2021 J2 Best XI

The likes of Daizen Maeda, Kyogo Furuhashi, and Miki Yamane all built upon their burgeoning reputations in 2021, winning awards, earning moves to Europe, and establishing themselves with the national team.

One thing these three have in common is that they all spent the early part of their careers in J2, a league in which a whole host of players emerge every year looking destined for bigger and better things.

With that in mind, excluding players from promoted Jubilo Iwata and Kyoto Sanga or those on loan, here’s a Best XI (plus substitutes) of talent from J2 who shone in the 2021 season and should be worth keeping an eye on in the coming years (日本語版)

Goalkeeper: Koto Abe (24, Albirex Niigata

Abe started the season in goal for Albirex as they set the pace at the top of J2, but then dropped to the bench once Ryosuke Kojima was fit again. Another knock to Kojima soon presented Abe with a fresh chance as No.1, however, which he took with both hands. A confident presence between the posts who is also comfortable with the ball at his feet, Abe ultimately kept 12 clean sheets and conceded just 28 times in 32 games.

Centre back: Tetsuya Chinen (24, FC Ryukyu)

Ryukyu were third, six points behind leaders Kyoto Sanga, when Chinen picked up an injury against Blaublitz Akita on 28 August, and his absence had a clear impact on the team. They had won 15 and conceded just 27 goals in their first 27 games with him but lost their first four and went winless in seven without him, ending the season with just three wins in their last 15 matches as they struggled to cope without his assuredness in the backline.

Centre back: Rikito Inoue (24, Fagiano Okayama)

Inoue played every minute for Fagiano Okayama in his first season in the second tier after joining from J3 outfit Gainare Tottori at the start of the 2021 campaign, and looked immediately at home at City Light Stadium. Despite Fagiano finishing in 11th place, Inoue and the on-loan Takashi Abe formed a formidable pairing at centre back and the team ended the year with the joint second-best defensive record in the league after conceding just 36 times.

Centre back: Hiroki Noda (24, Montedio Yamagata)

Aside from eight minutes rest at the end of a 4-0 cruise over Ehime FC, Noda was ever-present for Montedio before getting injured ahead of the 31 October clash with Tochigi SC. The team’s form slipped drastically after that, and they only won two of their last seven games – losing four of them, including a 5-2 drubbing at home to Machida Zelvia – having only lost five times in their previous 22 matches under Peter Cklamovski with Noda on the pitch.

Right wing back: Riku Handa (19, Montedio Yamagata)

Hopes are high for this Yamagata native who is already involved in the Japan youth set-up, and Handa established himself as a regular this season, clocking up 37 appearances and registering three goals and five assists. Confident on the ball and well-suited to Peter Cklamovski’s high-pressing, proactive approach, he looks set to become an increasingly important player for the Mountain Gods next season. 

Left wing back: Satoki Uejo (24, Fagiano Okayama) 

Actually played in a more advanced central role for much of the past campaign, but Uejo is just as adept working his way in from outside on the left. The former FC Ryukyu man delights in getting shots off early and is just as capable of lashing home efforts from distance as he is of arriving late to tap-in from close range. A sharp, intelligent, and lethal player who causes opponents real problems. 

Defensive midfield: Caio Cesar (26, V-Varen Nagasaki) 

The oldest player in this selection but an assured presence in the middle of the park who strikes an intimidating presence at 193cm tall. Caio Cesar assumed the role as Varen’s leader in central midfield in the absence of Hiroki Akino this year, and drives the team forward with his confidence. The Brazilian is also authoritative in possession and capable of finding the back of the net with the odd wonder goal as well.

Defensive midfield: Kaishu Sano (20, Machida Zelvia) 

Sano also made my J2 selection last year, and has continued to improve as Machida further established themselves as one of the teams to be reckoned with in the second tier. Played slightly fewer games than in 2020 on account of injury (34 as opposed to 41), but despite that he still managed to impress with his composure and quality at the heart of midfield, as well as adding more end product to his game with six goals rather than the one he served up in 2020.

Attacking midfield: Tomoya Miki (23, JEF United)

One of the most consistent performers in J2 this season, Miki was a constant threat in the final third and is incredibly adept at popping up at the exact moment when he can cause maximum damage. Finished the campaign as JEF’s top scorer with 14 goals and also provided five assists, and if they can keep him at Fukuda Denshi Arena next year he could be the player to finally spearhead a proper promotion challenge back to the top flight for Yoon Jong-hwan’s side.

Attacking midfield: Kai Matsuzaki (24, Mito Hollyhock)

Still a little inconsistent, but that is part of the charm for Matsuzaki. In many ways he epitomises the unpredictability and chaos of Mito under Tadahiro Akiba, with them finding the net 59 times this year but also conceding 50. Matsuzaki had a hand in almost a quarter of those scored, notching eight goals and coming up with six assists in his 41 appearances, and his low centre of gravity and rapid footwork must make him a nightmare for opposing defenders to face.

Striker: Asahi Uenaka (20, V-Varen Nagasaki)

Uenaka wasn’t expected to feature much ahead of the season with Edgar Junio, Ken Tokura, Cayman Togashi, and Victor Ibarbo ahead of him the pecking order, but the youngster finished the campaign as Varen’s surest bet in front of goal. The rangey target man exhibited real ruthlessness with his chances, and ended his debut season with 10 goals from just 975 minutes on the pitch – a little shy of one goal per game in real terms.

Bench: Junto Taguchi (FC Ryukyu, 25); Niki Urakami (Ventforet Kofu, 25); Rui Sueyoshi (JEF United, 25), Yuya Kuwasaki (V-Varen Nagasaki, 23); Taiki Hirato (Machida Zelvia, 24), Motoki Hasegawa (Ventforet Kofu, 23); Ryoga Sato (Tokyo Verdy, 22)

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