Archive Page 2


The Avs and av nots

Avispa Fukuoka were almost relegated in 2019, but some smart work on and off the pitch leaves them in pole position for promotion back to J1 with less than a third of the 2020 season to play… (日本語版)

The climax to the 2020 J2 season will take on a very different complexion this year, with only two promotion spots available and the play-offs having been shelved on account of the coronavirus.

This is a shame for neutrals and clubs alike, depriving fans of the extra excitement produced by the end of season deciders and also meaning more teams will have less – or, more precisely, nothing – to play for once they are too far adrift of the pacesetters.

A quick glance at the table suggests at least 10 teams are already in that boat, and it will be interesting to see how or if they manage to keep their motivation as the fixtures continue to come thick and fast over the next seven weeks. On the flip side, concentration and determination will be more crucial than ever for those clubs still in the running for a place in J1 in 2021, with the insurance of a play-off berth gone and no second chances available.

Avispa Fukuoka are currently in pole position with an eight-point cushion to third-placed V-Varen Nagasaki, after a sensational recent run of form that sees them unbeaten in 15 and having won 13 of their last 14. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a club that has achieved promotion to the first division on three previous occasions, they have in many ways provided a textbook example of how to navigate the choppy waters of the second tier.

First of all, after last year’s disaster under Fabio Pecchia and Kiyokazu Kudo saw them avoid relegation by just four points, the club hired a manager with a clear and effective style in Shigetoshi Hasebe. Hasebe arrived after two impressive years at Mito Hollyhock, during which he demonstrated his ability to earn the trust of his players and foster a strong team spirit by steering the Ibaraki minnows to the brink of the play-offs – ultimately only missing out last year on goals scored.

The 49-year-old is straightforward in his approach to the game, sticking to a traditional 4-4-2 set-up in which each player is expected to put in plenty of hard running in and out of possession.

“I want my teams to play aggressively in the transitions between defence and attack, in both directions,” he told me ahead of his first year with Mito in 2018.

“I want them to place importance on being able to look after the ball, but of course in the flow of the game there will also be times when we don’t have the initiative. Because of that we also have to defend aggressively, but I don’t want us to just sit back and get bodies behind the ball the whole time. My style is to have the team play aggressively.”

That was borne out in his two years with Hollyhock, and Avispa helped lay the foundations for this year’s success by backing their new boss in the transfer market and bringing in players like Emil Salomonsson, Asahi Masuyama, and Juanma Delgado to enact that aggressive style. Hasebe also brought his captain Hiroyuki Mae with him, and having been crucial to Mito’s success in 2019 the 25-year-old has played a similarly vital role at Best Denki Stadium this season. 

Indeed, Avispa are yet to lose with the Hokkaido native in the side, and it is no coincidence that the team’s only patchy run of form – when they lost four in five games in the heat of summer – came when he was unavailable for selection after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Mae hasn’t been the only standout performer in the team’s current run though, and Takumi Kamijima and Daiya Tono, who also only joined the club ahead of the 2020 campaign, have shone at opposite ends of the pitch. The loanees from Kashiwa Reysol and Kawasaki Frontale, respectively, came in under the radar slightly and weren’t widely expected to become regulars in Kyushu, but both have played in every game so far and embody the industrious approach of their manager, with Kamijima contributing to the best defence in the league and Tono pressing from the front and keeping opposing defenders constantly occupied, as well as chipping in with seven goals.

Of course, success over the course of a whole season requires more than just a few players to be at the top of their game, and it is essential to have strength in depth to maintain consistency – this year especially, with the re-worked fixture list meaning teams hardly have any time at all to recover between games. In this way too, Fukuoka and Hasebe have outshone almost every other team in the second tier in 2020 – with the possible exception of Tokushima Vortis, who just so happen to be Avispa’s closest challengers at the time of writing – in that they have a well-rounded squad of players all capable of making contributions when called upon.

The packed schedule has forced the majority of teams to make fuller use of their squads than they would in an ordinary campaign, but few have managed to achieve Avispa’s dependability while doing so, and while others’ form has ridden the waves to varying degrees Avispa, that blip in August and back-to-back defeats at the start of July aside, have enjoyed relatively smooth sailing.

Of the 29 players to make it onto the pitch this season 22 have appeared at least 10 times, and every position has at least one capable option ready to step in and ensure the player they are deputising for isn’t missed. Masaaki Murakami, for instance – who like Mae played under Hasebe at Mito last year – has slotted effortlessly between the posts and conceded just twice in nine games since Jon Ander Serantes picked up an injury, while the likes of Masato Yuzawa, Kennedy Egbus Mikuni, Jun Suzuki, Takaki Fukumitsu – another who worked with Hasebe in 2019 – and recent signing from Montedio Yamagata Yuya Yamagishi also offer high quality reinforcements when things need freshening up a little.

With 13 rounds remaining there is still too much football to play for anyone to get ahead of themselves, and as the finish line draws closer there will be additional pressures for teams at the sharp end to deal with. Hasebe’s cool, calm approach and Avispa’s balanced and talented squad has worked wonders thus far though, and they look very well placed to make a strong challenge for another return to the top flight come December.


Samurai Blue’s striking blues

Japan recently eased their way back into action with a couple of low-key friendlies, and while there were some positive signs a familiar issue remains at the sharp end of the pitch… (日本語版)

It is hard to read too much into Japan’s pair of recent friendlies against Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire, but Hajime Moriyasu will certainly have taken some positives from the run-outs in Utrecht – as well as finding them beneficial in re-confirming the key issue he faces.

The ongoing coronavirus troubles mean football continues to be impacted globally by uncertainty and safety measures, while various immigration and quarantine rules prevented Moriyasu from picking any J.League players and limited him to just his options based in Europe.

This wasn’t an especially big problem for the 52-year-old though, and it is a mark of how far Japanese football has come in the past decade that the bulk of the squad these days plies its trade overseas rather than on home soil.

