2023 J1 Season Preview

The 2023 J.League season kicks off this weekend, and ahead of the new campaign I took a look at some teams’ transfer activity to try and gauge how they could get on over the next nine months… (日本語版)

Trying to predict how teams will fare in an upcoming season is always a thankless task, particularly in the J.League.

This year is no different in that regard, especially as it has been so long since the conclusion of the 2022 campaign on account of the early finish to accommodate the World Cup in Qatar.

Ninety-eight days after Yokohama F. Marinos coasted to the J1 title away to Vissel Kobe, Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo relegated Shimizu S-Pulse in a ridiculous back-and-forth game in the dome, and Yuki Soma signed off at Nagoya Grampus with a 97th-minute winner away to Cerezo Osaka we’ll have the season’s soft kick-off with the Super Cup on Saturday, as Marinos take on Ventforet Kofu – remember they won the Emperor’s Cup last year?! – before Kevin Muscat’s men get the ball rolling for real next Friday against last season’s runners-up Kawasaki Frontale.

Ahead of the new season I’ve run the rule over some of the more notable movers and shakers in the transfer market in a no-doubt foolish attempt to try and gauge who looks well-placed to challenge for the title, which teams could be improved from last year, and how some returning faces may fare back in the first division.

First of all we have to start with last year’s champions and their closest challengers, both of whom have been relatively quiet when it comes to new signings.

Marinos have seen two former J1 Players of the Year depart, with last year’s recipient Tomoki Iwata joining Ange Postecoglou’s growing collection of Japanese talent at Celtic and 2019 winner Teruhito Nakagawa moving to FC Tokyo, while Leo Ceara has signed for Cerezo Osaka and Yohei Takaoka has moved to Vancouver Whitecaps of the MLS.

In truth, none of these losses look critical to the side, with Joel Chima Fujita primed to take on a more prominent role in central midfield and Takumi Kamijima a dependable option at centre-back, Kenta Inoue and Asahi Uenaka looking like capable replacements for Nakagawa and Leo Ceara – who both blew hot and cold over the past year or so – and Powell Obinna Obi a talented understudy who could be ready to step up as No.1.

Shogo Taniguchi is the only major departure just up the road at Kawasaki, meanwhile, but the Frontale squad, which was starting to show some signs of wear and tear last year, doesn’t look to have been especially freshened up by the addition of Yusuke Segawa, Takuma Ominami, and Naoto Kamifukumoto or the return of perennial loanee Taisei Miyashiro, and this could be the year Toru Oniki’s side finally start to slip off the pace.

Snapping at their heels will be a couple of last season’s impressive performers, both of whom have had solid-looking off-seasons.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima finished third last year – albeit a hefty 13 points behind Marinos – as well as winning the Levain Cup and finishing as runners-up to Kofu in the Emperor’s Cup, and having kept last year’s team together, including their crown jewel Makoto Mitsuta, there’s nothing to suggest they won’t be just as good a proposition, if not better, in their second season under Michael Skibbe. The only notable loss is Tomoya Fujii, who has joined Kashima Antlers, although the Purple Archers coped reasonably well without him over the last quarter of last season so there shouldn’t be undue alarm at the Edion Stadium.

Things are similarly promising for Cerezo, who have bolstered their attacking options by signing the aforementioned Leo Ceara as well as acquiring the impressive Jordi Croux, bringing the talented Shota Fujio back after a solid loan at Tokushima Vortis and, of course, finally talking Shinji Kagawa into a triumphant homecoming after over a decade in Europe.

Two teams that were expected to challenge last year but ultimately failed to play to their potential were Urawa Reds and Vissel Kobe, and each head into this season after trimming their squads a fair bit over the winter.

Reds have shipped out a substantial amount of attacking quality in Kasper Junker, Yusuke Matsuo, and Ataru Esaka without any major signings in that area to replace them, and also undergone another change in the dugout, with Maciej Skorża replacing Ricardo Rodriguez. It remains to be seen whether the Pole can achieve what so many over the past 15 years have failed and finally deliver that much-desired second league crown to the Saitama giant, but he does at least have the chance of claiming some early silverware with an ACL final already set up for him.

Vissel haven’t lost any major names coming into the new campaign but have shed a fair bit of fat from their squad in the transfer window, and their rather uncharacteristic decision not to recruit any big-name foreign players – yet – and stick with the dependable Takayuki Yoshida could herald a long-overdue shift away from headline-grabbing sensationalism and into more sensible, football-oriented decision making. Could.

One team I do think might be something of a dark horse this season is Kyoto Sanga. They needed a hard-fought draw against Roasso Kumamoto in last season’s play-off to preserve their top flight status, but Cho Kwi-jae is one of the most consistent managers in recent J.League history and while they are unlikely to be challenging at the very top of the table some sharp recruitment means they could climb comfortably up the rankings in 2023. 

Patric, Kazunari Ichimi, and Kosuke Kinoshita all look capable of contributing goals in Sanga’s system, while one of J2’s most dependable creators and converters of chances in recent seasons, both from open play and set pieces, Taiki Hirato, looks an inspired capture.

Talking of J2, we should close on the two teams promoted back to the top flight after five years and one year away, respectively.

Albirex Niigata have sensibly opted for an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-try-to-fix-it approach after storming their way to the second division title in 2022, keeping the squad almost completely intact and adding steady options for depth in Shusuke Ota and the returning Naoto Arai, and it will be interesting to see how far their momentum can take them in Rikizo Matsuhashi’s second year in charge.

Yokohama FC, on the other hand, have taken an entirely different path, and it’s a little unclear at this stage how they plan to get the most out of the huge number of players they’ve signed – especially in the attacking midfield areas, where Kazuma Takai, Shion Inoue, Koki Sakamoto, Nguyen Cong Phuong, Mizuki Arai, Hirotaka Mita, and the returning Keijiro Ogawa will all be competing with Tatsuya Hasegawa, Ryoya Yamashita, and Towa Yamane for minutes.

My first impression is that Albirex stand more of a chance of avoiding an instant return to J2 than Yokohama, but that, like most of the speculation here, could come back to haunt me as the year progresses.

Whatever happens, here’s to another great season, and may the best team win.


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