Archive for February, 2022


Marinos rediscovering their mojo

Yokohama F.Marinos have drifted a little after winning the 2019 J1 title, but the early signs are positive for Kevin Muscat’s men after two assured performances to start the new season… (日本語版)

There was much talk about what Yokohama F.Marinos had lost coming into the new season, but the primary takeaway after their first two matches of 2022 is what, perhaps surprisingly, still remains at the club.

Following on from the departures of Ange Postecoglou and Ado Onaiwu midway through last year Marinos were forced to part with three more of their most important players over the off-season as Daizen Maeda and Thiago Martins headed for pastures new, and while their replacements Anderson Lopes and Eduardo both arrived with pre-established reputations in the J.League few expected them or Marinos to hit the ground running.

A healthy return of four points has been collected from two tricky opening fixtures though, with the icing on the cake being that Marinos were the dominant side in each of those contests against Cerezo Osaka and, most impressively, Kawasaki Frontale – playing in a proactive style not dissimilar to that which drove them to the title under Postecoglou in 2019.

“We really played with strong Marinos values today, so from that perspective I’m very pleased,” Kevin Muscat said after the 2-2 draw with Cerezo on the opening weekend, brushing off the disappointment of conceding twice from corners, including in the 90th minute, and insisting his focus was on attacking and not defensive matters.

“We’re going to continue to select players based on how we want to play football, not on set pieces. Today we conceded from two set pieces, we will analyse that part of the game like everything else, but I’m sure that set pieces are more in the mind, more of a mental thing than height.

“There’s no doubt that we will get better. We will push the players and take them out of their comfort zone to push to get better individually and better as a group. If we’re honest, we really dominated the opponent. The two corner kicks and maybe another corner kick or free kick was the only time we had to really defend. It was as dominant a performance as I can remember.”

The statistics backed up that claim, with Marinos taking 26 shots to Cerezo’s 11, landing nine efforts on target in comparison to Cerezo’s two, racking up 64.8 percent of possession with their 748 passes, and finishing the 90 minutes with an xG of 2.98 as opposed to Cerezo’s 1.32.

The late concession to Hiroshi Kiyotake’s header could nevertheless have served as a blow to confidence with Kawasaki up next, and after a bright start the following Wednesday Marinos did indeed find themselves trailing after Akihiro Ienaga gave Frontale a 32nd-minute lead.

Muscat had promised his team would be ready though, and they maintained their composure superbly after going behind, turning the contest round in sensational style early in the second half as Elber and Teruhito Nakagawa both found the net within 67 seconds of each other to put the hosts 2-1 up.

Far from looking to sit tight after moving ahead Marinos instead worked to drive their advantage home, and it was no surprise when Elber notched his second with a speculative effort from range in the 64th minute.

With Marcos Junior scheming and – newly sprouted shock of hair aside – reminiscent of the player who set the league alight three years ago, and Takuya Kida and Tomoki Iwata controlling things impressively in the middle of the park Marinos were totally in charge of proceedings, and even when Kei Chinen pulled one back for Frontale in the 73rd minute it never looked like the points were in doubt.

And indeed they weren’t, with Nakagawa showcasing his and Marinos’ confidence five minutes later by arcing a ludicrous effort into the top corner to put the game to bed.

“We understand that the result is very important, but it’s also important to us that we understand how we get the results,” Muscat said in his post-match press conference. “I’ve always said if we perform to our capabilities and to our structure that we will always have a chance of winning football matches.”

Out-passing Kawasaki by 608 to 509 (with an 81 percent completion rate), rattling off 14 shots, and claiming 55 percent of possession against the reigning champions provided the how on this occasion, and with Frontale looking fallible and fellow pre-season favourites Urawa Reds and Vissel Kobe starting the year tentatively Marinos will be very pleased with the way they’ve eased out of the starting blocks.

Sunday’s visit to Kashiwa Reysol is followed by another pair of home games in quick succession against Vissel and Shimizu S-Pulse, and if Marinos can maintain their current form then they have every chance of establishing themselves as J1’s early pacesetters.


2022 J1 season preview

Kawasaki Frontale come into the new J.League season aiming for three consecutive J1 titles, but it’s unlikely things will be quite so straightforward for them this time around… (日本語版)

What with the high school football competition, women’s Asian Cup, and men’s World Cup qualifiers it perhaps hasn’t felt like we’ve had much of a break from high-level football, but it has already been two-and-a-half months since the final round of the 2021 J1 season and the new campaign is almost upon us.

As ever, there has been plenty of transfer activity over the intermission, and as well as the now-routine exodus of emerging talent to Europe we have seen the usual merry-go-round of activity as players move between J.League sides.

The ongoing difficulties with regards to foreigners entering Japan means there has again been very little by the way of international shopping, and it still remains unclear when the handful of signings that have been made from overseas will be able to join up with their new teammates.