This familiarity with competing against the world’s best week-in-week-out looks to have given the players far more confidence when it comes to testing themselves against non-Asian opposition for the Samurai Blue, and on the whole they managed to get through the, admittedly very much friendly-match-paced, Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire games without ever being put under an extended spell of pressure.

Part of that reason was the continued development of Takehiro Tomiyasu at centre back, and the 21-year-old looks set to develop into one of the best defenders Japan has ever produced – perhaps unsurprisingly, having taken his first steps in the professional game under Masami Ihara at Avispa Fukuoka.

His partnership with Maya Yoshida provides a solid base from which to build heading into the next World Cup, while Gaku Shibasaki is also firmly embedded as another guaranteed starter and controls things so effortlessly from the base of midfield. It still remains a little unclear who will partner the Leganes man in the centre of the park, but both Yuta Nakayama and Wataru Endo put in steady shifts alongside him in these games, battling for the ball enthusiastically before passing it off to their more attack-minded teammates.

A couple of these players also left positive impressions at Stadion Galgenwaard, with Takefusa Kubo and Junya Ito showing flashes of their potential on the flanks. Ito was particularly industrious and worked just as hard tracking back to help out the defence as he did when looking to break in behind, while Kubo once again proved that he is a generational talent around whom the next era of the national team will be defined. If and when Shoya Nakajima returns to the national team fold, that pair will cause opponents plenty of headaches in the coming years, with both capable of creating opportunities out of thin air.

It is here that Moriyasu, like so many Japan coaches before him, will be concerned though, as the team still lacks a clinical finisher in front of goal.

Yuya Osako remains first choice at No.9 for now, but the 30-year-old has only managed one full half and a very late substitute appearance for Werder Bremen in their first three games of the season, and has found the net just once in his last six games for his country. He missed an absolutely glorious chance against Cameroon – probably Japan’s only clear-cut sight on goal in a game where opportunities were scarce to say the least – and while a certain amount of rustiness was to be expected, a striker of his calibre and experience really should have been wheeling away to celebrate rather than ruing his failure to convert.

Takumi Minamino had of course scored in each of his five previous national team outings heading into this international break, but is more suited to a slightly deeper-lying role rather than being the point of the attack, something also the case for Daichi Kamada, who has so far found the net once and provided two assists playing at No.10 behind Bas Dost and André Silva for Eintracht Frankfurt this season.

The only real alternative to Osako included in the squad this time around was Musashi Suzuki. The 26-year-old has started steadily enough since joining Beerschot and matched Kamada’s return with a goal and two assists in his first handful of appearances for the newly promoted Juplier Pro League outfit, but he stood out more for his hold up play against Cote d’Ivoire and has been far from prolific throughout his career, averaging a goal every four-and-a-half games during his time in J1.

Looking further afield, it is hard to see too many options though. Yuma Suzuki, like his namesake Musashi, is also in Belgium but has just two goals in eight games for Sint Truiden so far this season, while the only out and out Japanese striker amongst the J.League’s leading scorers is 33-year-old Yu Kobayashi. Kyogo Furuhashi is also a regular on the scoresheet but, again, is far from a traditional centre-forward.

The concern extends to the Under-23 options as well, and neither Ayase Ueda (three goals this season, none in his last seven appearances) or Koki Ogawa (eight goals in 24 J2 appearances in 2020, one in his last 11) are setting the world alight in front of goal.

This, of course, is far from a new issue for Japan, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t still be discussed. In World Cup qualifying the talent in the squad means the goals and wins will come easily enough, and the sparks from Minamino, Kubo, Nakajima and co. should gloss over the lack of an out-and-out goal-getter for the time being. 

In the longer term, however, Japan needs to start producing poachers or progression to the latter stages of the World Cup could well remain out of reach.


Stop and Fink

It’s deja-vu all over again at big-spending Vissel Kobe, where Thorsten Fink has become the latest manager to leave with the club mired in mid-table… (日本語版)

Is it that time again already? I know the 2020 season has been chaotic on account of the coronavirus, but I have to admit I didn’t realise we’d already arrived at the point at which Vissel Kobe would be changing manager.

It seems like only yesterday I was writing about Juan Manuel Lillo’s departure from the club (it was actually April 2019, and he’s since gone on to be hired as Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City so is doing ok for himself), but with Vissel still not established as “The No.1 Club in Asia” – or even in the top half of J1 – the revolving door at Noevir Stadium has been switched back on in order for Thorsten Fink to make his exit.

The German had underseen a fairly miserable campaign so far, with Vissel winning just four of his 19 league games in charge and sitting 12th on 20 points when he and the club parted ways. His last 12 games – including the 6-0 home shellacking by Kawasaki Frontale in the Levain Cup – had also produced just one victory, so the team’s form was far from impressive, but, as so often in Kobe, the root of the problem may not necessarily have been the man in the dugout.

When Fink arrived at the start of June last year, Vissel were 13th in the table with 14 points from 14 games and just one win in nine matches. His inability to bring about an upturn in form in J1 mirrors that of his predecessor Takayuki Yoshida, who oversaw seven games as an interim before Fink’s arrival, losing five and winning one, and also of Lillo, who departed with the team sitting in 10th place in the league – exactly the same position they were when he was hired at the end of 2018. This mid-table mediocrity is entirely par for Kobe, and despite the vast sums of cash splurged on eye-catching acquisitions in recent years, their best ever finish in the top flight remains the seventh place achieved by Nelsinho in 2016.

This suggests that the issue may not be which manager currently occupies the hotseat, but instead the structure in place to support them and lack of any clear overriding philosophy to guide them.

While making headway in the league was proving as difficult for Fink as it had for those who came before him, he did guide the club to their first ever piece of silverware on New Year’s Day when they overcame Kashima Antlers 2-0 to lift the Emperor’s Cup, and it looked as though 2020 may finally see Vissel deliver the results their outlay demanded when they also beat reigning J1 champions Yokohama F.Marinos on penalties after a 3-3 humdinger in the Fuji Xerox Super Cup.

