2021 J1 League Round 2
Gamba Osaka vs Kashima Antlers
Saturday 6th March 2021, 16:00 (JST)
Panasonic Stadium Suita
As I’m sure most of you are aware, Gamba’s midweek match away to Nagoya Grampus was postponed as a result of 4 Nerazzurri players and 1 staff member testing positive for COVID-19, a further two players were identified as close contacts and are currently self isolating. The club announced that today (March 4th) 225 staff members were given PCR tests and 1 further player tested positive, the other 224 tests were negative. The JLeague have subsequently announced this Satueday’s game is off.
Owing to the intense schedule at the beginning of this year, I had already written a good chunk of text about Saturday’s potential opponents, Kashima Antlers, and I didn’t want it to go to waste. When I started this blog I honestly didn’t think I’d dedicate the bulk of a post writing about one of Gamba’s biggest rivals, but this is the world we live in now. As an aside, both of my previews of Gamba vs Kashima games were among my most popular posts in 2020, so there is definitely a market there for English language Antlers content. @atlrs_english is the club’s official English account and gives regular updates on scores, transfers and results, while @yukinho posts about Kashima in both English and Japanese. I encourage you to give both a follow.
Last Time Out
Regular slow starters Kashima put on a flat performance in their home opener against Shimizu S-Pulse last Saturday, going down 3-1. A largely uneventful opening 75 minutes was lit up only by Shoma Doi striking the frame of the goal twice for Antlers while Katsuhiro Nakayama shot wide with the visitors best opportunity. Second half sub Ryotaro Araki added verve and energy to Kashima and it was he who broke the deadlock, volleying home after Everaldo’s looping header from Katsuya Nagato’s corner had evaded Shuichi Gonda in the S-Pulse goal and bounced back off the crossbar. However, Antlers were then stunned by three Shimizu goals within the space of ten minutes. New Brazilian battering-ram Thiago Santana struck on his debut from close range before sub Yusuke Goto turned the match on it’s head with a wonderful diving header from fellow replacement Yosuke Kawai’s cross. Moments later Ayase Ueda sliced the ball into his own net from a Kawai corner and Antlers were left with no way back.
Antlers then saw off Sagan Tosu 3-0 in the Levain Cup on Wednesday night. On a chilly evening at the Kashima Soccer Stadium goals from Ryuji Izumi, Everaldo and substitute Itsuki Someno were enough to comprehensively dispatch a youthful Tosu outfit.
**If you read my match preview of the postponed fixture vs Nagoya Grampus then please skip to the Kashima section as below is just a copy and paste from that post.**
Saturday was my first look at the new 4-3-3 formation and although it’s early days yet, put me down as a sceptic. It seems like we’ve moved some ornaments around on the mantelpiece, but have fundamentally been left with the same pieces performing the same function in slightly different positions. It’s one thing to adopt Kawasaki’s formation, but quite another to acquire their mindset. Miyamoto appeared to send Gamba out to win 1-0 at Kobe, essentially the same strategy as last season. However, as I’m going to outline below, 4-3-3 is not the best option, in my book, to achieve results while maintaining a defensive frame of mind.
Issue 1 – lack of cover for the fullbacks – Takashi Usami (right wing) and Shuhei Kawasaki (left) are not naturally defensive players so a lot of responsibility falls on the midfield trio to protect the back 4. Due to the movement of Kobe’s attacking midfielders, they were able to work space down Gamba’s flanks and cause problems. The fact that impressive J1 debutant Shion Inoue and Samurai Blue international Gotoku Sakai found themselves up against newly converted right-back (more on that later) Kosuke Onose, merely exacerbated the problem. Second half sub Asahi Masuyama hugged the right touchline after coming on and found plenty of space to roam in that unguarded area.
Issue 2 – Space between the midfield and defensive lines – This was one of the reasons that 3-5-2 got canned midway through 2020. Yuki Yamamoto in the midfield anchor/quarterback position was arguably Gamba’s best player against Kobe, however, on a couple of occasions he stepped up to try and win possession, but didn’t succeed and neither Ideguchi nor Yajima moved back to cover, leaving a gaping hole in front of Miura and Shoji. Last year with the double volante system and Ideguchi playing alongside one of Yamamoto or Yajima, better protection was afforded to Gamba’s centre backs. Granted Ideguchi still looks a little rusty after his injury layoff and increased energy levels from him will also help in a 4-3-3.
