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Emperor’s Cup Final Review, Season Wrap, Transfer Round-up

Happy New Year to all! This will be my final blog post of the season and I’ll be back ahead of the Japanese Super Cup match between Gamba and Kawasaki on February 20th. Thanks to everyone who has supported me so far, and actually my Emperor’s Cup match preview was my most read post to date, a good way to kick off 2021 even if the result on the field didn’t match it. I’ll keep posting transfer updates and opinions on Twitter (@BlogGamba) and there’s more on that below.

Kawasaki Frontale 1-0 Gamba Osaka Match Report

Gamba fell just short in their bid to win this year’s Emperor’s Cup, going down 1-0 to deserved double-winners Kawasaki Frontale at the National Stadium on New Year’s Day. As predicted, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto made just a solitary change to the lineup from the semi-final win over Tokushima as the fit-again Takashi Usami replaced Kazuma Watanabe. The Nerazzurri started the game in their usual 4-4-2 before switching to a 3-4-2-1 system just after the 10th minute in order to get more players in central areas to protect against the Frontale onslaught. After Kaoru Mitoma’s 55th minute opener, they reverted back to 4-4-2.

Gamba thought they’d got off to the perfect start in the 6th minute when Patric nodded Usami’s free kick past Jung Sung-ryong, but it was ruled out for offside. I haven’t seen a proper replay yet, but my gut instinct tells me it was the correct decision as how else would the Brazilian have got so far ahead of the defence? This game was broadcast on NHK, so anyone hoping for analysis of the big decisions in the final during the half-time interval was to be sorely disappointed. We were instead treated to national team boss Hajime Moriyasu being grilled on who might make the Tokyo Olympics squad, should the games even take place (if any of you aren’t already aware Moriyasu has heard of Mitoma and Ao Tanaka).

Gamba did cause Kawasaki problems early doors and forced their backline into a number of loose passes, the downside was that this more adventurous approach left them exposed to counter attacks, so Miyamoto quickly went into defensive mode. This resulted in the remaining 2/3 of the half being all Frontale and fortunately for Gamba, Kawasaki hadn’t brought their shooting boots with them, Mitoma, Leandro Damião and Ienaga all guilty of wasting opportunities. Patric was booked for a silly shove on Hatate going into half time and exchanged words with fellow Brazilian Damião, however, it was definitely Gamba who were the happier to get to the interval scoreless.

The Frontale breakthrough inevitably came through the irrepressible Mitoma who coolly slotted past Ryu Takao and Masaaki Higashiguchi following a Damião through ball after possession had been ceded by Gamba in their own half. Kengo Nakamura (who NHK commentary spent most of the first half reminding us, was on the bench and today would be his last ever game) was shown celebrating gleefully on the sidelines and with the Nerazzurri’s record of coming back from a goal down, this really did feel like the winner, even with 35 minutes left to play. Following the 5-0 hammering in November, Gamba were left in a quandary, go all out attack and risk another heavy loss, or try to contain Kawasaki and then push for an equaliser late on. Despite introducing Watanabe and Fukuda for Yamamoto and Fujiharu, they opted for the latter.

Miyamoto has received some criticism for his strategy, but it very nearly paid off. Taniguchi cleared Watanabe’s scuffed shot off the line following a rare Jung blunder. The South Korean stopper more than made amends with two fine tips over the bar to deny both Usami and Fukuda late on. Gamba threw Genta Miura up front right in additional time and nearly conceded a horrible goal themselves when Higashiguchi was robbed of possession. In the end, it was too little too late, Frontale were unable to bring Kengo on for a final appearance, much to the dismay of the NHK commentary team, but he can be more than satisfied with his final year as a professional footballer. Gamba were forced to settle for 2nd again and the ignominy of taking a team photo (why?) with their silver medals and the cheque that will be partly used to pay the fine for Ademilson’s indiscretions.

Season Wrap

This crazy season started and ended with 1-0 defeats in the cups, but a lot of positive steps were taken in between and Gamba are once again a force in Japanese football after three years in the wilderness. I’ve gone into details ad nauseum in previous posts about how their new defensive strategy and ability to protect leads this year were major factors behind their re-ascendance. The ultimate goal, however, was facing them at the National Stadium yesterday (Friday), being able to attack as fluently as Kawasaki while keeping things tight at the back has to be the next step. You could see in the Final that when Gamba went into all out defensive mode it was almost impossible for them to quickly change to an attacking mindset and, as such, several chances to successfully counter were thrown away and wave after wave of Frontale attack kept coming back at them.

I like Miyamoto, I think he is a cerebral manager who isn’t afraid to re-consider his ideas about how football should be played and I look forward to seeing how he embraces the challenge ahead. The Nerazzurri are back in the Asian Champions League for the first time in four years which should allow them to attract a better calibre of player. 2021 will be a particularly big year for Yuki Yamamoto, who played at a much higher level than we had a right to expect this season, and also Yuya Fukuda. I feel it’s vital for him to nail down a position, rather than constantly switching between flanks and midfield / defence.

Below I’m going to have a look at some of the players likely to come and go in the off-season and you can make your own minds up about how you think these moves will alter Gamba’s style of play. Please let me know what you think in the comments section.

Transfer Rumours

* This is a fast moving situation, so some of the moves labelled as ‘Very Likely’ may actually be confirmed by the time you read this.