Back-to-back victories to kick off their maiden Asian Champions League campaign added further weight to this assumption, but at the same time they failed to win either of their first two home games in the league – a forewarning of the problems that would lie ahead, as under Fink’s watch the team managed just one win at the Noevir this year, against Shimizu S-Pulse back in the middle of July.

“The character of the club and the team is the most important thing,” Fink told me in February when asked what would be key to Vissel building on last season’s success. “We can only [achieve] our aims if we work hard, if we have good teamwork, unity in the team. That is very important for this club. Unity – this is the most important thing.”

Along these same lines, he insisted he was pleased there had been no mass turnover of players coming into the 2020 campaign, although admitted that work was ongoing in the background to add more big names as the season progressed. 

“For sustainability it’s very important. We have the same team also to improve young players, to bring young players into the team, and also we must have a lot of stars. That is also a little bit the philosophy of our club, for [Hiroshi] Mikitani, also the fans want to see a lot of stars. If we can handle this mix we will have success. If not, if we only buy new players and a lot of players leave the club that is not so good. But we did well in this [past] year so I hope we also stay with this philosophy.”

The Rakuten desire for headline-making signings is of course the blessing and the curse that defines Vissel, and while remarkable acquisitions like Andres Iniesta raise the profile of the club they also raise the expectations placed upon it.

“In the summer for sure we will buy maybe one or two new players, but I don’t want a lot,” Fink said. “I don’t want to change a lot. For me it’s very important. I hope the club will have the same strategy as me. That’s very important. That’s what I [said] before, we must have this unity. The nose must go in one direction, that’s very important.”

This hinted that coach and owner may not have been entirely on the same page, but Fink made it clear that while Mikitani played an active role in the day-to-day running of the club it was ultimately he as coach who made the footballing decisions, and that in time he believed he would be able to deliver more success.

“Yes, we have contact. He has ideas, he is our boss, and he spent a lot of money also on the club so it’s very important for him that I speak with him about things. Also his suggestions, for me it’s good. But at the end I have to decide who plays or what kind of system we do. I think it worked well in the past and it can continue to work, I think.

“Every time I must be confident that I have the time. In the past also the club had stars, but they didn’t have success, correct? What did we do in the last six or seven months? What we did that was better than before? I don’t know what you think, what you saw in our team, it’s not only tactics and technique. Before the coaches were also good with tactics and technique. But the most important thing is people management. So, if we work very well with these things, we will have success. For the last six months for me it was one team, one club, one family. Continue this.”

Unfortunately for Fink – and for the club’s fans – continuity isn’t a word that seems to be in the Vissel dictionary, and despite the eye-watering expenditure they’re heading back to the drawing board once again in order to try and become whatever it is they want to be.


Uchida reaches end of the line

Atsuto Uchida was forced to retire earlier than anybody wanted, but the 32-year-old left an impressive mark on the Japanese game and will hopefully keep contributing in one form or another… (日本語版)

Sadness is par for the course when players retire, but there was an extra tinge in the air when Atsuto Uchida hung up his boots at the end of August.

Still only 32, injuries ultimately forced Uchida to bring the curtain down on his almost-15-year career earlier than he or anyone else would have wanted, which meant that alongside the usual reminiscences and praise that accompany such occasions there was also a sense of ‘what if’ lingering over proceedings.

Even so, the Shizuoka native still managed to pack an awful lot in after making his J.League debut for Kashima Antlers as a 17-year old in 2006, and as well as achieving success on the pitch for both club and country he also played a vital role in changing the perception of Japanese players overseas and making the path from the J.League to Europe far easier to navigate for young players.

I first interviewed Uchida during his initial spell at Antlers on 27 March 2010 – his 22nd birthday – and recently listened back to our chat to see how his comments sounded in light of his retirement. At the time he was widely rumoured to be on the verge of a move to Germany, and while coy on any impending transfer he made it clear that he wanted to test himself overseas at some point – although was also self-effacing and said he didn’t think at the time that he was the kind of player for a club of the stature of Manchester United.

A little over a year later he was playing against that same opponent in front of 74,000 fans in the semi-final of the Champions League, however, and while his Schalke side were eliminated 6-1 on aggregate, their journey to the last four capped a steady first season in Europe for Uchida. He built upon that impressively to become a key player for Schalke and first choice at right back for Japan – winning the Asian Cup in 2011 and playing in all three games at the 2014 Brazil World Cup – although injuries began to take their toll in the following seasons and prevented him from establishing himself in Europe in the same way as peers like Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo, and Makoto Hasebe.

His last involvement in the Japan set-up came as part of Vahid Halilhodzic’s first squad in March 2015, with his final appearance coming against Uzbekistan in the JAL Challenge Cup. Nobody realised when he was replaced by Kosuke Ota at half-time of that 5-1 victory that it would be the last they’d see of Uchida in the samurai blue, and it’s a shame he wasn’t able to add to his 74 caps or help the next generation adapt to the international stage.

The impact he could have as a leader in the dressing room was exhibited after Uchida returned to Kashima in 2018, and although injury again denied him any involvement in the final he played a key role in helping to deliver the club’s maiden Asian Champions League title. Far from being a prolific scorer throughout his career – he found the net just 11 times in total – he struck perhaps the most crucial of them in the 93rd minute of the semi-final first leg against Suwon Bluewings, giving Antlers a vital 3-2 advantage heading into the second leg.

Kashima cited a desire to capitalise upon his experience at the highest level in Europe when re-signing Uchida, and it may well be in this way that his impact on the Japanese game will best be remembered. Individual players like Shinji Ono, Hidetoshi Nakata, and Shunsuke Nakamura had made impacts in the European game before, but as part of the group including Eiji Kawashima, Yoshida, Nagatomo, Hasebe, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, and Shinji Okazaki, Uchida is part of the generation which forced the gates open for good, proving that Japanese players have what it takes to perform in the best leagues in the world. Thanks to the success of these players, European clubs are now happy to take chances on unproven youngsters such as Ryotaro Meshino, Ko Itakura, and Kanya Fujimoto, while J.Leaguers like Kento Hashimoto, Sei Muroya, and Musashi Suzuki are also earning moves overseas without needing to be regulars for the national team first – Uchida, on the other hand, had already played 31 times for Japan before moving to Schalke.

