Archive for September, 2021


Omiya oh my

Omiya Ardija were punching above their weight in J1 for over a decade, but since their second relegation in 2017 things have gone from bad to worse for the Saitama side… (日本語版

In 2016 things were as good as they’ve ever been for Omiya Ardija.

After being relegated two years previously Hiroki Shibuya’s men instantly returned to J1 as 2015 J2 champions, and they didn’t lose any momentum as they surged to a fifth place finish in the overall rankings back in the top flight.

Akihiro Ienaga and Ataru Esaku top scored with 11 and eight goals, respectively, for the Squirrels, and after losing just one of their last 11 matches they recorded their best ever finish in the first division. 

Fast forward five years and things aren’t going anywhere near as well for the Saitama club though. They capitulated after their 2016 exploits and were relegated the following season, and after a couple of near misses in the race for promotion they slumped to a worst ever J.League finish of 15th in the second tier last year and are scrapping for survival at the foot of J2 again this season.

Omiya were unbeaten in their three league games in September of 2016 after wins against Sanfrecce Hiroshima (1-0, Esaka) and Kawasaki Frontale (3-2, Ienaga 2, Esaka) and a 1-1 draw with Sagan Tosu (Ienaga), and they mirrored that by picking up seven points this September too (albeit from four matches instead of three). In contrast to those high-flying days in the top tier, however, the draw with Ehime FC (3-3) and wins over Tokyo Verdy (2-1) and, most recently, fellow strugglers SC Sagamihara (1-0, thanks to a sensational Kazuaki Mawatari free-kick 13 minutes from time) have served only to move them tentatively out of the relegation zone.

Things weren’t any better under current Sagamihara boss Takuya Takagi last season, and his replacement Ken Iwase also endured a torrid three months at the helm, delivering just two league wins in 15 games on the NACK5 bench before being put out of his misery after the 3-1 defeat away to Giravanz Kitakyushu on 23 May. That loss was Ardija’s eighth of the campaign – in the halcyon days of 2016 that was the amount they lost all year, the last of which came on the final day of the season.

Iwase departed with Omiya second bottom of the table on 11 points, and only above Sagamihara on goal difference (Omiya -5, Sagamihara -11). After stunning everybody – including, possibly, themselves – by making a late surge for the second automatic promotion spot last year, Sagamihara’s struggles on their J2 debut have been far less surprising, and their season has actually followed a very similar curve to Ardija’s.

Like Iwase, Fumitake Miura only managed to lead his team to two victories in the first third of the season and was moved on after a 2-0 defeat away to Montedio Yamagata on 30 May, with Takagi installed as his successor. Despite getting off to a slow start and losing his first three games at the helm without finding the net, Sagamihara’s performances and results gradually started to improve and they came into the clash with Omiya, Takagi’s 15th in charge, unbeaten in three games without conceding and having lost only two of their last 10.

Some smart work in the loan market has been key to that resurgence, with young, talented, confident ball players like Hikaru Naruoka (19, Shimizu S-Pulse), Seiji Kimura (20, FC Tokyo), Yuan Matsuhashi (19, Tokyo Verdy), Reotaro Kodama (19, Sagan Tosu), and Yudai Fujiwara (19, Urawa Reds) adding some youth and hunger to complement the experience and goals of a resurgent Jungo Fujimoto (37), who has found the net five times in Sagamihara’s last 10 games.

There has been no such freshening up at Omiya though – in fact, they went the opposite route in the summer and added even more experience to a squad already bursting with it, with their two acquisitions being goalkeeper Yuta Minami, 42, and striker Atsushi Kawata, 29 – and it is difficult to see what the long-term plan is.

Masahiro Shimoda, who was installed as Iwase’s permanent replacement in the middle of June, has plenty of talented individual attacking players at his disposal – including Atsushi Kurokawa, the raw Masaya Shibayama, and gifted but injury-prone Kanji Okunuki – but they have struggled to spark consistently going forwards while the defence always looks to have a mistake or two in it.

