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Gamba U23 squad review

With Gamba’s senior team having a weekend off due to the Levain Cup final between Kawasaki and Sapporo, the spotlight fell on the U23 side in J3, particularly as they were playing their final derby against Cerezo U23 before both clubs leave the league to make way for newcomers from the JFL.

Gamba U23 went into the match with no over-age players in their starting 11, only reserve goalkeeper Ken Tajiri. They took the lead in the 50th minute when Dai Tsukamoto played the ball to diminutive right-winger Jiro Nakamura and he somehow managed to squeeze the ball in from a tight angle. Cerezo U23 hit back late on and strikes from Mizuki Ando (83′) and Motohiko Nakajima (90+1′) earned them the 3 points and left Gamba in 14th spot in the standings with just 6 games remaining.

I decided to do something different with this week’s blog and I’ll use my crystal ball to predict the futures of the young players currently turning out for Gamba U23 (for reference; Tani, Yamaguchi, Okuno, Shibamoto, Shirai and Tajiri are on full professional contracts for this year, all the other players are currently high-school students who have type-2 amateur contracts which allow them to play);

#41 Kosei Tani – goalkeeper – 18 (years old) – injuries have restricted him to just 9 games so far this year, but he is clearly highly rated as evidenced by his call up to the Japan U22 squad earlier this month. Long term he is the natural successor to Higashiguchi in the top team and if Mizuki Hayashi goes out on loan next season, he could earn the backup spot and get game time in the cups.

#43 Shohei Ogushi – right-back – 17 – high school 2nd grader so ineligible for a senior contract next year. He’s been reasonably solid if unspectacular whenever I’ve seen him play. Gamba do have decent options in his position so it may be hard for him to make the step up to the first team in 2021.

#38 Hayate Toma – centre-back – 17 – another high school 2nd grader, he has only just come into the team and has definitely looked better playing alongside the more experienced Riku Matsuda. Too early to tell with him, but his height (185cm compared with Matsuda 175cm) is in his favour.

#42 Shinri Ono – centre-back – 17 – the 3rd 17 year old in the backline yesterday and similar to Toma he has looked better playing alongside a more experienced partner who can talk him through games. Very tall (187cm) and seen as a good prospect, though I’m not particularly convinced by him when he has the ball at his feet. He has another year of high school / youth team football to develop him and he could potentially be in line for a senior contract in 2021.

#35 Tatsuya Yamaguchi – left-back – 19 – Has played a lot of J3 football for someone so young (58 games and counting) but he hasn’t really kicked on this year after a stellar start last season (albeit in a much stronger side). Another thing going against him is that Fujiharu, Fukuda and Kurokawa are all blocking his path to a place in the starting lineup. Perhaps a loan move to a decent J3 side would be a good move for all parties in 2020.

#26 Kohei Okuno – central-midfield – 19 – Struggled early on in the season with injuries but since returning to full fitness he’s become one of my favourite Gamba U23 players. He has a decent pedigree after playing in the Under-17 world cup alongside former team-mate Keito Nakamura, however, his style is quite similar to Takahiro Ko who’s currently out on loan at Yamaguchi in J2. At the moment Ko is the better player of the two, so if he’s not near the starting eleven then I don’t see Okuno getting there anytime soon. Finally, I hope Morishita stops experimenting with him at full-back, it’s definitely not his position.

#32 Ren Shibamoto – central-midfielder – 20 – One of the senior statesmen in the side this year, he has really improved with the added responsibility. He has played mostly in the deep lying playmaker role (a la Yajima and Endo in J1) or more recently as an attacking midfielder. I’d say the deeper role suits him better and ideally I’d like to see him challenge Yajima next season. A loan move to a decent J2 team who play good football could also be beneficial.

#48 Jiro Nakamura – right-winger – 16 – A very exciting prospect who won’t be available for a pro contract until 2022. I’d expect him to be handed a type 2 contract next year and in 2021 to aid his development. He’s very tricky and nimble, similar in many ways to Takefusa Kubo, although naturally as he’s so young, the physical side of the game is too much for him and he can be a bit of a liability defensively.

#47 Shuhei Kawasaki – left-winger / occasional centre-forward – 18 – The player who I’m most confident will earn a pro contract for next year. He hasn’t scored yet in J3 but has 7 assists in 19 games this year. I feel his form has tailed off a bit as teams have grown wise to him, but he’s still a high-school kid so next year training with the top team would really aid his development.

#37 Haruto Shirai – right-winger / centre-forward – 20 – He’s listed almost everywhere as exclusively a centre-forward but I think I saw him play 6-7 times as a right-winger before he finally went up top and this was basically when there was almost no-one left to play there. He has bags of pace but is sometimes lacking in composure and he doesn’t have much to show in terms of output (goals and assists), kind of similar to Akito Takagi 2-3 years ago. I’m also not sure if there are fitness or attitude problems with him as he’s been on the bench a few times recently with high schoolers in the starting line up and I’ve also seen him subbed off with 30-35 minutes of a game to go when he was playing well. At the moment it’s hard to see him cracking the top team so he may be playing in J3 or JFL next season.

#49 Dai Tsukamoto – centre-forward / left-winger – 18 – Scored a memorable hat-trick against Tottori on his 18th birthday back in June but hasn’t really stepped up since then. He is eligible for a senior contract next year but with the U23 team being dissolved and the first-team squad presumably being a bit smaller I feel he might not quite make it.

Subs: #31 Ken Tajiri (GK), #44 Keishi Murakami (LB), #45 Ko Ise (CM)…Tajiri is at a career crossroads, with no U23 team next year he should leave for another J3 side, although if Hayashi goes out on loan he may stay on as backup. Murakami and Ise are both in high school 2nd grade and play in positions currently well covered in the top team so their futures remain a bit cloudy.

Final Thoughts
Riku Matsuda (centre-back / occasional right-back) is captain of the U23 side and was suspended for this game, I’d like to see him challenge Ryu Takao for a starting place in J1 next season as his leadership and reading of the game have really improved this season. Shoji Toyama (centre-forward) missed the game as he’s currently with Japan U17 at the U17 world cup, he looks a great prospect and has scored 7 goals in just 7 games this year (5 starts 2 sub) including a hat-trick in the 6-0 drubbing of Fukushima last month. He is really composed for a 17 year old and I’m sure good things lie ahead for him (type 2 contract next year, pro contract for 2021).

Regarding the bunch of type-2 players who featured earlier in the season (Hayato Okuda, Naoya Takahashi, Sho Nishimura, Yuto Nagao, Soma Meshino), I’m assuming that they are not playing now due to other commitments in their final year of high school (I could very well be wrong). Out of that group, who are all eligible for senior contracts next year, I’d say right-back Okuda and centre-back / occasional central-midfield Naoya Takahashi were the two players who impressed me most and would be most likely to join Kawasaki in earning their first professional contracts in 2020.

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