One final thing that stood out when re-visiting our interview from 2010 was Uchida’s answer when asked what he wanted to achieve in his career. His aim was two-fold, he explained – he wanted people to miss him when he retired, and then he wanted to live in the countryside with his family (a theme he echoed in his farewell press conference, when he said he couldn’t wait to take his children to kindergarten).

There is something very pleasing about knowing he will finally get to realise that second wish – albeit slightly earlier than he probably would have wanted. The tributes and media coverage that accompanied the announcement he’d be calling it a day confirmed he’d also achieved the first, and even in the age of coronavirus and limited capacities he was given a fitting send-off.

Uchida has certainly earned some quality time with his family, and undoubtedly deserves a rest from the fitness trials and tribulations he has endured over the past five years. Here’s hoping he remains in the game in some capacity though, as his first-hand knowledge and experience of what it takes to make the grade in Europe means he is perfectly placed to play a role one way or another in helping the next generation of Japanese players emulate and build upon his success.


Blaublitzing J3

Unbeaten, well-drilled at the back, and clinical going forwards, Blaublitz Akita have started the 2020 J3 season in sensational form and have a chance to make another statement of intent this weekend… (日本語版)

We may only be a third of the way through the season, but the team in blue has already established itself at the top of the table.

Well organised in defence and with players all over the pitch capable of producing at the other end, they have thus far proved impossible to beat and are playing with plenty of confidence as they rack up the points at the summit.

Despite the packed schedule and searing summer temperatures across Japan the league leaders are keeping their cool as well, fully focused on matching the feat of 2017 when they won their first J.League title – but aware that this time they will reap the full rewards of such an achievement, in the form of promotion to J2.

No, we’re not talking about Kawasaki Frontale but instead Blaublitz Akita, who just like Toru Oniki’s J1 side have burst out of the traps at the start of the 2020 season to establish themselves as the early frontrunners to be crowned champions in J3.

Three years ago Blaublitz finished top of the pile in the third tier but didn’t have the requisite license for the second division, which meant they were unable to make the step up. That matter was rectified in 2018, and after finishing a disappointing eighth in each of the past two seasons they have taken J3 by storm so far in this campaign, winning their first nine in a row and then drawing twice to ensure they’re sitting pretty at the top after 11 rounds.

After 21 years coaching at Azul Claro Numazu (and their predecessors) Ken Yoshida assumed the reins at Soyu Stadium from Shuichi Mase ahead of this campaign, and the 50-year-old has built upon the solid defensive foundations Mase laid by making Blaublitz an even stingier prospect at the back.

Goalkeeper Yudai Tanaka joined from Sagamihara SC over the off-season and has immediately established himself as number one – keeping six consecutive clean sheets to start the campaign and being named as the J3 Player of the Month for June/July after conceding just once in seven games and saving a remarkable 95% of the shots he faced. Two fellow new signings have also slotted seamlessly into the backline, with right back Junya Suzuki and left back Shoma Kamata establishing themselves as regulars after joining from Fujieda MYFC and Shimizu S-Pulse, respectively.

Indeed, consistency has been key all over the pitch, with Kaito Chida, Naoyuki Yamada, and Keita Saito joining Tanaka and Kamata in starting every match so far, while Han Ho-gang and Nao Eguchi are only one behind with 10 starts as Blaublitz have conceded just three times in almost 1,000 minutes of football.

It isn’t just defensively they have exhibited terrific efficiency, however, and the Tohoku side have only failed to find the net once – with that blank coming, as is so often the way of these things, against bottom-placed Kamatamare Sanuki on 15 August. The all-for-one-and-one-for-all spirit of the side is further encapsulated by the fact that their 19 goals to date have been scored by 10 different players.

Yohei Hayashi – who became the 10th to find the net when he tucked home Masaki Okino’s cross in the 7th minute against Gamba Osaka U23 last weekend – feels such variety is a result of the team’s positive attitude going forwards, and also thanks to the threat they pose at set-pieces, from which they have struck eight times.

“We all defend together and all attack together, and when there’s a chance the players from behind push forward to get involved,” the 31-year-old said. “Set plays are a weapon for us this year too, and so players from the back have also been scoring from those. I think it’s great that we’ve all been scoring.”

Despite Hayashi’s early strike, Blaublitz were unable to make any of their other opportunities count and were ultimately made to settle for another share of the spoils against Gamba though, with Shuhei Kawasaki making it 1-1 midway through the second half and leaving Yoshida ruing his side’s profligacy.

“In football it is very important that you take your chances when they come,” he said of Blaublitz’s consecutive draws against teams struggling in the lower reaches of the table. “We had lots of chances but weren’t able to convert them into goals, and that’s the biggest reason [we didn’t win].” 

Next up they take on FC Gifu, a side who came into the 2020 season as one of the favourites for promotion after finally dropping through the J2 trapdoor last year. Zdravko Zemunović’s side have stuttered a little in the early knockings though and trail Akita by 14 points heading into this match – albeit with a game in hand, after their clash away to Fukushima United last week was called off on account of thunder with Gifu 2-0 up at half-time.

Sunday’s clash offers Blaublitz an opportunity to put some more daylight between themselves and a potential title challenger, but Yoshida insists he and his players will approach the contest the same as any other.

“I think it’s very important we win against Gifu, but we don’t treat any opponent specially,” he said. “Our style is to approach each match as if it’s a final, and we’ll make sure we give our all the same as always.”

