Gamba Osaka vs Sagan Tosu
2021 J1 Season Round 33
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Saturday 23 October 2021
Kick Off: 17:00 (JST)
Only six games remain in the 2021 edition of J1 and while it might be a slight stretch to call them six cup finals for Gamba, taking three points from this crucial encounter at home to Sagan Tosu could prove to be pivotal in their quest for survival. Fresh from a battling 1-1 draw away to fierce rivals Urawa, the Nerazzurri will be hoping to extend their impressive 3-1-0 record against Kyushu sides in 2021 this Saturday. Visitors Sagan Tosu currently occupy seventh spot on the ladder and remain well on course for a highest league placing since 2014 (5th) despite a recent wobble. Following a 4-0 home defeat by Yokohama F. Marinos, a scoreline quite flattering to Kevin Muscat’s men, Sagan have taken just 8 points from a pretty lenient run of 6 fixtures and from the outside, at least, it appears that perhaps the mid-season departures of Daiki Matsuoka and Daichi Hayashi, in addition to the ongoing ‘power harassment’ investigation into kantoku Kim Myung-hwi have taken their toll. It would certainly be natural if they had one eye on what will likely be an eventful off-season in one of Japan’s normally more sedate regions. Word of warning though, one might have been forgiven for saying similar things about Sapporo, the previous visitors to Panasonic Stadium, and we all saw how that game panned out.
As a result of the dramatic climax (© Yokohama F. Marinos…chortle, chortle) to the game away at Reds last Saturday, Gamba were able to preserve their six point cushion to 17th place Shonan, occupants of the uppermost spot in the drop zone. I believe I mentioned in a previous article that Satoshi Yamaguchi’s men travel to Suita on the final day of the season, and at present have a goal difference 7 better than the Ao to Kuro. Perhaps more worrying is the general upsurge in form shown by the bottom 5 in recent weeks, Yokohama FC in particular. Gamba may be left relying on those excellent showings against Kyushu-based sides I pointed out earlier as they still have to travel to Oita in round 35. However, at this stage of the year it’s always tough to compare the relative difficulty of different fixtures as, for instance, should Kawasaki wrap up the J1 title with several games to spare, then Gamba’s trip to the Todoroki Stadium in the penultimate matchday will become that bit less daunting. What is clear though is that the Nerazzurri have much more riding on this clash than their opponents and from a blue and black perspective hopefully this can bring about a 5th home league win of 2021.
Tale of the Tape
Saturday afternoon saw Gamba make it four straight games with over 20 shots faced and following his heroics to keep Urawa at bay, Masaaki Higashiguchi is averaging a league high 3.5 saves per match. Indeed, his display at the Saitama Stadium surely put to bed any lingering suspicions that Kosei Tani would return to Suita in 2022 to challenge for the number one jersey. At Panasonic Stadium, the Nerazzurri really need to bridge the gap between actual goals scored and xG For, it’s also worth noting that their last 6 league goals (home and away) have all come from set pieces, a figure that includes 3 penalties. Set plays were a weak point earlier in the year, but now that they are bearing fruit, other sources of goals have dried up. At the other end of the park, the 5-1 humbling at the hands of Sapporo brought goals conceded and xG Against much closer to equilibrium. The Ao to Kuro are clearly far more comfortable set up on the back foot ready to soak up pressure on road trips rather than playing it out from defence in the face of an intense high press at home. I’ll get into tactics and the composition of the starting eleven in greater detail in the ‘Gamba Osaka’ section later on, but it really doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that if the Masanobu Matsunami / Takashi Kiyama double act is to steer the ship to safety then the midfield have to start providing their backline with a level of protection they haven’t had in recent weeks, and they must start doing it from the opening whistle this Saturday.
Tosu may not be the richest side in J1 or have the most illustrious names on their books, but that doesn’t mean they can’t outwork their opponents and to that end they lead the league in distance covered per game, averaging 9.5 km more than Gamba for every match played. The team from Saga Prefecture are having an excellent year on the field, vastly exceeding the expectations of the majority of the wider J League fan community and probably even themselves. If I had to identify one achilles heel for them, then it would be their away form. They’ve lost just twice in the league at the Ekimae Real Estate Stadium in 2021, 1-0 in the reverse fixture with Gamba and 4-0 against Marinos, which leaves them averaging 2 points per game in Saga versus only 1.25 on their travels and a glance at the first stats table just below reveals that all but one of their key performance indicators are down when it comes to away fixtures in comparison with their overall total. So, we have a team who struggle to be as effective when separated from the comforts of home taking on a side that have suffered time and again in front of their own fans this season, something has to give.
