Kawasaki Frontale vs Gamba Osaka
2021 J1 Season Round 37
Kawasaki Todoroki Stadium
Saturday 27 November 2021
Kick Off: 14:00 (JST)
It’s the Azzurro Nero versus the Nerazzurri as the penultimate round of the J1 season sees Gamba make the trip to Todoroki Stadium to face 2021 champions Kawasaki Frontale. Fresh from a 3-1 reverse at home to Nagoya Grampus courtesy of a combination of razor sharp counter-attacking and lax pressing (more on that later), the Nerazzurri will be out to replicate their previous visit to Kanagawa earlier this month when they ended the title dreams of Yokohama F. Marinos with an excellent backs-to-the-wall effort. That result, in conjunction with Kawasaki’s 1-1 draw with Urawa, saw the Dolphins lift a 4th J1 crown in 5 years and they subsequently followed that up with a rather hungover display in the 3-1 loss at Tosu, where like Gamba against Nagoya, they went into the sheds 3-0 down. Predictably, Toru Oniki’s side rebounded emphatically with a 4-1 rout of the Ao to Kuro’s prefectural rivals Cerezo in Osaka last weekend and those of a Gamba persuasion will be praying that Frontale take their foot off the gas on Saturday ahead of a mouth-watering final day visit to the Nissan Stadium. Depending on the result of this encounter and Marinos’ trip to Vissel Kobe, it’s possible a Kawasaki win on December 4th could potentially knock Kevin Muscat’s side down to 3rd, an outcome I’m sure @frontalerabbit and co. would relish.
Tale of the Tape
A brief look through Kawasaki’s key performance indicators in the table below shows that their 13 point gap at the top of J1 is certainly no fluke. They are the best team at home, the best team away and the best team overall. 26 goals conceded makes their defence the strongest in the division for that metric and that correlates with their xG Against performance. Although they trail Yokohama F. Marinos by 3 in the goals scored rankings (76 vs YFM’s 79), we can say they do have a more efficient attack than their great rivals, generating those goals from 1.3 fewer shots and an xG of 0.24 less per game. Like cool, calculating assassins Frontale strike their opponents quickly and decisively often putting games to bed well before the final whistle, which is likely a factor in them only recording more than 20 shots in a match on one occasion in J1 2021 (Sanfrecce at home in April). This compares with Marinos and Kashima (both 6), perhaps demonstrating the sheer importance of having someone of the calibre of Leandro Damião in your ranks while YFM have struggled to replace Ado Onaiwu, and Everaldo has been posted missing for Antlers this season.
Gamba have notched 25 of their 43 points to date on the road and still appear way more comfortable operating the counter-attacking system Tsuneyasu Miyamoto employed throughout the 2020 campaign rather than the high-press that went so horribly wrong against Grampus last Saturday. It seems likely that despite the Nerazzurri having nothing but pride left to play for that they’ll rock up at Todoroki fully intent on parking the bus. Gamba’s attack, in contrast to Kawasaki’s, is highly inefficient, though as I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions previously, it is tough making head-nor-tail of the Nerazzurri’s season statistics as a whole due to the constant rotation we saw during the summer months. The Ao to Kuro will create something against Frontale, it may not be much, but if Patric (7 goals in his last 9 J1 appearances) is on form against one of his former teams and Kiyama gets the defence set up properly then it’s definitely possible for Gamba to frustrate their hosts, nick a goal on the counter, and defy the odds.
Head to Head
During the Covid-era, Frontale have very much had the wood over Gamba. If you include the 2020 Emperor’s Cup Final and 2021 Japanese Super Cup then it’s a perfect 5 from 5 for the Kanagawa giants with 12 scored and a mere 2 conceded. You have to go back to the 2-2 draw the sides played out at Panasonic Stadium in October 2019 for the last time the Nerazzurri avoided defeat in this fixture.
Last year there was plenty of respect on show as the top two clashed in Suita on August 1st. Gamba had the better of the opening stanza, before the half-time introduction of Kaoru Mitoma changed things decisively in the visitors favour. It was he who teed up Ryota Oshima a matter of minutes after his arrival for the game’s only goal. The result, only Gamba’s 2nd loss of the year at that point sparked a poor sequence of results, proving to be the 1st in a run of 5 defeats in 9 games, though following the home reverse to Shonan on 13th September, the Ao to Kuro suffered just a solitary loss in their next 14 fixtures. I’d rather not spend too much time dwelling on the events of 25th November 2020 at the Todoroki Stadium, as Kawasaki, chastened by their 1-0 defeat at Oita days earlier brushed Gamba aside 5-0 to wrap up the J1 title with 4 games to spare. What I’d much rather say is what a truly phenomenal achievement it was to finish so far ahead of the chasing pack in such a chaotic year with a squad largely made up of university graduates, youth team products and undervalued talents from other clubs.