The fact they have several players capable of providing moments of quality like Mawatari’s gem against Sagamihara means Omiya should ultimately have enough to steer themselves away from the trapdoor this year, but considering the heights they were hitting not so long ago the club should be aiming for far more than that.

Right now games look as though they are being taken on an as-they-come basis though, with Minami saying after the Sagamihara match that the focus had been on getting the win by any means necessary rather than worrying about the quality of the performance. If that remains the case and a clear playing style can’t be established, however, then another return to J1 looks an increasingly long way off.


Here WE go

The fully professional WE League launches this weekend, and marks a huge step forward for women’s football in Japan… (日本語版)

It’s fair to say things didn’t go as well as many had hoped for Nadeshiko Japan at Tokyo 2020, with the team never really clicking into gear and being eliminated with relative ease by eventual silver medallists Sweden in the quarter-finals.

Manager Asako Takakura’s spell in charge came to an end after the competition and the JFA is now at a crossroads as it looks to appoint her successor, with rumours swirling behind the scenes that a foreign coach may be considered to try and restore the women’s national team to its former glories.

Another stepping stone on that journey is the establishment of the fully professional WE League, which is set for its much-anticipated launch this weekend – furthering the impression that 2021 represents a critical juncture in the development of women’s football in Japan.

This new division brings with it plenty of opportunities but also represents a leap into the unknown, and it is vital that the enthusiasm swirling around the start of the season can be converted into something longer term as the players and clubs adapt to their newly professional status.

Terms like ‘strengthen’ and ‘generate excitement’ were thrown around a lot in the various media activities ahead of the maiden season – which kicks off with 10 of the 11 founding members in action on Sunday – and while many factors will ultimately determine how successful the division becomes, the initial responsibility rests largely on the players and coaches and how well they perform out on the pitch.

The fact that all matches are being broadcast on DAZN will ensure the league is able to reach a far larger audience than the relatively niche following the women’s game has enjoyed to date in Japan, and the first priority must be to establish a connection between the competition and those watching it. The more established teams of course already have core fanbases, but the move to professionalism means they will need to amplify them while the newer clubs have to work to position themselves in their local communities and attract as many supporters as possible to provide themselves with a steady footing.

Star players are one surefire way to gain and keep attention – particularly from the more casual strata of fans needed to help move the women’s game into the mainstream – and it is vital that clubs pull out all the stops to ensure the limelight stays on the league.

Time, money, and effort need to be dedicated to marketing efforts off the pitch, while requisite support needs to be provided behind the scenes to ensure the conditions are right for young local talent to develop and establish themselves as the faces of the competition. The women’s game in Japan is very highly regarded around the world, and if the right professional environment can be established that would increasingly attract players and coaches from further afield, whose arrival in Japan would then in turn add to the WE League’s appeal.

There are positive signs in this regard with the signings of Alex Chidiac and Quinley Quezada at JEF United, Sarina Bolden at Chifure AS Elfen Saitama, and Rosnani Azman at INAC Kobe Leonessa, and if these players can make positive impressions then it is only natural that other clubs will be tempted to follow suit and expand their scouting horizons. The Olympics showcased some of the best female players in the world, and it is a slight shame that WE League clubs didn’t capitalise upon the opportunity of having them playing on their doorsteps by putting out some feelers for potential recruits. The bigger stars of that competition would of course have been beyond the financial means of the WE League clubs – and the ongoing Covid-19 entry restrictions make international signings extra complicated – but it does look like something of an opportunity missed.

As demonstrated by England’s burgeoning Women’s Super League (WSL), perseverance, increased visibility, and financial backing are key ingredients to success. The WSL is now into its fourth season as a fully professional competition having been semi-professional since 2011, and its growth in recent years has led to greatly increased media exposure, an influx of some of the world’s best players – including Nadeshiko Japan stars Mana Iwabuchi at Arsenal and Yui Hasegawa at West Ham United – and, from this season, a broadcast deal worth a reported £8 million a year.

The WE League of course has plenty of obstacles to overcome before it can hope to be in such rude health, but if the first steps can be taken confidently then the future of both the domestic game and national team should be bright.

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September 2021