Head to Head
Takashi Usami scored Gamba’s first league goal at the fifth time of asking in the Nerazzurri’s 1-0 win at Tosu back in April. His angled drive from the edge of the box ended a 428 minute goal drought to settle a dull encounter where Gamba’s 0.29 xG For was a season low while at the same time being the best defensive performance of the year from their hosts, which I’m sure provided scant consolation to them given the final outcome.
Last year, veteran Kazuma Watanabe’s 99th and 100th J1 goals in the first half of Gamba’s visit to Saga earned his side the three points in spite of Renzo Lopez’s late, late effort for Tosu. At the other end of the career spectrum, young Ryunosuke Sagara found the back of a J1 net for the first time in the reverse fixture before Patric buried a deserved equaliser past Park Il-gyu in the second half and Shoji Toyama spurned a couple of late chances to win it for the hosts.
I have some fond memories of games between these two down the years as I took in Gamba’s final ever senior game at the old Expo 70’ Commemorative Stadium, a 3-1 victory over Tosu in an Emperor’s Cup quarter-final back in 2015, a competition the Nerazzurri, of course, went on to win. After a spell living in Kanto, I returned to Kansai in 2018 and my first J1 game at Panasonic Stadium was a 3-0 triumph for Levir Culpi’s Gamba over Sagan. A cagey affair was lit up by Shu Kurata’s spectacular effort in the 68th minute with Hwang Ui-jo and Matheus Jesus adding gloss to the scoreline late on (that turned out to be the much maligned and long forgotten Matheus Jesus’ only goal in the blue and black of Gamba).
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the Nerazzurri haven’t lost a home league game to Kyushu opposition since 2013 (2-1 vs V-Varen Nagasaki in J2). How their supporters would love a repeat of that 2018 result against Tosu to keep their run of fine form against visitors from the most westerly of the Japanese home islands going.
It was quite the finale against Urawa, right? The look on Shunya Suganuma’s face when the referee pointed to the spot, after a VAR delay spanning several minutes, screamed this is the kind of thing that happens to teams who go down. However, agony soon turned to delight when Takuya Iwanami (a man who’ll surely never have to pay for a pint in north Osaka again) decided to even things up and allow Patric the chance to bury his 9th league goal of the year and 19th in all competitions. I have a few observations and comments from that game which I’ll lay out in bullet point fashion below.
* There was far more fight in the team than in previous outings. Reds came out all guns blazing, especially in the opening quarter, but Gamba stood firm and played some decent stuff at times.
* The back 4 and Higashiguchi (especially) did what they needed to do, but were not helped out by those ahead of them. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt a tad nervous upon hearing that Sato and Suganuma had been named as the starting centre-backs, however, this was balanced out by the absence of Kasper Junker and his replacement Takahiro Akimoto’s first-half injury. When called upon the back five were generally solid, but Gamba’s midfield quartet were regularly bypassed and overrun by their Reds counterparts. Shu Kurata on the right-wing, normally very astute when it comes to protecting his full-back was pulled out of position time and time again allowing Koya Yuruki and Ryosuke Yamanaka to double team Ryu Takao. And while we’re critiquing Gamba’s midfield, have a quick look at my predicted lineups for both teams down below and see the difference in goal contributions from the respective midfields, it’s night and day.
* My penultimate point on Saturday’s game is the surprise (shock?) inclusion of Haruto Shirai in the starting eleven. Although he spent several seasons being labelled exclusively as a centre-forward in the yearly meikan, I think I watched Shirai play right wing about 15 times before ever seeing him up front and frankly, in my opinion he never showed anything with the U23s to suggest that he was a J1 level player. Yet there he was, thrown into the starting lineup on Saturday following a year out of the game because of knee surgery. It was reported he was selected ahead of Patric and Tsukamoto on merit, not due to injury, most likely for a) the element of surprise, b) his pace should have proven useful in closing down Reds defenders as they knocked the ball around at the back and c) Urawa’s ace centre-back Alexander Scholz would probably have preferred to face the more direct and physical Patric than the trickier, pacier Shirai. The experiment ended at half-time and it’ll be interesting to see if the Gamba power brokers give it another go this weekend.