That stance has worked wonders for them so far, and if they can maintain their consistency and avoid defeat for a few more games Blaublitz will have an encouraging piece of history on their side: when they won the league in 2017, the season began with a 15-game unbeaten run. Four games to go…


Unloved Levain in need of re-think

As the the number of J.League clubs continues to grow, it is perhaps time for the tired and unloved League Cup to be re-formatted to include teams from every level of the pyramid… (日本語版)

After seven rounds of league games in four weeks, the players, staff, and even fans of J1 clubs would have been forgiven for looking forward to a much-needed rest after Matchday 8 concluded on the weekend of 1 August.

In a year where football seems either to stop completely or never stop at all, however, we are now firmly embroiled in the latter state of affairs, and the midweek fixtures continued as the YBC Levain Cup group stage creaked back into action last Wednesday.

The League Cup actually started before J1 this year on account of the anticipated break for the Olympics, but only one round of games was played before the coronavirus halted proceedings at the end of February. Since then the format has been re-jigged – with the group stage now only requiring each team to play each other once and Matsumoto Yamaga relieved of their responsibilities on account of having to play 41 J2 games in 25 weeks – and this juncture provides a good opportunity to discuss the role of a competition seen by many – until the final, at least – as little more than a nuisance.

Having been conducted as a pre-launch tournament in 1992 ahead of the big J.League kick-off the following year, the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup (as it was then known) holds a special place in the history of Japanese professional football, but the format is far from set in stone and barely a year passes without it being tweaked in one way or another.

The first edition was a straight round robin between the 10 founding J.League members, for instance, before the top four then contested the semi-finals. The following year 13 teams (the J.League clubs and three aspiring to get there – whom we’ll discuss a little more shortly) were split into two groups ahead of the knockout stage, in 1994 it was carried out as a fully knockout competition, 1997 saw the return of an initial group stage (with five groups this time), before J2 clubs were briefly involved between 1999 and 2001 as a knockout format was re-introduced. Things calmed down a little for 15 years as the tournament settled into a J1-only group-stage-plus-knockout-round contest from 2002, before the play-off stage appeared in 2017 and then up to two J2 clubs were included in the group stage draw from 2018.

Each of these changes have been made in part to adapt to the evolution of the J.League as a whole, but the excessive scheduling demands on teams – even in regular years uninterrupted by global pandemics – mean strongest sides are rarely fielded until the latter stages. As a result, it is perhaps time to shake things up again by shifting to an unseeded knockout format and injecting some new life into the competition by including every club from J1 to J3 plus those with associate J.League membership.

Requiring a maximum of six games this would lessen the load on J1 clubs, as well as providing those further down the pyramid with valuable experience of playing against bigger opposition and offering more chances for the ‘giant killings’ everybody loves – which would likely also result in more interest from stadium-going and TV-watching fans than there currently is for group stage contests between the reserve teams of two largely disinterested first division sides.

Single-round ties could be played approximately once every six weeks until the showpiece final at the end of the season, with the eight highest ranked J.League associate clubs (of which there are currently nine) being given opportunities to test their aptitude for the big(ger) time on and off the pitch by joining their 56 J.League peers in an open draw from the first round. This, as touched upon above, already has a precedent, and offering potential members a taste of J.League life has previously proved incredibly beneficial.

The reigning Levain Cup holders Kawasaki Frontale were given their first exposure to the competition as an associate club in 1998, for instance, while the team they beat in last year’s dramatic final, Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, did likewise in 1997. Four other former winners similarly made their debut appearances before earning promotion to the J.League proper, with Hitachi Football Club, Fujita Soccer Club, and Yamaha Football Club the three outsiders included in 1993 – when they participated under the monikers they would adopt upon entry into the league proper, Kashiwa Reysol, Bellmare Hiratsuka (now Shonan Bellmare), and Jubilo Iwata – and 2017 champions Cerezo Osaka making their bow as a JFL club in 1994.

Current J1 sides Vegalta Sendai (then Brummel Sendai) and Sagan Tosu were also invitees to the 1997 tournament before securing their J.League status, and as the number of professional clubs continues to rise now would be the perfect time to streamline the tournament for the first division competitors, while at the same celebrating the ongoing growth of the J.League by offering similar encouragement to the likes of FC Ryukyu, Blaublitz Akita, and Veertien Mie, as well as giving fallen giants such as JEF United and Tokyo Verdy the chance to mix it again with the big boys.


Zago-ing slowly

Kashima Antlers are more used to challenging for trophies than struggling for points, but the 2020 season has gotten off to an underwhelming start for Antônio Carlos Zago’s men… (日本語版)

We’ve only had one month of regular matches in J1, but because of the unique circumstances this year we’re already a fifth of the way through the 2020 campaign.

Ordinarily it would be foolish to try and gauge a club’s chances for the season after just seven games, but with matches coming thick and fast and teams not having much time to work on the training pitch in-between rounds it is perhaps a little easier to separate the potential challengers from those who look set to struggle at this early stage.

Kawasaki Frontale have been in scintillating form, for instance, racking up the goals and playing some fantastic football to remain unbeaten and establish themselves as the early pacesetters, while Gamba Osaka, Nagoya Grampus, FC Tokyo, and Cerezo Osaka have all tasted defeat just once and remain within touching distance of the early leaders.

At the other end of the pecking order it is not overly surprising to find a trio of teams who stayed up by the skin of their teeth last season in Shimizu S-Pulse, Sagan Tosu, and Shonan Bellmare. There is also an unfamiliar face languishing near the bottom of the table though, with Kashima Antlers incredibly slow out of the traps and looking indistinguishable from the side that started 2019 as reigning Asian champions.

Antlers opted to dispense with the services of Go Oiwa after finishing seven points adrift of champions Yokohama F.Marinos in third last year, with Antônio Carlos Zago being brought in to add some extra attacking flair to the team’s play. The Brazilian got off to a nightmare start in Ibaraki, however, overseeing the club’s worst ever opening to a league season with four consecutive defeats, as well as being eliminated from the Champions League in the qualifying round after a 1-0 loss at home to Melbourne Victory.