Issue 3 – Usami on the wing – Whenever I see FC Tokyo play Diego Oliveira on the right flank, as an opposing fan I’m always relieved because a proven J1 goalscorer and penalty box threat is being moved away from his natural habitat. Ditto Usami, he can play wing for a few games or so, but I don’t want to see him stuck there for a whole season. It gives him defensive responsibilities he’s not good at and takes him away from the second striker position in the central attacking area where he thrives.
To round up this mini-rant up, I don’t feel either Onose or Yajima did enough last season to find themselves shoehorned into the side this time round. If there are fitness or other off-field concerns about Ryu Takao then I take this back, but he was one of the best right-backs in J1 last year, so why has he been replaced by a right winger? Still, at least by changing to 4-4-2 in the second half against Kawasaki and 4-2-3-1 near the end of the Kobe game, Miyamoto is showing a willingness to consider alternatives.
Briefly, to end this section on something of a high note, I have Vissel finishing 7th this year, and Gamba actually lost 3-0 to Kashiwa Reysol (7th in J1 2020) last season, so this may be a step in the right direction (clutching at straws?? lol) I also genuinely think the Nerazzurri put on a better overall performance on Saturday than they did in their 2-0 win at the same venue last summer, but hey, that’s football.
Now to our opponents on Saturday, Kashima Antlers, the most successful side in J1 history with 8 league titles, the last of which came in 2016. The fact that finishing 5th and missing out on ACL qualification by the width of the goal-frame was treated as a great failure gives you an understanding of the standards the team set for themselves year in year out. Under the tutelage of new Brazilian head coach Zago, Antlers started 2020 by taking only 4 points from their opening 7 games, a run which included 5 defeats and just a solitary goal in their first 4 matches. Things have come a long way since then and many JLeague observers, including myself, have them down as Kawasaki’s nearest challengers in 2021.
If you’re new to watching J1, you can expect a steady, no-frills game plan from Kashima. This year Zago has them set-up in an orthodox 4-4-2 with Ayase Ueda partnering Everaldo in attack, a slight adjustment to last season’s 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1, though Zago enjoys tinkering with things when he utilises his substitutes, for instance they ended last week’s reverse against Shimizu in a 3-1-4-2 system. It is common to see both wide players, Juan Alano (right wing) and Shoma Doi (left) cut in to allow space for their full backs to overlap. Left back Katsuya Nagato (J1’s top assist maker with 10 for Vegalta Sendai in 2019, but only managed 2 in his debut season with Antlers) is particularly dangerous when given time to whip balls into the box, he’ll also take most of the Ibaraki side’s set pieces.
Looking at last season’s team stats we can see that crossing is Antlers real strength. They were 2nd in J1 for total crosses in 2020 and also 2nd in crossing accuracy, with a number of Everaldo’s 18 goals (2nd behind Michael Olunga (Kashiwa) 28) coming as a result of this tactic. However, on the flip side of the coin, Kashima took the 2nd most shots in J1 last time out (no shocks that Kawasaki were 1st), but had the worst conversion rate. Case in point, in their 2 matches against Gamba, they amassed 51 attempts on goal, of which 16 were on target and just 1 went into the back of Masaaki Higashiguchi’s net (unsurprisingly it was a header from a left-wing cross). Much to Neil Debnam’s amusement, I’m sure, Antlers committed the 3rd most fouls last season, though it should be noted, for me anyway, only Kawasaki were better at harassing and putting the opposition under pressure and this may have contributed to such a high number. I noticed a drop off in this facet of their play against S-Pulse and it could have been one of the reasons behind the rather surprising outcome.