* Finally, one real bright spark for the Nerazzurri on Saturday was the return of heart-throb / pretty handy footballer when he’s fit, Yuya Fukuda, after 3 months on the sidelines. Replacing Wellington Silva midway through the second period, he had me on my feet in the 84th minute when I thought his low shot had crept inside Shusaku Nishikawa’s near post, it wasn’t to be, but he was a ray of sunshine amidst the Saitama gloom. Fukuda did an interview with Yahoo News that was published on Sunday (17 October) in which he stated that the hamstring injury he picked up during the ACL group stage wasn’t too serious, but he suffers from chronic pain in his left ankle and that delayed his return. Surgery is an option down the line, however, for the time being he and the club will try and manage the situation. It was great to see him back on the field once more and let’s hope it’s onwards and upwards from here.
A bit quieter in here than usual which is good news for all of a Gamba persuasion. As reported last week Genta Miura, Yuji Ono and Leandro Pereira are working through personalised training programs and it’s as yet unknown when they’ll re-join full training (pictorial evidence from training on Tuesday suggests Pereira might have re-joined already). Theoretically any, or all, of the trio could make the matchday squad on Saturday, though more likely as a substitute rather than a starter. Gen Shoji is still missing for reasons only given as ‘poor physical condition’ [that’s a translation] and reserve goalie Jun Ichimori’s year is done after undergoing hamstring surgery. Elsewhere, I’m unsure whether Tiago Alves has been injured or not, though I’m inclined to believe he had a small problem. Significantly he was spotted alongside his fellow Brazilians in training on Tuesday so he should be good to go if called upon…and that’s a wrap for an unusually brief ‘Gamba Team News’ section…phew!
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Coming off a creditable 13th place finish in 2020 and without a whole lot of cash in their coffers, Tosu were widely considered to be more of a relegation candidate than an ACL contender prior to this season commencing. However, Kim Myung-hwi’s side have taken everyone by surprise, not only because of their results, but also due to the quality of play they’ve produced at times. A solid rearguard superbly marshalled for most of the year (I’m ignoring recent tomfoolery) by Park Il-gyu and Eduardo has laid the foundation for attacking talents such as Yuta Higuchi and Keiya Sento to flourish further forward. Although ostensibly a 3-5-2 team, Tosu can generally be seen in a 5-3-2 system while defending and a 4-4-2, with the left centre-back shifting to left back and right wing back dropping to right back ,when they are in possession. Their on-field success has come at a price with Daiki Matsuoka (Shimizu) and Daichi Hayashi (Sint Truidense in Belgium) departing in the summer, architect of the current project, Kim Myung-hwi, may also be gone come 2022. I don’t want to comment too much regarding the ongoing power harassment investigation at the club, however, I will say that the J League coming in to run an independent inquiry feels a little bit like when one of your defenders accidentally handles the ball in the box and the referee doesn’t give a penalty initially, but then puts his finger to his ear for a prolonged period of time before sprinting over to the VAR monitor….where am I going with this long winded monologue? Well in both instances, you kind of know what the outcome is going to be well in advance of the final, official announcement. With all that in mind and not wanting to get caught on their heels, Tosu have been one of the quickest J1 teams out of the blocks when it comes to announcing new recruits for 2022. Five university rookies, centre-back Taiga Son (Rissho University), wing-backs Shunta Araki (Komazawa U) and Kyo Sato (Ryutsu Keizai U) as well as midfielder Taichi Kikuchi (also Ryutsu Keizai U) and forward Yukihito Kajiya (Kokushikan U) will call Saga home from next season, while goalkeeper Keisuke Fukaya will arrive (surely) as a backup from Kanto League side Shinagawa CC. With Sagan’s recent record of polishing hidden gems, expect at least a couple of that bunch to develop into pretty handy top tier talents.
Bright young thing Fuchi Honda is currently sidelined with a hamstring problem and it’s uncertain if he’ll make it back onto the field again this year while the scarcely used Yosuke Yuzawa is definitely done for the season after undergoing knee surgery. Summer recruit from Kashima Antlers, Kei Koizumi has missed the past 2 matches though I haven’t seen an injury reported anywhere.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.