It looked as though a corner may have been turned after a 4-2 win over Marinos on 18 July – although the defending champions were absolutely atrocious in defence and gifted Antlers chance after chance to wrap up the three points – but they were back to losing ways four days later after another disjointed showing away to previously-winless Shonan Bellmare.

Zago insisted after that 1-0 defeat that he was happy with the way his team was playing, suggesting that Antlers had been the only one making an effort to win the match and accusing Bellmare of playing overly defensively. While standing by his players publicly, however, the statistics didn’t entirely back him up in that regard, and privately he must be concerned not only with results but also the manner of them.

While Kashima did have 61 percent of the possession in Hiratsuka, for example, they failed to conduct a meaningful amount of that in the hosts’ third of the pitch, with 46 percent of the play stuck in the midfield and only 28 percent taking place in and around Shonan’s penalty area. This was similar to the 1-0 loss away to Urawa Reds on 12 July, when Kashima again had more of the ball (57 percent) but lacked any clear idea of what to do with it going forwards, looking incredibly flat and mostly sending hopeful balls into the area as they only managed to muster one shot on target.

Indeed, their only win so far has come against opponents who insist upon having more of the ball, and as Marinos chalked up 64 percent of possession and 698 passes to Antlers’ 277 – the 10 players with the most passes in that game incredibly all wore Marinos white – the hosts made their way in behind time and again with simple balls sent through Marinos’ shaky backline.

Ange Postecoglou’s side are something of an outlier, however, and against teams who place a semblance of importance on defending Antlers have looked very short of creativity. The loss of Serginho has undoubtedly deprived the team of a key game changer, and following on from the departures of Hiroki Abe and Yuma Suzuki has left Antlers lacking attacking spark. Everaldo and Juan Allano don’t seem quite in tune with their new teammates yet, Ryuji Izumi doesn’t look anywhere near as sharp or confident a player as he was at Nagoya, and Ayase Ueda has been missing far too many clear chances in front of goal.

Equally concerning is the form of players in key positions further back. Leo Silva has consistently been one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the J.League over the past five years but has looked uncharacteristically rusty this season, and has failed to complete a full 90 minutes so far. Behind him there has been an incredibly soft centre as well, with neither Tomoya Inukai nor Koki Machida taking charge of the defence, leaving Kwoun Sun-tae horribly exposed far too often.

Despite pushing forwards enthusiastically left-back Katsuya Nagato has also struggled to make much of an impact in the final third, and while fellow new arrival Rikuto Hirose has provided a couple of assists from the opposite flank the 25-year-old who set up 10 goals and scored twice for Vegalta Sendai last year is yet to get off the mark.

Things were certainly a little brighter in the second half of last Sunday’s 2-2 draw with FC Tokyo, although both sides looked heavy-legged and missed some excellent chances as the game became incredibly stretched late on – with Antlers the biggest culprits and failing to turn enough of their 14 shots on target into goals. The fact they created those opportunities should build some confidence though, and the point gained gives them something to build upon this weekend against an Oita Trinita side winless in four and having lost each of their last three.

What Antlers can’t afford is a repeat of the Shonan showing after they beat Marinos, however, and if they don’t start picking up wins soon then this shortest of seasons could feel very long for the J.League’s most successful club.


Young guns

Players in their teens are few and far between on J1 pitches, but 2020’s congested schedule could encourage more coaches to give their youngsters chances to show what they can do… (日本語版)

I was reminded of something disappointing recently as I leafed through my J.League player guide ahead of the re-start to the 2020 season: there are almost no teenagers involved in the first teams of J1 sides.

Each time my gaze fell upon a player I thought of as being young, I checked their birthday and was taken aback by the fact that they were in their twenties. Ayase Ueda is 22 in August, Reo Hatate is already 22, Yuki Soma is 23, Kai Shibato is 24 – while a couple of new signings I’d thought of as good young pick-ups for Cerezo Osaka and Kashiwa Reysol are already too old to be considered for the Olympic team, with Tatsuhiro Sakamoto 23 and Sachiro Toshima almost 25.

Each of these players are in the very early stages of their careers in the professional game and seen as talented options for the future, but in almost any other country they would be considered of ages at which they should already be established as key members of the team.   

Every squad does of course include a player or two in their teens – those high-school-graduate rookies so beloved of TV commentators – but in their first year or two with a club they rarely if ever make it onto the pitch, or even into a matchday squad, in the league, instead expected to bide their time and wait until they are considered ready – perhaps after a loan spell or two at a J2 team, or an apprenticeship in the U-23 side.

This isn’t in and of itself a practice unique to Japan, and clubs all over the world have long made use of the loan system in order to provide their young players with competitive football to help prepare them for the first team. David Beckham spent a short spell with fourth-tier Preston North End in the 1994/95 season, for instance, while Harry Kane was farmed out to Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich City, and Leicester City between 2011-2013 before establishing himself as Tottenham Hotspur and England’s star striker.

Even so, there are also plenty of examples of teenagers being incorporated immediately into the first teams of European clubs, with Manchester United’s current front three providing a perfect example. Mason Greenwood is still only 18 but already heavily involved and finding the net regularly for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, while his strike partners Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are 22 and 24, respectively, but approaching the end of their fifth full seasons in the Premier League having contributed almost 100 goals between them.

Or consider Takefusa Kubo, who was determined to return to Spain as soon as he turned 18 and is now playing regularly for Real Mallorca – and achieving results – in a league where even the likes of Barcelona and Kubo’s parent club Real Madrid don’t shy away from giving frequent opportunities to players like Ansu Fati and Vinicius Junior.

These are of course elite players at the very highest level, but everything is relative and if they can be given opportunities to develop in the first teams at some of the biggest clubs in the world why can’t teens in Japan also be given similar chances in the J.League?

