28
Sep
21

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.


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