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5 factors that will define Gamba’s season

With Gamba midway through their first training camp in Okinawa and me now fully settled back in Japan after a Christmas break Down Under, I thought it would be a good time for my first blog post of 2020. Again any feedback, opinions and constructive criticism are always welcome on Twitter.

#1 The Usami-Ademilson partnership
We all know that Takashi Usami is a prolific scorer in J1, he currently has 52 goals in 132 games in the competition and netted 7 in 14 at the end of 2019 (including 6 in the final 7 league matches when he stopped dropping deep so much). Perhaps the most impressive feature of his return home was how quickly he and Ademilson rebuilt their strike partnership after 3 years apart. I have been quick to criticise the Brazilian, but as part of my 2020 New Year’s resolution, I’m going to try and do that less this year. He shut me up last season largely by netting double figures in J1 for the first time in his career and also contributing 7 assists (8 if you included Kim Jin-hyeon’s own goal in the away match at Cerezo). Like a pre-Liverpool Sadio Mane, however, if you break the numbers down, you will find wild inconsistencies. Ade netted 4 in the first 5 J1 games and then 4 in the last 7 (when he played alongside Usami), but, in between there is a glaring 22 game run spanning 6 months which produced just 2 goals. I am in confident mood ahead of 2020 and say that Usami and Ademilson will combine for at least 25 goals this season!

#2 Who will play in the midfield triangle?
At the tail end of 2019 with Gamba on their way to 5 wins and 16 points from their last 7 matches which would propel them to a flattering 7th spot in the final standings, these places were filled by; Yasuhito Endo in the anchor role, with Shinya Yajima playing just ahead to the right alongside Yosuke Ideguchi to his left. Endo, veteran of 630 J1 games and due to turn 40 on January 28 doesn’t have much gas left in the tank and could be in his final year as a pro. Rumours of a move for Korean international Ju Se-jong seem to have come to nothing with the 29 year-old seemingly opting to stay at FC Seoul and play ACL football in 2020. This leaves the likely midfield three to be; Yajima in the anchor role, providing an energetic presence in front of the back 3 that Endo is no longer able to give, Ideguchi and the now fully-fit Shu Kurata just ahead of him. Kurata was Gamba’s joint-second top league scorer in 2019 with 7 goals and with a full pre-season under his belt I’d expect Ideguchi to contribute 4-5 goals this campaign. All the foreigner spots seem to be locked down and I don’t see any new blood coming in, so a midfield triangle consisting of Yajima, Ideguchi and Kurata with Endo getting game time in matches where Gamba are expected to dominate seems to be the way things will go. New signing from Kwansei Gakuin, Yuki Yamamoto will also likely feature at some point, but initially, at least, it’ll probably be from the bench and in the cups.

#3 Who will win out in the battle of the wing-backs?
If shirt sales were a factor in selecting the starting line-up then it’d be no contest and we’d see Kosuke Onose down the right and Yuya Fukuda down the left. This may well be what’ll happen at certain times, but, in all honesty I think we’ll see Fukuda return to what is supposed to be his favoured position down the right where he’ll compete with Onose, now the blue eyed boy of the Gamba faithful after turning down Champions Yokohama F.Marinos this winter. Onose netted 7 times in 30 J1 games last time out and Fukuda will need to up his output of 1 goal and 2 assists in 17 games if he wants to compete. Both players are versatile and can potentially play attacking midfield roles if required by Director Miyamoto who seems to have a real thing for players who can fill a number of positions.
Down the left, while Fukuda can play well there, I expect to see the experienced Hiroki Fujiharu and Kansai University graduate Keisuke Kurokawa battle it out. Fujiharu is in possession of the jersey at the moment after recovering from an injury plagued 2019, while I don’t know much of Kurokawa, save for 1 J1 game and 2 League Cup appearances last year while a special designated player, he does come highly rated and Gamba have a decent record with university recruits.

#4 More of the same in the back 3, or will Miyamoto shake things up?
Captain Genta Miura has apparently spurned the advances of Belgian side Sint Truidense to remain at the club and as long as that remains true, he and Kim Young-gwon will be automatic picks at the back. Who plays alongside them is the interesting question. There appear to be 4 candidates at the moment; Shunya Suganuma, Ryo Shinzato, Oh Jae-suk and Ryu Takao, let’s look at each individually. Suganuma finished the season in the role, playing the last 5 games and making a total of 15 J1 appearances, I like him, but feel he has limitations and a club looking to qualify for the ACL should be looking at someone a little better. Shinzato is a new signing on loan from relegated Jubilo Iwata, he played 20 times in J1 in 2019, but new head coach Fernando Jubero didn’t seem to fancy him, so he spent the end of the campaign out of the team. I don’t know a lot about him, but a quick scan through his career history seems to suggest he’s at a similar level to Suganuma.
Thirdly there’s Oh Jae-suk who spent the 2nd half of 2019 with his old Gamba boss Kenta Hasegawa at FC Tokyo. Better known as a right or left full back in his previous spell in Suita, playing as a 3rd centre back as he did in a couple of League Cup games last year may be his best shot of cracking the starting eleven. Ryu Takao, essentially signed as an attacking right-back from Kwansei Gakuin a year ago, played 18 games as the 3rd centre half before losing his position to Suganuma after the 2-2 draw at home to Kawasaki in mid-October. He did ok considering it’s not really his position, but I’m not sure the experiment will continue this season.
So to sum up, I’d expect Suganuma to start the season alongside Kim and Genta, but Shinzato will push him hard and either he or Jae-suk could earn a starting role if they play well in the Levain Cup.

#5 Can Jun Ichimori mount a genuine challenge to Higashiguchi’s number one spot.
Short answer no. The former Okayama man comes highly rated and had a decent season with Fagiano, playing 34 times in J2, but Higashiguchi was in solid form in 2019 and was an ever-present in J1. Barring injury or a serious loss of form by Higashiguchi, I can only see Ichimori being a very solid backup who plays in the cups.
Another interesting goalkeeper related topic his how youngsters, Mizuki Hayashi and Kosei Tani do during their loan spells at Renofa Yamaguchi and Shonan Bellmare respectively. As you know, Tani is my tip to replace Higashiguchi long-term, and I guess he has a decent shot at starting for Shonan, otherwise why would Gamba loan him to another J1 team to sit on the bench when he could get regular game time in J3 while training with Higashiguchi on a daily basis if he stayed put. Hayashi, on the other hand, may have selected the wrong side to join, although there is a good relationship between Gamba and Renofa, he faces fierce competition for a starting berth from Daisuke Yoshimitsu and Genki Yamada, I feel Okayama, now devoid of Jun Ichimori, may have been the better choice for him.

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