The high school and university system of course presents a huge hurdle in this regard, and whereas most players in Europe and South America are playing in the youth teams of clubs from a very young age – in some cases perhaps too young – in Japan they aren’t ordinarily involved seriously in the set-up of a professional side until they graduate at 18 or 22. That delays exposure to top level football until the age at which a lot of players elsewhere in the world have already adapted to the atmosphere of the first team and found their feet on the pitch, while the senpai/kohai culture provides a further barrier as some managers, consciously or un-consciously, hesitate to use their new recruits ahead of players who have been in the squad longer.

However, with the impact of the coronavirus meaning the full 2020 season needs to be forced through in a six-month period, coaches are going to need to be more flexible and make fuller use of their squads this year, and the early signs since the restart of the first division at the beginning of July have been positive.

Vegalta Sendai and Shimizu S-Pulse have both started with teenage goalkeepers in the form of Yuma Obata and Togo Umeda, for example, and while injuries to first-choice stoppers Jakub Slowik and Neto Volpi have forced the hands of Takashi Kiyama and Peter Cklamovski to some extent, they still deserve praise for giving the youngsters chances ahead of more experienced options Kentaro Seki and Takuo Okubo, who have instead been named as substitutes.

The fact that there is no relegation this year may also have factored into the managers’ thinking to some degree, and while of course not wanting to lose games each will have realised 2020 offers an unprecedented opportunity to give developing talent minutes in the first team without any tangible risk. A full season in and around the first 11 could prove to be priceless for these players as and when the chance to stake a meaningful claim on the No.1 jersey arrives in the coming years.

A couple of other clubs have also given opportunities to players who still can’t legally enjoy a beer, with Itsuki Someno looking a confident and lively option going forwards for Kashima Antlers – and coming very close to a dream start on his debut against Kawasaki Frontale on 4 July – while the highly rated Koki Saito has taken to J1 like a duck to water and stroked home the first of what is sure to be many goals in the top flight with supreme confidence in the win away to Kashiwa Reysol on 8 July.

A range of factors have combined to offer these youngsters opportunities this year, but if they continue to show they have what it takes to compete at this level they will give more players the confidence to make the step up and should encourage more teams to throw the door open to the first team earlier and more often.


Business as unusual

Football is finally back in Japan, and while the J.League deserves a lot of praise for the way it has dealt with the coronavirus so far, a packed schedule and adjusted format could cause plenty of issues as the 2020 season belatedly plays out… (日本語版)

The wait is over, and with J2 resuming and J3 getting underway this past weekend, the 2020 J.League season is back after 125 days away from action.

Each of J1 – which returns this weekend – J2, and J3 have seen essentially half of their seasons re-scheduled, with J3 also losing a participant on account of FC Tokyo U-23 being unable to secure a guaranteed venue for their home games.

Despite nothing happening on the pitch over the past four months, however, there has been plenty of activity off it.

In such an unprecedented situation, the first thing that needs to be said is that, on the whole, the J.League has handled things very well. They have been flexible and as proactive as the situation has allowed, while their lines of communication – in both Japanese and, increasingly, English – have been clear, with press releases explaining the latest developments for both the domestic and growing international audiences and officials taking part in regular press briefings in order to add or clarify information.

Chairman Mitsuru Murai, in particular, has excelled as the face of the division. The 60-year-old has operated slickly and efficiently behind the scenes to negotiate a way through a minefield of issues, with the joint task-force with Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) one example of the more forward-thinking approach he has helped bring to the J.League. Publicly, too, he has remained calm and composed throughout, fielding questions adeptly in the aforementioned briefings, and never appearing flustered despite the difficult circumstances.

And, make no mistake, these must have been incredibly stressful times at J.League headquarters. As well as needing to contend with a range of logistical problems concerning how and when matches could safely restart, external factors such as coronavirus guidelines from the government and the politics around the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics must also have caused real headaches.

Of course, not everything has been dealt with perfectly, and from the outside looking in the decision to force through the entire nine-and-a-half-month 2020 schedule in a 25-week period is worrying to say the least.

As with competitions in Europe, contractual obligations with various stakeholders must surely have been a key motivating factor behind this move, and while securing the long-term financial future of the league and its clubs is of course paramount, the crowded fixture list is sure to throw up a whole host of problems in the next six months.

Squad rotation and the new five substitutions rule will be vital when it comes to trying to keep players fresh and warding off injuries, but the lack of recovery time to prepare them physically and mentally between games and strategic difficulties with regards to travel and so on are sure to take their toll on every club, no matter how much strength they have in depth.

The fact that matches will for the time being have to be played behind closed doors – or, as the league have somewhat unnecessarily been at pains to christen them, ‘remotely’ – will of course also have an impact. Personally, I have never really detected much of the home advantage present elsewhere around the world in the J.League – continuous chanting largely unrelated to the flow of the game can tend to fade into unnoticed background noise, and there are very few venues that create an intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams – but even so the lack of any supporters whatsoever is sure to take some getting used to.

Without fans reacting to key events and applying pressure to players and officials we may see differences in the decisions made, for instance, with certain studies suggesting referees show fewer cards and add on less injury time when games are played in empty stadiums. There may be more ‘in-game’ time as well, with players not being emboldened by fan outrage at a decision going against their team and instead more inclined to just get on with things. Could fewer stoppages and breaks in play benefit teams like Yokohama F.Marinos and Kawasaki Frontale, who thrive on possession and having time to mount attacks? It’s largely speculation for now, but will certainly be something worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.

Of course, while the target for title-chasing teams like Marinos and Frontale remains unchanged, perhaps the biggest adjustment to the format this year lies in the fact that there will be no relegation. This decision made some sense when it seemed it wouldn’t be possible to play the whole season, but now that every match is back on the agenda it is unclear why teams are being given a free pass to cruise through the year. If it is fair for teams to be crowned champions or secure places in the ACL, why is it unfair for others to be dropped down a division for finishing at the bottom?

