguez to Urawa, but his replacement Daniel Poyatos remains unable to enter Japan and it currently doesn’t look as though he will be able to work directly with his new players until as late as the end of March – by which point they will have played around half a dozen games.

While there hasn’t been a change in the dugout at Best Denki Stadium things look equally unsettled for Avispa Fukuoka, with Shigetoshi Hasebe having lost several of his key players from last season. Takumi Kamijima, Asahi Masuyama, and Daiya Tono have all returned to their parent clubs after playing vital roles in securing Avispa’s fourth promotion to the top flight, and while replacements Tatsuki Nara, Taro Sugimoto, and Bruno Mendes are all solid additions they will need to time to adapt to Hasebe’s particular and ordered play style.

When bearing in mind the fact that four teams will be automatically relegated from the first division this season that is time they may not be afforded, with the fixture list serving up an incredibly tough-looking first six games for Avispa: home ties against Nagoya Grampus, Yokohama F.Marinos and Kashima Antlers and visits to three teams expected to be battling for survival with them in Shimizu S-Pulse, Tokushima, and neighbours Sagan Tosu.

At the other end of the continuity spectrum things look fairly positive for last year’s top three, with Kawasaki, Gamba, and Nagoya all keeping their best players and adding impressive depth to help them manage their domestic and continental campaigns. Joao Schmidt provides an excellent option for Toru Oniki in midfield, Leandro Perreira and Kazunari Ichimi undoubtedly add firepower up front for the 2020 league and Emperor’s Cup runners-up, and Massimo Ficcadenti looks as though he’s keen to add more attacking threat to last year’s best defence after bringing in Yoichiro Kakitani and Manabu Saito.

As with everything these days it is difficult to look too far ahead with any clarity though, and plenty of flexibility is again going to be needed over the coming weeks and months.

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February 2021