That also goes for the incoming managers at Kashima Antlers and Sanfrecce Hiroshima, with René Weiler and Michael Skibbe forced to take charge of their maiden pre-seasons remotely – a set of circumstances that Daniel Poyatos had to endure last year with Tokushima Vortis, and which he was ultimately unable to overcome as the Shikoku club dropped through the trapdoor on the last day of the season.

While the situation at that pair of clubs looks a little unclear, however, there are positive signs for a trio of others, each of whom found themselves at differing points on the success-failure continuum last year.

Urawa Reds ended 2021 as Emperor’s Cup champions after a dramatic 2-1 win over Oita Trinita on 19 December, and allied with their sixth-place finish in the league that triumph made for a highly promising first term under Ricardo Rodriguez.

Plenty was made of the senior departures from Saitama Stadium at the end of last season, but Reds’ work in the transfer market has looked astute as they enter a new era. Rodriguez has again plucked some of the finest talent from J2 in Kai Matsuzaki, Tetsuya Chinen, and Kazuaki Mawatari – with whom he worked at Tokushima in 2017 – as well as adding some J1 quality and experience by securing the services of Tomoya Inukai, Yusuke Matsuo, and Ken Iwao – another with whom the manager has previous in Shikoku, with Iwao captaining Vortis to promotion in 2020.

We’ll get a first glimpse of this new-look Urawa in Saturday’s Fujifilm Super Cup against two-time defending champions Kawasaki Frontale – who we’ll come to shortly – but while that match will act as a great curtain-raiser for the season, the result won’t tell us too much and we won’t know for sure if Reds will be mounting a serious title challenge for another few months yet.

Avispa Fukuoka came up alongside Rodriguez’s Tokushima two seasons ago, and far exceeded expectations back in the top flight in 2021 as they ultimately finished eighth and comfortably beat the jinx which had seen them relegated at the first time of asking after each of their three previous promotions. Emil Salomonsson is the only key player to have left from last year, and with Makoto Hasebe adding the quality of last season’s J2 top scorer Lukian and Tatsuya Tanaka from Urawa, the side should pose more of an attacking threat this year as they look to further consolidate in the first division.

One side that badly lacked attacking threat in 2021 was Gamba Osaka, who started the year with just three goals in their first 12 games and finished the season as the fourth lowest scorers after finding the net just 33 times. In Tomohiro Katanosaka they have recruited a talented new manager though – who if given the time and backing could have Gamba challenging back up at the right end of the table in the near future – while the likes of Mitsuki Saito and Hideki Ishige should add some much-needed spark to the team’s approach play to ensure this year plays out far better than the last.

Things don’t look quite so promising for two teams expected to be battling at the wrong end of the division though.

Kashiwa Reysol very nearly slipped though the trapdoor last year, and with several of their best attacking talents moving on – including the talismanic Cristiano – it is hard to see Nelsinho’s men pushing on much higher than the bottom third in 2022. Jubilo Iwata, meanwhile, are back in the big time after a couple of years in J2, but while the experience of their squad gave them the edge in the second tier they look to be lacking a little vibrancy for the rigours of the top flight – not to mention the loss of the aforementioned Lukian’s goals.

This leads us neatly onto the reigning champions, who once again come into the season as the favourites but once again do so minus a few of the stars that began the previous campaign at Todoroki Stadium.

Ao Tanaka, Reo Hatate, and Kaoru Mitoma all lined up for Frontale’s opener against Yokohama F.Marinos in 2021 but have since moved on to pastures new in Europe, while key players like Jung Sung-ryong (37), Akihiro Ienaga (35), and Yu Kobayashi (34) are all another year older.

Sir Alex Ferguson used to repeat the adage that teams must strengthen after success if they want the glory to continue, but while Tatsuki Seko and Chanatahip Songkrasin are two excellent additions they represent the only senior signings for Kawasaki ahead of the new season. Toru Oniki has of course shown repeatedly that he is also willing to throw high-school-, university-, or youth-graduates straight into the fray if they have the quality, but whether that will be enough to deliver titles at home and in Asia remains to be seen.

And what of Vissel Kobe? The 2019 Emperor’s Cup is the only silverware they have to show three-and-a-half years on from Andres Iniesta’s arrival in Hyogo, but after ending last season strongly to finish third they finally look well placed to make a real challenge in the league this year.

The entry ban on foreigners has seen a – surely temporary – curtailment of Vissel’s transfer policy of signing ex-Barcelona players, but after bringing in Yuya Osako and Yoshinori Muto midway through the previous season two more vastly experienced J.Leaguers have now arrived in the shape of Tomoaki Makino and Takahiro Ogihara.

That certainly makes Kobe look a more coherent outfit heading into the new season than they have at any point in recent years, and with Urawa and Marinos rebuilding and Kashima, Nagoya Grampus, and FC Tokyo all under new management, Vissel certainly look the best placed to prevent Frontale becoming just the second team in J.League history to win the title three years in a row.

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February 2022