Perhaps with the 5-0 still fresh in his mind, then Gamba kantoku Tsuneyasu Miyamoto adopted an extremely defensive mindset ahead of the battle between these two at Panasonic Stadium in May. That contest would prove to be Miyamoto’s penultimate game in charge of Gamba and it ended in a disappointing 2-0 defeat. The Nerazzurri contained Frontale reasonably well in the early stages, but were stung by Leandro Damião’s goal in the 41st minute following an excellent counter-attack. Kaoru Mitoma (who else?) sealed the deal in the final quarter as Yota Sato, playing out of position at right-back, proved no match for the silky winger. Patric missed a glorious late chance to bag a consolation, heading Keisuke Kurokawa’s delicious cross wide, but I’ll remember this game mostly for Ao Tanaka’s outstanding display in the middle of the park and the Nerazzurri will certainly be thankful that neither he nor Mitoma will be donning their side’s Azzurro Nero jerseys on Saturday.
With J1 safety secured, many Gamba fans were keenly anticipating the announcement of the starting lineup for the match against Grampus last Saturday. Unfortunately, when it was released, it was a crushing disappointment, Sato out of the squad, Fukuda and Yamami on the bench, no Jiro Nakamura and a starting eleven so conservative in nature that it would even make Hajime Moriyasu blush! Perhaps worst of all was captain Genta Miura returning to re-form his partnership with Shunya Suganuma which was last seen in the 4-0 home loss against Cerezo in the Levain Cup (and will hopefully never be seen again). I’m loathe to have a go at one player in particular, however Miura stunk the joint out on Saturday, especially in the first half. Granted, the team as a whole have still to get to grips with the high press system, but he exacerbated that problem by constantly charging out of defence into central midfield leaving big gaps for the impressive Yuki Soma and Jakub Świerczok to exploit (especially, in Soma’s case, it was as if the lessons from the away game at Toyota Stadium had simply been ignored). Ryu Takao was hauled off for Ko Yanagisawa at half-time, but had Miura not been wearing the armband then he’d surely have been replaced by Gen Shoji (who I assume was still not 100%).
Despite that scathing rant, there were several bright spots on Saturday. The attacking verve showed at times in the first-half was impressive, though sadly lacking in end product. We ‘won’ the second-half, always important psychologically in these scenarios and I’d argue it should have been 2-0 instead of 1-0 as I’m not sure why Patric’s 72nd minute effort was ruled out (offside or foul? Neither option seems clear and obvious to me, why wasn’t there at least a VAR review?). The 4-1-4-1 on display at the end of the match with Usami and Wellington Silva playing just ahead of Kohei Okuno in the centre of the park was also an interesting experiment. It’s tough to get a proper read on how the substitutes truly performed given that Nagoya parked the bus in the second 45 following their first-half smash-and-grab, but I was encouraged with the purpose and intent shown by Fukuda and Yamami down the wings and the ball-winning abilities of Okuno (whose interception led to Patric’s goal), I’d really like to see more of that triumvirate in the 2 remaining fixtures.
Finally, some very brief transfer gossip. 31-year old, left-footed Dutch centre-back Dave Bulthuis will leave Ulsan Hyundai this winter ahead of the presumed arrival of Kim Young-gwon and he and FC Ryukyu’s currently injured stopper Tetsuya Chinen are the names buzzing around Gamba supporter circles at present when the topic of new signings for 2022 crops up. I will say that I think it’s quite possible that one of, Bulthuis, Chinen, Yoshinori Suzuki (Shimizu), Henrique Trevisan (Oita), Eduardo (Tosu), Shogo Asada (Kyoto) or Rikito Inoue (Okayama) will join the Nerazzurri this winter, though I wouldn’t like to bet on who. Elsewhere, Yokohama FC’s relegation to J2 has seen reports that captain Tatsuki Seko will move to Nagoya while winger Yusuke Matsuo and bustling Brazilian forward Saulo Mineiro have plenty of admirers. Much as I’d like to see Matsuo in Suita, I can’t see it happening, Mineiro, could be pricey and also has the potential to be the next Junior Santos, but he may be someone the Gamba front office is looking at.
