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.

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