11
Feb
22

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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