As well as meaning clubs who were bracing themselves for relegation battles can now enjoy risk-free seasons, the ruling may also have a knock-on effect on the integrity of the competition as a whole – while clubs and players will insist they always want to win every game, motivation is of course affected when a team has nothing to play for.

Again, this is something that will only become clear over the coming weeks and months though, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that unpredictability is a long-established quirk of the J.League even when the playing field is level. What can be said with absolute certainty is that regardless of how things ultimately play out on the pitch, the upheaval off it will ensure the 2020 season is one that lives long in the memory.


Coming back from coronavirus

A look at the situation at J2 side Machida Zelvia, where player fitness, stadium availability, and budget concerns are just some of the difficulties that need to be navigated once the 2020 season gets back underway… (日本語版)

Finally, a little over three months after announcing its first round of postponements, the J.League is coming back.

It has been a trying time for everyone involved in the Japanese game, and many more challenges lie in wait over the coming weeks and months. In an attempt to find out more about how clubs are set ahead of the return to action, I recently spoke with Machida Zelvia general manager Tadashi Karai and manager Ranko Popovic.

Former Oita Trinita, FC Tokyo, and Cerezo Osaka manager Popovic only rejoined the club he also led in 2011 ahead of this season, and before talking about football he was keen to pass on thanks to those who have helped make it possible for games to get underway again.

“We cannot forget the people who were on the front line – all the people who were involved, the medical staff who were fighting on the first line, and the people who were infected, they really were suffering,” he said. “[Everything] about us is secondary when it comes to something like this. In first place, big respect to everyone who was here, who helped all of us to beat, so to say, this terrible situation.”

While grateful that football is taking the first steps back to normality, the Serbian suggested his team will need a few rounds of games after J2’s 27 June restart to get fully up to speed.

“We are very lucky we can go again to work and to come back to the football and to everything. But if you ask me if this is the optimal time: no, it’s not the optimal time. But if it’s possible: yes, of course.

“We will also use two or three weeks after in the championship to bring the team to the optimal form. Why do I tell you that? We don’t play like in Europe five, six, 10 games. We have to play 41 games.”

As a result of the state of emergency announced in Tokyo on 7 April, Machida were unable to gather for training between 8 April and 17 May, and while Popovic is happy with the efforts his players made to stick to their personal fitness programmes he stresses the effect six weeks away from the pitch will have had.

“You can train alone, but it’s completely different from what you are doing with the group. For me, the first week [of training] is only to adapt the feet to the spikes. Because you know the spike is different completely – it’s tight, it’s not so easy like running shoes.”

Match fitness is of course not the only health issue that has to be kept in mind, and club doctor Keisuke Irako has played a vital role in establishing a PCR test centre in the local area.

“Because the Japanese government couldn’t do many PCR tests at that time, the doctor’s organisation, the city association, tried to make their own PCR centre for citizens before Golden Week,” Karai explained. “Doctor Irako was one of the important doctors in charge of making the PCR centre in Machida City.”

Zelvia players and staff all underwent PCR and antibody tests themselves on 14 May, and with everybody testing negative they were able to return to training in four groups of seven or eight on 18 May. The state of emergency was then ended on 25 May, enabling the team to resume full training on 1 June.

Even so, J.League clubs still have plenty of logistical and financial obstacles to deal with.

“The city promised to co-operate with the schedule as much as possible,” Karai said when asked if Machida’s Gion Stadium will be available for all of their scheduled fixtures. Komazawa and Nishigaoka Stadiums could provide homes from home, but with other teams also possibly in need he conceded that, “We will need to negotiate with some clubs in Tokyo,” if an alternative were required.

Income is also set to take a big hit, and while Karai is confident Zelvia can navigate 2020 he expects difficulties further down the line.

“Of course ticket sales are reduced – our budget is decreasing for this season. First it will be behind closed doors, so we predict at least half the amount of ticket sales. It is very difficult for us.

“[J.League chairman Mitsuru] Murai promised to maintain all clubs this season, [but] we predict that next season is going to be much more difficult to keep the same budget.”

Popovic is solely focused on the present, however, and stresses that he will deal with managing his squad for the brutal schedule of 41 matches in 25 weeks on a game-by-game basis – something he feels could benefit the Japanese game as a whole by forcing greater flexibility.

“I think this is mostly based on the sense, on the moment,” he said. “I think this is something that is very new, and I think this situation can be very good for the Japanese. Because [usually] they [make] plans two years before, and now they have to react immediately.”

He also feels the lack of preparation time in-between games could encourage more teams to play proactively rather than focusing on stifling their opponents.

“The Japanese are very studious and [when it comes to] details they are going into everything and also looking too much at the opponent – maybe too much. I try always to tell to my boys, ‘Why lose our life only looking at what other people are doing?’ Other teams, ok, a little bit, but what is with us? What do we have to say?”

The J.League will allow five substitutions per game in a bid to ease the strain on players, and while Popovic says he may utilise the new regulation when necessary he points out that the rule change doesn’t necessarily benefit all teams equally.

“If you give to Manchester City five substitutes or to Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich, they have 25 identical players,” he said. “Maybe the clubs [in J2] have 12, 13, 14, 15 – (the one) who has 17, this is the king of the party.”

There will also be no relegation this year, but the former Real Zaragoza and Buriram United boss insists his players will still be fully motivated for every game – and feels this alteration to the format may also make for more positive, attacking football.

“Sportsmen never feel good if you lose. If you don’t have your own auto-pressure, what kind of sportsman are you?

“Ok, you don’t have to think about relegation, but this can be positive also, to say, ‘Ok, I will try now to play a bit different and also take more risks to win the games’. Because there is a big, big, big difference between coming to not lose in the game and coming to win the game. Maybe this can have very positive consequences for the future.”

These are very early days and a lot of hurdles still need to be overcome, but Popovic is preaching positivity.

“I said also to the boys, ‘Everything is in the head. If we are ready and if you have sunshine in the head, outside can be typhoon, everything, but you have the sunshine’. And you have to look at it like this.”

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April 2021