Antlers enjoyed an interesting winter with Brazilians Diego Pituca (Santos) and Arthur Caike (Al Shabab, Saudi Arabia) the only senior additions. Their off-season, once again, saw them focus on bringing in youth in an attempt to build another dynasty at the summit of J1. With star players, Gaku Shibasaki, Gen Shoji, Naomichi Ueda, Yuma Suzuki and Hiroki Abe all departing for Europe within the space of 2-3 years and veterans such as Atsuto Uchida, Hitoshi Sogahata and legendary captain Mitsuo Ogasawara retiring, Zago, Zico and co clearly have a big job on their hands developing the next generation of Kashima stars.
Wide midfielder Ryotaro Araki, signed from Higashi Fukuoka High School in 2020, is the main attraction, while fellow teenagers, Yuta Matsumura and Itsuki Someno also made decent strides in their first year as professionals. At the back, I’d actually rate centre-half Ikuma Sekigawa (20) as a better prospect than the card-prone Koki Machida and 21 year-old former youth team goalkeeper Yuya Oki seems to have taken over the starting gloves from Kwoun Sun-tae on a permanent basis. Added to that mix of young talent came a new batch over the winter break, 3 university graduates, ‘keeper Tomoki Hayakawa and right-back Keigo Tsunemoto (both Meiji University) as well as centre-back Naoki Hayashi (Osaka Taiiku University), 2 high schoolers, central midfielder Yusuke Ogawa and wide player Naoki Sutoh (both Shohei High School in Saitama) plus Kashima Youth star Yu Funabashi (central midfield). It will be fascinating to see what impact they have this campaign and indeed how this young team begins to take shape over the coming seasons.
Head to Head
Kashima were the first ever league visitors to Panasonic Stadium Suita back in 2016 and left with all 3 points thanks to Yuma Suzuki’s second-half strike, the only goal of the game. However, Gamba are unbeaten in their previous 3 home encounters against Antlers, though last season’s 2-0 win courtesy of a Patric penalty and Kazuma Watanabe’s injury time tap-in was their only triumph on home soil since another 2-0 back in June 2015. Interestingly, the match during the 2015 season also featured a Gamba spot kick, converted on that occasion by Yasuhito Endo. His midfield partner in crime, Yasuyuki Konno, had earlier sent the Nerazzurri into the sheds a goal to the good.
Yuji Ono and Haruto Shirai (both recovering from knee surgery) are definitely out of this match. Kim Young-gwon and Yuya Fukuda are yet to feature this season and their status remains unclear. It hasn’t been revealed which players have tested positive for COVID and who has been identified as a close contact, so I’m unavailable to give any information on that. Should the game go ahead, Yosuke Ideguchi and Yuya Fukuda are in line to make their 100th and 50th Gamba / J1 appearances respectively.
New Brazilian duo Arthur Caike and Diego Pituca are still unable to enter the country at the moment so are obviously unavailable for selection. Veteran central midfielder Leo Silva and winger Ryuji Izumi (a one time Gamba target) were both absent from the matchday squad against Shimizu, but played against Tosu in midweek. Theoretically they are fit and ready to go, though I believe Silva missed some of Antlers pre-season training camp because of quarantine regulations, so he could be short of match sharpness.
Predicted Line Ups
As mentioned above, it is still unclear which players have COVID and are thus unavailable so I’ve just used the same line up I predicted for the Nagoya game. Expect the same formation, but potentially different personnel in the starting eleven.
I’m confident that Zago will retain the 4-4-2 system used last week and the bulk of the starting eleven, despite the poor showing. I’ve gone for Hirose ahead of Koizumi at right-back as S-Pulse’s first 2 goals came from crosses originating in Koizumi’s defensive zone. Should Leo Silva be available for selection then he would likely replace Nagaki, while a fit Izumi could play wide left and allow Doi to slot in just behind Everaldo, alternatively Shirasaki could play in there with Doi on the left wing. After his goal last weekend, Araki must fancy his chances of a start, though I feel Zago may opt to use him as an impact sub once again. Young forward Ituski Someno could be in line for a slot on the pine after his late goal against Tosu on Wednesday.
A thankless task this week as I have no idea what lineup Gamba will be able to field or if the game can even go ahead. In such circumstances I can’t be positive enough to go for a Gamba win, instead I’ll opt for a battling 1-0 loss.