The departure of some key players and poor form of some of those left behind has seen Sanfrecce Hiroshima stumble out of the starting blocks this season, but things could be about to click for Hajime Moriyasu’s side… (日本語版はこちらです)
Sanfrecce Hiroshima suffered a miserable start to the 2017 season, but last Friday’s hard-fought 1-0 win away to Gamba Osaka may just provide a turning point for Hajime Moriyasu’s side.
The Purple Archers – who let’s not forget won three J1 titles between 2012-15 and ran River Plate close in the Club World Cup semi-finals under 18 months ago – slumped to a sixth place finish last season, finishing a full 19 points behind overall leaders Urawa Reds, before starting this campaign in even worse form.
For the first time ever Sanfrecce failed to win any of their first five league games, and after drawing 1-1 at home to Albirex Niigata on the opening day of the season they lost their next four matches, scoring just once more in the process.
Those struggles in front of goal weren’t much of a surprise considering the club opted to offload Hisato Sato and Peter Utaka ahead of the new season, and losing the second most prolific scorer in J.League history and 2016’s joint-top scorer was bound to impact on the team’s attacking threat.
The decision not to offer Utaka the terms he was looking for looked a strange one after his contribution last year, raising concerns about either the club’s financial capabilities or ambition.
The impact of Sato’s departure should also not be underestimated, and while the veteran played a less central role in his 12th season with the club – clocking up just 665 minutes and four goals over 19 appearances last year – the loss of such an experienced and respected player deprived the team of an important voice in the locker room.
Koji Morisaki hanging up his boots saw Sanfrecce lose another player with deep roots at the club, and it seems fairly clear that, whether through choice or necessity, Sanfrecce are going through a transitional phase.
New signing Felipe Silva has shown some promising signs – not least the shot from nowhere that thundered off the woodwork and produced Masato Kudo’s winner against Gamba – but is yet to really click in Sanfrecce’s passing style, while Kudo himself has similarly struggled since his return to J1.
The former Kashiwa Reysol man scored on his debut on the opening weekend, raising hopes that he was primed to slip straight into Sato’s scoring boots, but he was unable to build on that in the following weeks and his confidence appeared to be dropping with each successive miss as the team endured its losing run.
The relief was palpable after he reacted quickest to pounce on the rebound and prod home the only goal in Suita though, and as he ran to the travelling fans behind the goal you could see a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. A few minutes later the impact of that strike was clear as he instantly looked sharper and more positive, driving at the retreating Gamba defenders before taking another potshot at goal.
Moriyasu was pleased two of his new frontline had combined to deliver a first win of the season, and insisted he’d never had any doubts about the team’s approach.
“We hadn’t scored from open play so far this season but looking at the stats for J1 we’d taken the most shots at goal so I knew that if we continued to do that then of course we’d score,” he said.
“It is better to break the opponent down with beautiful combinations but I’d been constantly saying to the players that they had to play in a way that would strike fear in the opponents, to always be aiming for goal. Felipe put that into practice here and while he hit the post Kudo followed up well. Neither of them were afraid to be aiming for goal.”
Poor form and fitness problems have also had an effect on Sanfrecce’s form, with Mihael Mikic and Yoshifumi Kashiwa – two players key to the team’s counter attacks – missing games through injury, and the likes of Tsukasa Shiotani and Toshihiro Aoyama – who were both standout performers during the team’s purple patch of league triumphs – struggling for their best form.
Once everyone is back in shape it is hard to see the side’s woes continuing for too much longer, although there is another tricky test coming up on Sunday as Yokohama F.Marinos, who themselves ended a barren run of their own with a much needed three points against Jubilo Iwata last weekend, coming to town.
Defeat would leave Sanfrecce in the relegation zone, but a first home win of the season could be the next step back towards the end of the table they are more familiar with.