In

Confirmed

Yota Sato (22 years old Meiji University) A centre back who is one of 12 Meiji graduates to join JLeague clubs this winter. FC Tokyo duo Shuto Abe and Hotaka Nakamura were his seniors and if he can have the same impact those two have had this year then Gamba fans are in for a treat. The Nerazzurri don’t sign university players often, but when they do they are usually decent. I also can’t think of the last time they signed a player from a university outside of Kansai. Any takers?

Very Likely

Ju Se-jong (30 FC Seoul) South Korean international (24 caps 1 goal, played in 2018 World Cup where he robbed Manuel Neuer to set up Son Heung-min for the 2nd in the win over Germany) similar in style to Ideguchi, so covers an area of need. There are questions over his performance since completing military service, 16 games, 1 assists, 1 red card (for 2 yellows) in K1 2020, but he does bring ACL experience with him.

Leandro Pereira (29 Matsumoto Yamaga) – 15 goals and 2 assists in 26 J1 games (just 19 starts) in 2020 while on loan at Sanfrecce Hiroshima, the 190cm Pereira will apparently join on a free transfer as he’s out of contract, but his wages are reported to be some ¥155 million per year. He has 2 goals in 3 games for Sanfrecce against Gamba.

Kazunari Ichimi (23 Yokohama FC – loan return) – After spending 2019 with Kyoto in J2, Ichimi made the step up to the top tier with new boys Yokohama FC and bagged 4 goals and 2 assists in 31 games (21 starts). He didn’t find the target against any top-half opposition (only Sapporo, Sendai, Shonan and Kobe) and with the Olympics coming up one wonders if this is the right move for him, Miyamoto appears to be a fan, though.

Speculation

Kim Ji-hyeon / Kim Ji-hyun [I’ve seen different Romanisations of his name] (24 Gangwon FC) – This move was rumoured on New Year’s Day and after the success Hwang Ui-jo enjoyed at Gamba it makes a lot of sense. Both are 184cm centre-forwards who can also operate wide, Kim has the slightly better K1 goalscoring ratio, 21 in 62 vs Hwang’s 30 in 121. Kim was K1 Rookie of the Year in 2019 and netted 8 in 23 last time out including a double off the bench in the 2-1 win at Jeonbuk on August 30th, this for a team that ended the season in 7th place.

Shion Homma (20 Albirex Niigata) – Left winger / second striker who got 7 goals and 7 assists in 40 J2 games in 2020 (30 starts). Gamba scouts were seen watching him in the 2-0 loss at Nagasaki on November 28th and it remains to be seen what comes of that.

Youth Team Promotion

Jiro Nakamura (high school 2nd grade) a right-winger who got 2 goals and 1 assist in 15 J3 games with the U23s and made his top team debut against Shimizu on the final day seems most likely. 3rd graders, Ko Ise (central midfield, J3 2020 27 games, 1 goal, 3 assists) and Keishi Murakami (left/right full-back / wing-back 23-0-1) are also possibilities.

Out

Confirmed

Ademilson (26 contract termination) – The Brazilian is no longer a Gamba player following his drink-driving offence at the end of October. I went into this in detail on last week’s J-Talk Pod.

Very Likely

Kazuma Watanabe (34 Yokohama FC) – Was 3rd in line at the Emperor’s Cup presentation after the captain and vice-captain and I took this as a nod to that being his final game in a Gamba uniform. Grabbed 6 vital goals in 33 J1 appearances in 2020 (11 starts), winners against Shimizu and Sapporo, a late equaliser at Nagoya, a clincher versus Kashima and of course his double away to Tosu saw him reach a century of J1 goals. I wish him well!

Leo Takae (22 FC Machida Zelvia) – Takae has spent 2020 on loan in the western suburbs of Tokyo and notched 3 goals and 3 assists in 41 J2 games, forming a fine partnership with Kaishu Sano. I’m a bit surprised he won’t be back in Suita next year as I feel he has a lot to contribute. I’m sure we’ll see him in J1 again at some point.

Takahiro Ko (22 Albirex Niigata) – I’m much less surprised at this move than Takae’s as I see Ko as a good J2 level player. Has been on loan at struggling Renofa Yamaguchi for the past 18 months and a move to Niigata is just rewards for his hard work.

Riku Matsuda (21 Zweigen Kanazawa) – A rumoured permanent move for the former Gamba U23 captain. Has made 78 J3 and 2 J1 appearances in total, but unfortunately at 175cm it’s unlikely he’d be able to break into a top J1 defence on a regular basis. A good distributor from the back, I feel Matsuda will compliment Ryoga Ishio well in the Kanazawa defence next year and will give me a reason to visit when they open their new stadium.

Round Up: Both Yasuhito Endo (Iwata) and Kosei Tani (Shonan) are likely to extend their loan deals by another 12 months. It’s unclear what will happen to a number of other loanees such as, Mizuki Hayashi (Yamaguchi), Mizuki Ichimaru (FC Ryukyu) and Akito Takagi (Matsumoto), my guess is that only Hayashi will be back. Regarding players currently on loan with Gamba, I think that GK’s Haruki Saruta (Kashiwa), Lee Yunoh (Vegalta Sendai), and DF’s Ryo Shinzato (Iwata) and Jefferson Tabinas (Kawasaki) will return to their parent clubs. U23 regulars such as Tatsuya Yamaguchi, Keisuke Kurokawa, Ren Shibamoto and Haruto Shirai are all likely to leave either permanently or on loan to J2/J3 sides and even the likes of Shoji Toyama or Shuhei Kawasaki could be farmed out to gain some more top-team experience.

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