Oh, and a quick note to say that Shoji Toyama bagged his first J2 goal at the 17th time of asking, although it wasn’t enough to stop his Ehime FC side going down 2-1 at home to Sagamihara in their relegation 6-pointer on Sunday.
Vice-captain Shu Kurata will miss this clash after picking up his 4th yellow card of the season against Nagoya. Matsunami stated that Leandro Pereira was fit again, but he wasn’t in the squad for the match with Grampus, whether he’s suffered an injury relapse or it’s a sign he won’t be at the club next season remains to be seen, he didn’t appear in any photos of Gamba’s open training session on Tuesday, and today (Wednesday) Football Tribe linked him with a return to Brazil next year. Other than that, backup ‘keeper Jun Ichimori (hamstring) is done for the year, Kim Young-gwon is still missing after picking up a knock vs Tosu on October 23rd, Yuji Ono is continuing his rehabilitation work, while pictorial evidence from Tuesday (November 23rd) shows that Shinya Yajima and Dai Tsukamoto have now returned to full training.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
What to say about Toru Oniki and his Kawasaki side that hasn’t already been said? An unprecedented 4 J1 titles in 5 years and league records shattered all over the place. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which of their triumphs has been the best, but this season’s has to be up there, running at a clip of 2.44 points per game (exactly the same rate as in 2020), despite the winter departure of Hidemasa Morita, the mid-year losses of Ao Tanaka and Kaoru Mitoma, ACL involvement, an injury crisis and strong challenges from resurgent Marinos and Kobe teams. With star centre-back Jesiel now a long-term injury casualty, forwards Damião, Kobayashi and Ienaga ageing and consistent performers Hatate and Yamane potentially heading off to Europe, are we witnessing the end of an era? Perhaps yes, though don’t expect Frontale to fall off a cliff any time soon. Sure, Toru Oniki may be called up to replace Moriyasu in the national team hot-seat post Qatar 2022, (though still being a few years shy of his 50th birthday I’m not sure that’s an avenue he’s looking to go down at this stage of his career), but as long as the former Kashima and Kawasaki midfielder continues to pull the strings from the dugout then they’ll remain a force to be reckoned with.
Kento Tachibanada has really stood up in the midfield in the latter part of the year, while Ten Miyagi and Daiya Tono could have bigger parts to play from next season and there is still the returning Taisei Miyashiro (currently on loan at Tokushima) to consider. Additionally, behind the scenes the Azzurro Nero have been busily preparing the squad for 2022 and beyond. Think they are going to be a wounded beast next year? Think again. Japan Under-22 captain Renji Matsui (Hosei University) has already put pen to paper and would make an ideal replacement for Hatate (his older sister Airi is a Japanese talento, so I’m sure he’ll have no problems making friends with his new team-mates!!) Frontale also beat off reported interest from Gamba and Tosu to land left-back Asahi Sasaki (Ryutsu Keizai University), rated the best full-back in varsity football at the moment. Other new arrivals for 2022 will be, goalkeeper Yuki Hayasaka (Toin Yokohama University – alma mater of Yamane, Tachibanada and Zain Issaka), and forwards Takatora Einaga (Kokoku High School in Osaka – Kyogo Furuhashi and Takumi Minamino’s old stomping ground) and Taiyo Igarashi (promoted from the youth team).
As alluded to above, Jesiel, for my money the best centre-back in the league, damaged his cruciate knee ligaments against Sagan Tosu on 7th November and has now returned to his native Brazil for treatment, his season is over. Information on other absentees is a little harder to come by. João Schmidt last played in the 2-1 win at Kashima on September on 22nd September, rugged central-midfielder / centre-back Koki Tsukagawa was an unused sub in that match and has no further appearances after that, while Tatsuya Hasegawa hasn’t been selected since missing a penalty in the ACL last 16 shootout loss to Ulsan Hyundai on September 14th. According to @frontalerabbit they are all fit and there are rumours that either or both Schmidt and Hasegawa could depart in the winter, though he also added that due to the ever secretive world of J. League injuries, it’s possible the trio are all dealing with minor problems that haven’t been made public.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.
Kawasaki Frontale vs Gamba Osaka